The difference was palpable. When John McCain and Barack Obama spoke in the same city at the same conference on the same day, McCain's speech was met with polite applause and the nodding of heads. Obama's appearance, to a larger audience a few hours later, received robust cheers as audience members waved "Latinos for Obama" signs. The candidates, appearing in July at the League of United Latin American Citizens' convention, were both trying to bolster support among a pivotal swing constituency.
Now the largest minority group in the United States, Hispanics have historically trended Democratic. In 2004, however, Republicans pushed hard for Hispanic support, launching the "Viva Bush" campaign and flooding key regions with Spanish-language ads. Exit polls showed that President Bush got the votes of about 40 percent of this group, up from the 35 percent he garnered in 2000, helping him win swing states like New Mexico. His campaign manager, Ken Mehlman, called Bush's percentage of the Latino vote "the single most important number" to come out of the election.
Earlier this year, there were some experts who thought Republicans could do well with Hispanic voters because of the divisiveness of the primary battle between Obama and Hillary Clinton, who had strong Hispanic support. But today, polls suggest that Demo-crats are pulling Latinos back into their ranks. In a recent survey from the Pew Research Center, Obama was leading McCain among Hispanics, 66 percent to 23 percent. Latino respondents said education, the cost of living, jobs, and healthcare were their most important issues, and favored Obama strongly over McCain on all of them. "I think people had questions at first because of the primaries, which showed that Hispanics favored Hillary Clinton by 2 to 1, but a bad economy and party ID have already converted Hispanics to Obama," says Larry Sabato of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
If that holds up, Obama could turn what was a solid-red American West in 2004 into more of a checkerboard. Strong Hispanic support could make the difference in New Mexico, Nevada, and Colorado, says Sabato. The only downside? This demographic has a reputation for not turning out as heavily as some other ethnic groups.
Just a few days after Bush won re-election in 2004, evangelical leaders warned the GOP not to forget the mostly white evangelical Protestants. By throwing 78 percent of their votes his way, evangelicals helped Bush lock up the close race against Democratic Sen. John Kerry. Some evangelicals, fearing their influence would be short-lived, formed a coalition to register millions of additional evangelical voters and prevent moderate Republicans like former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani or John McCain from gaining the next presidential nomination.
Four years later, McCain locked up the nomination after the evangelical darling, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, dropped out in March. This left the evangelicals without a favorite and with an unclear role in this election. So far, McCain's support among evangelicals—at 61 percent—isn't as big as Bush's was in the summer of 2004. And Barack Obama has made it apparent that he plans to go after this consistently Republican voting bloc by speaking of his faith openly and touting his Democratic version of Bush's faith-based initiatives. "There are plenty of evangelicals that admire Senator Obama because he's talked about his religion so comfortably, and they understand he has innovative positions on a number of issues," says John Green, a senior fellow with the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. "On the other hand, he's pro-choice on abortion."
Obama may be making less progress than he'd like in attracting these influential voters, who comprised 23 percent of the electorate in 2004. A Pew survey from July showed that 25 percent of white evangelicals were supporting Obama, compared with the 26 percent who supported Kerry in the summer of 2004. Kerry went on to take only 21 percent. "[Obama's] level of support is about what Democratic candidates usually get in that religious community," Green says. "But John McCain's numbers are down for what Republicans are supposed to get." The poll found 14 percent of evangelicals to be undecided.
In order for McCain to entice evangelicals to come out on his behalf, he will have to ramp up enthusiasm for his candidacy. But how he does that could be tricky, says Green. By touting his conservative credentials, such as his pro-life abortion stance, he could bring in the skeptical conservative evangelicals. At the same time, by playing up his reputation as a political moderate, McCain could attract younger and more moderate evangelical voters who care about social change, Green says.