Sen. Hillary Clinton's 2-1 win over Sen. Barack Obama among Hispanics in Florida's primary is raising new questions over whether Obama will be able to win the crucial Latino vote in next week's Super Tuesday primaries across the nation.
Following the outcome of the Florida primary and a similar 2-1 Clinton win among Latinos in the Nevada caucus, there is a widespread school of thought in the media and in the blogosphere that Latinos will not vote for a black presidential candidate because Latinos are prejudiced against blacks.
The Clinton camp says Hillary won among Hispanics because they hold good memories of Bill Clinton's tenure, when the economy flourished and many Latinos improved their living standards. Clinton also has more name recognition than Obama, and her image of a woman who went through hell to keep her family together during her husband's sex scandals has played well among family-oriented Latinos, Clinton aides say.
The Obama camp says Clinton's win in Florida is meaningless because he didn't campaign in the state. Democratic candidates signed a pledge to bypass Florida over an election-schedule dispute.
"Until now, we have focused on the early primaries, where the Latino population was relatively small," says Frank Sanchez, a member of Obama's Hispanic outreach team. "The real effort to win Hispanics starts now."
But while both campaigns officially claim that ethnicity is not a factor in the Democratic race, the recent results in Florida and Nevada - as well as polls in California that give Clinton a 3-1 advantage over Obama among Hispanics - have led to a widespread belief that Obama has a "Latino problem" that goes beyond his lack of name recognition among Hispanics.
Many newspapers, including The Miami Herald, have recently referred to polls showing lingering tensions between Hispanics and blacks. A New American Media poll said that 44 percent of Hispanics "are generally afraid of African Americans" because they identify them with high crime rates.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a political blogger and author of the forthcoming book "The Ethnic Presidency," wrote earlier this week that the history of the Latino vote for black candidates bodes badly for Obama. He cites among other examples Nevada's caucus elections last month: Obama got the endorsement of the heavily-Hispanic 60,000-member Culinary Workers Union, but when the union's Hispanic members went to the polls, they voted for Clinton, he argues.
"The continuing reluctance of Latino voters to back black candidates could have a blowback effect on Obama," Hutchinson concluded.
Not so, says Los Angeles Times columnist Gregory Rodriguez. There are many examples of blacks who won thanks to a massive Latino vote, including former Mayors Harold Washington in Chicago in 1983, Wellington Webb in Denver in 1991 and Ron Kirk in Dallas in 1995, 1997 and 1999. Rodriguez suggests that Clinton campaign aides are privately spreading "misinformation" about a Hispanic-black divide in order to "undermine one of Obama's central selling points: that he can build bridges and unite Americans of all types."'
My opinion: The Florida primary results dispute the claim that Hispanics won't vote for a black candidate: Exit polls show that a larger percentage of Hispanics voted for Obama (30 percent) than non-Hispanic whites (22 percent). And Obama did better than expected among Hispanics: A Miami Herald poll a week before the election had given him 8 percent of the Hispanic vote.
Obama does have a "Latino problem," but it may have more to do with his lack of big endorsements from Latino leaders than with his ethnicity. While Sen. Clinton has the backing of major Latino political figures, including Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, Obama has enlisted only a few and less visible ones.
To win the nomination, Obama will need a big name Hispanic endorsement before Super Tuesday. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson would be a big hit.
In addition, Obama should take a more courageous stand against cable television and radio talk show anti-immigration zealots who are creating a Hispanic-phobic atmosphere in the country.
Barring those moves, Latino voters might doom Obama's 2008 bid for the presidency.