Historic Hispanic vote seen

The giant sleeps no more. This election is shaping up to be the one in which Nevada's Hispanics finally come out to vote, according to a national group that's targeting the state.

Since 2000, the number of Hispanic voters registered in Nevada has grown faster than the Hispanic population in the state. That points to increased political engagement among a demographic group that has historically been notorious for not exercising its electoral potential.

That's according to a study by Democracia USA, a nonpartisan Miami-based group that today is rolling out an expanded effort in Nevada.

Since April, a field staff of 12 canvassers has registered 3,500 new Hispanic voters, a total they expect to raise to more than 10,000 by the October deadline to register to vote in the November election.

The group also has commissioned what it says is the first poll that charts the dimensions of Nevada's Hispanic electorate, a group that is younger and more recently immigrated than Hispanics nationally or in most other states.

Pollster Sergio Bendixen noted that in Nevada and many other states, Hispanics turned out to vote in presidential primaries at higher rates than other groups or general turnout, an event he said was unprecedented in American political history.

Combined with increased registration among Hispanics, it suggests that Hispanics will turn out in force in November, Bendixen said.

"The nickname of the Hispanic electorate was the 'Sleeping Giant,' because it tended to underperform," he said. "Now we have very strong evidence that the sleeping giant has not only awakened, but is very interested in this election."

Bendixen's firm, Bendixen & Associates, conducted the poll of 700 Nevada Hispanic registered voters in English and Spanish. It carries a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

The poll found that about a third, 36 percent, of the state's Hispanic voters are American-born and nearly two-thirds, 63 percent, are under 50.

Nationally, 53 percent of the Hispanic electorate and 50 percent of all voters are under 50, Bendixen said. Among states, only Florida has a higher percentage of Hispanic voters who are immigrants.

About 60 percent of Hispanic voters in Nevada are registered Democrats, with 19 percent Republicans and 21 percent nonpartisan or third party. That's slightly more Democratic than the national average for Hispanics, which is about 55 percent Democrats and 25 percent Republicans.

A quarter of Nevada's Hispanic voters belong to a union, according to the poll, a proportion Bendixen said was higher than the national average and helped explain both the increase in political engagement and the tilt toward the Democratic Party.

Hispanic voters are overwhelmingly concerned about the economy. In the poll, 69 percent named the economy or jobs as one of their top two issues. The war in Iraq came in second, at 33 percent, followed by immigration, health care and education.

"They're young, they're immigrants and they're more closely associated with labor than the rest of the country," said Jorge Mursuli, Democracia's president. "That makes Nevada a state that's about the future of the Latino movement, not the past. I think the kind of changes you're going to see in Nevada are really a preamble to the kinds of things you're going to see happen in the rest of the country."

Since 2000, Nevada's Hispanic population has grown by 65 percent, but the Hispanic electorate has grown by more than 100 percent, according to the group's analysis. That's a sign that the increase in the number of Hispanic voters, to about 116,000, isn't just a function of the large number of Hispanics coming to the state.

Hispanics make up about 11 percent of the Nevada electorate. They are about a quarter of the state's population, according to the U.S. Census, but a large proportion are ineligible to vote because they are not citizens or are under 18.

Tens of thousands of Hispanics in Nevada are eligible to vote but are not registered. Bendixen said a conservative estimate puts the number at 78,000, but it could be as high as 95,000.

It is Democracia USA's mission to make inroads with that group. The organization began in Florida in 2004 and expanded its operations to New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Arizona in 2006, when it led massive voter-registration drives in those states.

While it aired radio ads in Nevada in 2006, this year marks the opening of Democracia's first Nevada office and voter registration operation.

The 3,500 new voter registrations recorded by the group since April constitute about half the increase in Hispanic voters in the state in 2008. Democracia initially set a goal of 10,000 total new registrations in time for the election, but plans to raise the target based on its early success, Mursuli said.

Though Nevada Hispanics are predominantly Democratic, Mursuli said both political parties are likely to court them as something of a swing group.

"Good politicians are going to figure out how their values correspond to the values most Latinos have," he said. "Latinos are very relationship-oriented. Before you start advocating issues with them, they need to trust you and know who you are."

Republican candidates who have made inroads with Hispanic voters include Gov. Jim Gibbons, who got 37 percent of the Hispanic vote in his 2006 election, according to exit polling by the Pew Hispanic Center.

Republican presidential candidate John McCain is targeting Hispanic voters in Nevada, airing two ads on Spanish-language radio so far. He is aiming at a potential weakness of Democratic candidate Barack Obama, whose primary rival, Hillary Clinton, won Hispanics overwhelmingly.

In Nevada, Hispanics were about 15 percent of the voters in the Jan. 19 Democratic caucuses, and 65 percent chose Clinton, according to exit polls.

A Review-Journal poll last month found Obama beating McCain among Hispanics, 53 percent to 28 percent, but leaving a substantial number, 19 percent, still undecided.

"In every election, we've seen a gradual increase" in Hispanic voters, said David Damore, a University of Nevada, Las Vegas, political scientist. "This time around, you could see a big uptick, with both candidates trying to court them."

Who succeeds, he said, is largely yet to be determined.

Contact reporter Molly Ball at mball@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2919.