Two weeks before California’s presidential primary election, two of the Democratic Party’s core ethnic constituencies — African Americans and Latinos — are deeply divided over whom to support, a reflection in part of years of political battling between California’s ascendant Latino population and the smaller but politically well-organized black communities. In the background hovers the ghost of Proposition 187, the voter-approved anti-illegal immigration initiative of 1994 that galvanized the Latino electorate and was later dismantled by the courts.
“Even though it (Proposition 187) is not a topic within the Democratic primary, hearing Republican candidates talk about their stances on immigration puts it back in our minds. It’s there,” said Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, a supporter of New York Sen. Hillary Clinton.
The burgeoning Latino population is California’s most important political and ethnic phenomenon — and has been for two decades.
Nearly 4 in 10 Californians are Latino, and 6 in 10 Latinos are registered Democrats. As the proportion of whites has shrunk to a minority of the total population, the Latinos have swelled and the percentage of blacks has declined to about 6 percent, roughly half of the Asian American population. But despite that growth, Latinos are still only expected to comprise about 15 percent of the overall electorate, essentially unchanged from 1998.
The numbers suggest that California’s Democratic presidential primary presents a classic battle between the party’s mainstream, Clinton’s base, as represented by increasingly Latino organized labor and blue-collar workers; and what one veteran political observer called the “starry-eyed reformers on the left,” the young, the black and the affluent activists, who want a break from the tradition and favor Illinois Sen. Barack Obama. “We’ve seen this division go back 60 or 70 years. Clinton represents the hard-shell Democrats, who want to know what government will do to help put money in their pockets. Obama represents the reformers. This is a big, long division in California politics, and it is playing out in this campaign,” said Tony Quinn, a political historian and co-author of the Target Book, which handicaps legislative campaigns.
The latest Field Poll bears this out, with Clinton ahead of Obama by 12 percent overall, drawing Democratic support from moderates, women, Latinos, lower-income voters, those without college degrees and those with family incomes averaging $40,000.
By 3-to-1, Latinos favor Clinton, a dramatic edge, particularly in Los Angeles County, the heart of Latino labor, where a third of the state’s voters live, and Asian Americans favor Clinton by 2-to-1. Conversely, Obama is supported by blacks by better than 2-to-1, the young, the left and the more affluent Democrats, those with $80,000 or more in annual family income. On issues, the Clinton supporters see the economy as the crucial issue in the race — which could prove decisive at a time when the economic outlook, state and national, is souring. On the very day that the Field Poll was released, the state reported some 36,000 residential foreclosures for the final quarter of 2007, a record and the latest in a series of grim economic reports. Obama’s supporters view the war in Iraq and foreign policy as hot-button issues. “Clinton is perceived by voters as holding a big advantage over Obama as being the candidate with the right experience and who has the best chance of winning the November general election. Obama, on the other hand, is viewed by more voters as the candidate who best represents change,” the survey reported. About a fifth of likely Democratic voters are undecided. The two Democrats are neck-and-neck among white, non-Hispanic voters, with Clinton at 32 percentage points and Obama at 30 — a statistically insignificant division.
Obama is likely to target the 20 percent of the state’s voters who register as “decline to state.” Independent voters are allowed to vote in the Democrats’ contest on Feb. 5 but will be barred from voting in the Republican primary.
While there are sharp divisions among rank-and-file Democrats over supporting Clinton or Obama, the positions of elected officials cross lines regardless of ethnicity. Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally, a former lieutenant governor and congressman, heads the Black Caucus and supports Clinton, while most of the other members back Obama. Democratic Sens. Dean Florez of Shafter, Gloria Romero and Gil Cedillo of Los Angeles, and Assemblywoman Nicole Parra of Bakersfield — all members of the Latino Caucus — support Obama.
“Those are significant numbers, and I think that the notion that there is a great divide (between blacks and Latinos) may or may not be true. It is yet to be determined,” said Sen. Mark Ridley-Thomas, an African American and Los Angeles Democrat running for the L.A. Board of Supervisors, who also supports Obama.
“This is all good for the electorate, and Obama’s candidacy made it a lot more interesting and a lot more vibrant,” he added.
According to the state Department of Finance, which tracks California’s shifting demographic landscape, from 2000 to 2004, the Hispanic and Asian American populations increased their shares of the state’s population by 2.3 percent and 0.6 percent, respectively, while the shares of whites and blacks declined, down 2.5 percent and 0.5 percent respectively. The shares of the state’s other three race/ethnic groups increased very slightly (American Indians, up 0.04 percent; Pacific Islanders, up 0.03 percent; and multirace persons, up 0.13 percent) over the four-year period. Although still the largest race/ethnic group, whites were, by 2004, 44.6 percent of the population, down from 47.2 percent in 2000. In the same period Hispanics grew to almost 35 percent of the total.
Asian Americans grew from 11 percent to 11.6 percent of the total, and blacks dropped to 6 percent from 6.5 percent. Multirace persons held the next-largest share, 2 percent, with the two smallest groups, American Indians and Pacific Islanders, holding 0.58 percent and 0.35 percent of shares, respectively. These rates of growth and decline resulted from very different patterns in the components of change (births, deaths and migration) by race/ethnicity.
In the ethnic shifts, Latinos remain the most significant politically, according to one Field study.
“Whereas Latino voters favored Democrats over GOP candidates for governor by 6 percentage points in both the 1986 and 1990 elections, this advantage has grown dramatically in recent elections — to 46 points in 1994 and to a record high 61 points in 1998.
At the same time, Latinos have become a larger part of the California electorate, increasing from 5 percent of voters in 1990 to 14 percent in 1998. These two factors — Latino voters’ greater preference for Democratic candidates and their larger share of the overall electorate — have combined in recent election cycles to produce a structural advantage for Democratic candidates in top-of-the-ticket election contests,” Field reported.
Publicly, at least, few black or Latino politicians wish to discuss the ethnic or political tensions between the two groups. But it does exist.
“There is a lot of ethnic hostility between blacks and Latinos that goes way back. It simply reflects the divisions in California politics,” Quinn noted. “If you take a look at city council seats in south Los Angeles, you see a real history of the Latino insurgency against the existing black power structure, the whole South Central area, in Compton, where the blacks had taken over the power structure and are n
ow losing it to Latinos.”
For Clinton and Obama, there also is a clear north-south division, he added.
“Obama does better in the north, and she does better in the south. She does well among the more down-scale whites. They associate with the Clintons because the Clintons were good for them, did put money in their pockets, and they vote their pocketbooks,” Quinn said. “He runs with the idealistic left, with exactly the same people who supported Gary Hart, Bill Bradley and, for a while, Howard Dean.”