After last night, -- after Barack Obama effectively clinched the nomination -- it has become clear that the emerging Democratic party coalition, rooted in a working class made up of people of color combined with just enough white voters (though not a majority) can win a national Democratic nomination for President.
This would be more surprising if it were not the pattern that we've seen in California since the mid-1990s. I've discussed this at length here.
Can this coalition win a national campaign? I would have thought that ongoing demographic trends placed such an outcome years in the future, but apparently we are going to find out whether it can happen now, this year. This pattern has carried Obama to the nomination; will it hold up in the general?
Fortunately, Senator McCain is a very weak candidate, adrift in a terrible environment for a Republican. As the wars drag on (and McCain applauds), the economy tanks (and McCain reveals his cluelessness) and George W. blusters about his relevance, the Republican brand gets hammered.
But, to cement the emerging Democratic coalition, Obama needs to bring Latino voters into his fold in supermajority numbers. Other Democrats have been getting those numbers from Latinos. Obama hasn't come close to winning a majority of these voters yet. Can he do it in November?
Although McCain has a (largely unearned) image of relative decency on immigration issues, Obama should win Latinos on economic concerns. Latinos (and people of color in general since they are routinely on the receiving end of bullshit) often are less distracted from self-interest by media circuses than some more entitled voters.
The real question here is whether ongoing Black-Brown tensions fueled by different histories, different cultures and sometimes economic competition will overcome Latino self-interest.
In particular, Latinos and African Americans have very different patterns as voters.
African-Americans are intense, reliable voters. Their percentage of the actual voting electorate is often higher than their percentage of the population. Some vestigial memory of their historic fight to win voting rights, coupled with repeated attention from registration and GOTV campaigns, tends to bring out African-Americans in high numbers. In 2000, nearly 85 percent of registered African-Americans voted, as compared with 76 percent of all registered people. The same comparison in 2004 showed 88 percent voting as against 79 percent overall. African-Americans vote!
Meanwhile, Latinos as a percentage of the U.S. population are increasing rapidly, having surpassed the raw number of African-Americans in the last few years. But their participation in the electorate is nowhere near as large.
Only about half of Latinos are eligible to vote either because they are new immigrants or because they are under 18. So, although they are 15 percent of the population, their participation in the 2008 national electorate is projected to amount to only 6.5 percent in November. But that doesn't mean the Latino vote doesn't matter. Latinos
Currently polls show Obama defeating McCain in three of these states, New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada, while he polls very poorly in Florida. Of course, in Florida, "Hispanic" usually means Cuban, so that is a major difference.
It is conceivable, with luck and good campaign management, both of which he's had thus far, Obama could win the Presidency with only a relatively low share of the Latino vote -- say the approximately 59 percent that John Kerry won nationally in 2004. But for that to happen, Latinos would have to turn away from recent trends that have carried them toward identification with the Democrats. Only 23 percent currently align with the Republican Party. Far better would be an Obama victory in which the Latino population feels they made a major contribution.
Senator Obama seems like a unity sort of guy, so we can probably trust that he'll reach out for the Latino vote. Let's hope so -- a long term progressive majority rooted in the unity of the communities of color alongside a minority of whites who vote progressive values may depend on experiences in this expectation-shattering campaign year.