New data released at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute's annual meeting Tuesday show that the Latino vote could be "crucial" for Barack Obama to win this fall, pollster Sergio Bendixen said.
In three of four battleground states where Hispanics make up at least 10% of the voting population, Obama had a distinct advantage over Republican John McCain among Hispanic voters, according to polls Bendixen took for NDN, a Democratic think tank. In the fourth state, Florida, a poll showed the two candidates were tied, he said.
NDN President Simon Rosenberg said the findings are significant because in 2004 "the key to George Bush's victory was his success with Latinos." Rosenberg said he believes last year's immigration debate "fundamentally altered" Hispanic support for Republican candidates.
McCain was an architect of a bipartisan immigration bill that would have increased border security, stepped up enforcement against employers who hire illegal immigrants and given the estimated 12 million people now living illegally in the USA a chance at citizenship.
The bill collapsed under criticism from Republicans, such as Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who opposed the citizenship offer. McCain has since said he would insist on securing U.S. borders before implementing other aspects of the plan.
Even so, McCain remains popular with some Hispanics. Without their support in Florida, for example, McCain would have lost a crucial primary to Mitt Romney, said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.
Bendixen's polls also revealed sharp differences in presidential preferences between Hispanics and non-Hispanics in the four states.
• Nevada: Obama led McCain 62% to 20% among Hispanic voters. Among the state's non-Hispanic voters, McCain was favored 46% to 37%.
• New Mexico: Obama led McCain 56% to 23% among Hispanic voters, while McCain had a 50% to 34% edge among non-Hispanic voters.
• Colorado: Obama topped McCain 56% to 26% among Hispanic voters. Among non-Hispanic voters, Obama's narrow 45% to 41% support was within the poll's margin of error, Bendixen said.
• Florida: In the state that decided the 2000 presidential race, the poll found McCain and Obama tied among Hispanic voters at 42% each and among non-Hispanic voters at 43%.
In 2004, President Bush bested Democrat John Kerry by 12 percentage points among Florida's Hispanic voters, Bendixen said.
Hessy Fernandez, a spokeswoman for the McCain campaign, dismissed the poll as having been compiled by "a Democratic group." Fernandez noted that McCain won 70% of the Latino vote in his last Senate race. "Latinos know John McCain," she said.
Matt Barreto, a University of Washington political scientist, predicts a record-breaking turnout of more than 9 million Hispanic voters this year. That compares with 7.6 million in 2004.