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Politics / Issues

How Barack Obama Took Latinos For Granted – And How It Cost Charlie Crist

A Spanish-language election-day sticker: "I voted."
A Spanish-language election-day sticker: "I voted."
A Spanish-language election-day sticker: "I voted."
Credit Elle Cayabyab Gitlin / Flickr
A Spanish-language election-day sticker: "I voted."

So you’re a Florida Democrat. You’re looking for a silver lining to the humiliating Sunshine Shellacking your party took in Tuesday’s midterm elections. 

There really isn't one. But there may be a pewter lining: Your gubernatorial candidate, Charlie Crist, lost to the Republican incumbent, Governor Rick Scott, by only a percentage point. What's more, Crist might have won if not for a dumb political move by President Obama that alienated Latino voters.

Crist in fact won Florida's Latino vote. According to some exit polling, he even took half the Cuban vote, one of the Republicans’ most reliable blocs. As many as two-thirds of non-Cuban Latinos voted for him.

So if Crist did do that well with such a critical swing vote, why didn’t the election swing his way? Because not enough of that vote was swingin’. Latinos (or Hispanics) represent 15 percent of Florida’s electorate. In 2012, when they helped President Obama win the state, they accounted for an overachieving 17 percent of the total vote. But in 2014 they dropped to an underachieving 13 percent.

Since Crist lost to Scott by about 60,000 votes out of a total of more than 5.5 million, things may well have been different had Latinos made up just one more percent of Florida’s voters in these mid-terms.

RELATED: What The Non-Cuban Latino Vote Means For Florida Politicians

But they didn't, not just in Florida but across the country, where Latino turnout was dismal even for a mid-termer. And a key reason was Obama's decision not to act on immigration in the weeks before November 4.

Latinos were a big part of Obama’s re-election in 2012, when they lavished 71 percent of their vote on him. They handed his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, a humiliating 27 percent, thanks largely to the insults he’d hurled their way on the issue of immigration reform.

And then, like any voter group, Latinos sat back and waited for Obama and the Democrats to reciprocate and champion their cause: To secure a comprehensive fix of America’s dysfunctional immigration system, and more immediately, to ease up on the ever-rising number of deportations of law-abiding undocumented immigrants.

Instead, Latinos were cold-cocked again by the realization that while the Republican Party may disdain them, the Democrat Party takes them for granted – as Obama demonstrated in the run-up to this week's midterms.

Obama has failed to overcome conservative obstruction of immigration reform legislation. But he still had a chance to use his executive authority and temporarily halt deportations if not extend legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants.

And yet, fearful of angering the GOP’s conservative base, he opted to postpone any such stroke until after the mid-terms – if then.

The message Latinos heard: Appeasing Tea Partiers at the border walls mattered more to the president than galvanizing a loyal constituency to the voting booths. And so, in anger, a lot of Latinos simply stayed home on Tuesday.

BIRD INSTEAD OF BOOST?

That included Latinos in Florida – or at least the growing number of South American, Central American, Caribbean and Mexican voters for whom immigration is a core concern, and from whom Crist and the state’s Democrats had hoped to get a boost.

They may have gotten the bird instead, thanks largely to Obama. And to a national Democratic Party led by baby-boomers who still think “minority voter” means black instead of black, brown and a whole lot more.

Or who think that “Latino voter” in Florida still means Republican Cuban. Back when that was true, immigration was relatively a non-issue in this state. But pols like Democratic National Committee Chairwoman and South Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz surely know better today. If she didn’t privately pressure Obama to reconsider his executive action delay, she should have.

That’s especially true now that the Republicans’ near sweep of Tuesday’s midterms makes it harder for Obama to take that action. The U.S. Senate’s likely new leader, Republican Mitch McConnell, even said this week that exercising executive authority on immigration would be “waving a red flag in front of a bull.”

More important, delaying the action just flat-out didn't work. Non-Latino white voters still flocked to the GOP in droves on Tuesday – Scott won them in Florida by more than 20 points – compounding the damage done by Latino abstention.

I certainly don’t condone that abstention. Latino resentment may be legitimate, but not voting isn’t. In the long run it doesn’t highlight how much the parties need you; it just gives them a reason to think that maybe they don’t.

Still, disaffecting Latinos at this juncture was a blunder – especially since not a few who did go to the polls shifted to the Republicans. It's just further proof that Democrats still haven’t learned that this swing cohort actually needs to be taken seriously, not for granted.

Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas editor. You can read more of his coverage here.

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