A confident Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama shrugged off the buzz that he'd crash and burn with Latino voters, "Not in Illinois, they all voted for me."
Not so fast, a reader retorts: 'yeah, but you ran against Alan Keyes.'
Keyes was the luckless and hapless 11th hour Republican political sacrificial lamb who Obama annihilated in his smash victory for the U.S. Senate in 2004. But this time around, Obama faces a far bigger opponent than Keyes could ever hope to be. No it's not Hillary Clinton. It's the "Nevada Phenomenon."
The "Nevada Phenomenon" has nothing to do with the supposed penchant for White voters to deceive pollsters and interviewers on race. After all, in South Carolina the polls had Obama winning only 10 percent of the White vote but he more than doubled that. The "Nevada Phenomenon" is the mix of wariness, fear, indifference and even hostility of the majority of Latino voters toward a Black candidate.
Even though in Deep South primary states Obama lags behind Clinton among White voters, he's still likely to get a respectable percent of White votes. That's not true with Latino voters. Obama's poll popularity with Latinos hasn't budged very much despite his heightened name identification, media boost, energizing change pitch and personal charisma. And if the history of Black candidates is any indication, Obama is pushing upriver.
Former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley won election five times, and built a solid coalition of Black, Jewish and suburban Anglo White voters. However, Latino voters played only a marginal role in Bradley's wins, despite making up nearly one-third of the city's population.
The political polarization between Latino voters and Black candidates has been a virtual trademark in every other race where Black candidates faced White or Latino candidates. In 1993, Rudolph Giuliani, a very conservative Republican got nearly 40 percent of the Latino vote, running in heavily Democratic New York City against liberal African American Democrat David Dinkins. In 2005, popular former Congressman Ron Dellums received barely 30 percent of the Latino vote in his race for mayor in Oakland against a Latino challenger.
In each case, the Black candidates won their races with overwhelming support from Black and substantial support from White voters. Their challengers were conservative Republicans or centrist Democrats. They actively courted the Latino voters, and even won the important endorsements of prominent Latino elected officials and business leaders. That did little to dent the vote barrier between the majority of Latinos and the Black candidates.
In Nevada, the pattern was the same. Obama got the endorsement of the leaders of the heavily Hispanic Culinary Workers Union. But getting the vote of the rank and file union workers was a far different matter, as the subsequent vote showed. Latino voters, many of them almost certainly members of the culinary union, defied their leaders and helped propel Clinton to victory.
This was yet another danger sign that the continuing reluctance of Latino voters to back Black candidates could have a blowback effect on Obama.
The Super Tuesday primaries on February 5 will be a big test for him with Latino voters. Their numbers have soared in the key primary states of New Jersey, New York, Florida and his home state, Illinois. So much so that the Black vote, even assuming that he will grab a far bigger share of that vote than Clinton, and split the White vote, will not ensure an Obama victory. The Latino vote looms as the X factor for him. Unlike the subtle, much harder to finger "Bradley Effect," the 'Nevada Phenomenon' is an open challenge to any Black candidate that needs Latino votes to win. Obama is now the Black candidate who faces that challenge, and danger.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book is "The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House."