-- WASHINGTON — Hispanic voters surged this week and swung their support to the Democratic Party, helping flip four states to winner Barack Obama in a trend that poses challenges for Republicans in future elections.
Obama made huge gains nationally, according to surveys of voters leaving the polls. He won 67% of the Hispanic vote — 23 percentage points higher than President Bush's showing in 2004.
Dramatic rises in Hispanic participation, support or both put Obama over the top in Florida, Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado. The trends were similar in Arizona and Texas, though the two states went for Republican John McCain. The group also made its presence felt in Indiana, Virginia and North Carolina.
"If the Republicans don't make their peace with Hispanic voters, they're not going to win presidential elections anymore. The math just isn't there," says Simon Rosenberg, head of the NDN, a Democratic group that studies Hispanic voters.
Bush was popular with Hispanics and, along with McCain, tried to pass an immigration bill that would have allowed about 12 million illegal immigrants to earn citizenship. But a fierce backlash from conservatives has led to an anti-immigrant image for the Republican Party.
Danny Vargas, chairman of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly, says Hispanics are "more conservative than liberal" and have a "natural home" in the GOP. "We have to communicate with them in a positive way and not alienate them," he says.
Vargas says the harsh tone of some immigration-bill opponents was problematic. "Let's have less on the emotional frenzy side of it and more on the solution side," he says.
Matt Barreto, a University of Washington political scientist and Latino pollster, says immigration was "an important symbolic issue" in the campaign, but most Latinos are working class and cared most about the economy.
"They are looking for economic stability in their own personal life," he says, and responded to Obama's plans to avert foreclosures, make health insurance and education more affordable, and step up spending on job-creating infrastructure projects.
Barreto and Democratic pollster Fernand Amandi say the Iraq war was also a big concern of Hispanics. They are over-represented in the armed forces and "that was especially a factor in the Southwest," Amandi says.
One of the most dramatic turnarounds this year was in Florida. Bush had a 12-point advantage over Democrat John Kerry in surveys of Hispanics leaving the polls in 2004. Obama turned that into a 15-point advantage over McCain.
Amandi says Republicans "took a tremendous hit" on immigration and the Wall Street crisis was "gasoline on that fire." Changing demographics also took a toll.
Traditionally pro-GOP Cubans are shrinking as a proportion of Florida's Hispanic population as Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Colombians and others move in. Obama received 70% of the non-Cuban Hispanic vote in voter polls conducted by Bendixen & Associates, Amandi's Miami-based firm.
Obama also carried 75% of U.S.-born Hispanics and he won 35% of the Cuban vote itself, "the highest any Democratic candidate has ever scored," Amandi says. "This shows a road map for Democrats to win in Florida for generations."
In Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado, analysts see a replay of California's demographic and political evolution. California hasn't voted for a GOP nominee since George H.W. Bush in 1988. "If these trendlines continue, Texas and Arizona will be in play in 2012," Rosenberg says.
Hispanics repeatedly chose New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton over Obama during their long primary battle, triggering speculation about whether Hispanics would ever support a black presidential candidate. "The election results officially debunk the myth that Latinos will not vote for blacks," Barreto says. "That is officially laid to rest now."