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RUBEN NAVARRETTE JR.: Latinos have muscle to pick winner in a weak election

With fewer than six months until the presidential election, American voters are presented with the worst choice of candidates in a century.

In an ideal world, there would be something calming and reassuring about deciding between a current president and a former one. Either could do the job from day one.

But in this world, having to pick between Joe Biden and Donald Trump feels like being forced to choose between arsenic and cyanide. Both are deeply flawed candidates who spend more time talking down the other guy than talking up their accomplishments.

If only this slogan fit on a bumper sticker: Vote for me. The other guy is worse.

Biden is right, and so is Trump. The “other guy” is pretty bad. Biden is weak, indecisive, incompetent, ineffective and totally out of ideas about how to handle everything from inflation to the Middle East to the crisis along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Meanwhile, Trump is abrasive, extreme, divisive, narcissistic and fueled by drama — much of which he himself creates, by the way, as if he were still the star of his own television reality show.

Democrats are poised to nominate the one person who could lose to Trump, and Republicans are about to put forth the one person who could lose to Biden.

This year, we can expect third-party candidates to do better than usual.

For instance, the independent candidacy of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is doing just fine, despite growing opposition from both major parties. Kennedy has been attacked by liberals such as MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, and by conservatives such as Fox News’ Sean Hannity. And the piling on seems to have made him only more popular with voters.

The New York Times and Siena College recently polled voters in battleground states — Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada and Wisconsin — and polled Pennsylvania along with the Philadelphia Inquirer. Trump is beating Biden in five of the six battleground states, with Wisconsin being the only exception.

Meanwhile, that same survey shows Kennedy getting an average of 10 percent of the vote in all six. Granted, Kennedy is on the ballot at this point in only one of those states: Michigan. He’s also on the ballot in Utah, California, Delaware and Oklahoma. But his campaign claims that it has the required signatures to get on the ballot in nine other states, including Texas.

That’s a big enough footprint for Kennedy to play spoiler. But it’s not clear whose White House bid he’d be spoiling. According to a handful of polls — including the Times/Siena/Inquirer survey — he seems to draw support from both Biden and Trump.

For Kennedy, the X Factor is Latino voters. They are a force to be reckoned with in the battleground states of Arizona and Nevada (where Latinos make up 32.5 percent and 19.1 percent of the population respectively, according to U.S. Census figures). And they’re a major presence in California and Texas; in each, Latinos make up 40 percent of the population.

The Kennedy name has always cast a magic spell over Latinos. It dates back to the “Viva Kennedy” clubs of the 1960 election. That was also the year that Jacqueline Kennedy cut a Spanish-language campaign commercial, urging Latinos to vote for her husband.

However, in 2024, there’s an interesting generational dynamic at play. Polling shows Robert Jr. doing much better with younger Latinos than older ones. But it’s older Latinos on which the Kennedys, and the whole legend of Camelot, have the tightest grip. So the Kennedy magic might not be much of a factor with Latino voters this year.

Even so, I expect Kennedy will do fairly well with Latinos on his own steam. While he got an average of 10 percent with voters overall in the Times/Siena/Inquirer poll, he got 14 percent of the Latino vote. Biden and Trump each got 31 percent.

Kennedy deserves to get a good look from Latino voters. Not because of his name or the magic it conjures up. Not because of the love that Latinos had — and still have — for his late father, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, D-N.Y., and uncle, President John F. Kennedy. But because he talks about real concerns such as inflation, health care and the rising cost of housing.

Biden and Trump are busy talking about hot-button issues such as abortion (for Biden) and immigration (for Trump). Pushing those buttons raises the temperature which, in turn, helps the candidates raise money. It’s good for the bottom line, but it’s bad for the country.

Not unlike having to choose between arsenic and cyanide.

Ruben Navarrette’s email address is crimscribe@icloud.com. His podcast, “Ruben in the Center,” is available through every podcast app.

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