Polls are showing the presidential general election race tightening. The Gallup nightly tracking poll released on Tuesday afternoon had Republican Sen. John McCain edging 2 points ahead of Democratic Sen. Barack Obama. Most of the other highly reliable surveys, including a separate Gallup/USA Today poll taken late last week, still show Obama ahead by 3 or 4 points. Even though the results of the Gallup tracking poll of 2,684 registered voters was within the plus-or-minus-2-percent margin of error, it was still the best showing for McCain in this blue-chip survey all summer. This is clearly a very close race, with many factors at play.
With Latinos now the largest and fastest-growing minority group in the country, it should be no surprise that they have become a critical voting bloc. A quick look at the maps of the most competitive states in this election shows why. Colorado, Florida, Nevada, and New Mexico are each hotly contested, and Hispanics are at least 20 percent of the electorate in each. In New Mexico, Hispanic voters account for more than 40 percent. With that in mind, the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania had pollster Peter Hart conduct another in its series of focus groups on Monday morning, this time with a dozen Latino voters from the Denver area.
To sit behind the glass and watch Hart conducting a focus group is to watch a maestro at work. For two hours, he and a colleague probed the views of the dozen Latinos, five of whom started off the session supporting Obama, two more were undecided but leaning his way, two were completely undecided, and another pair supported McCain. Those numbers are pretty much in line with what most national surveys of Latino voters are showing.
The Latino voters clearly felt underappreciated. Whether first, second, or third generation, they see themselves as hardworking people willing to do jobs that others pass up. They want to provide for their families and yet often find themselves scapegoats for society's problems. Health care is a huge issue among these voters; and with Hispanics making up a disproportionately large share of the military, particularly those in combat duty, the war in Iraq is also an important issue.
Obama started and ended the two hours well ahead of McCain, but the passion and enthusiasm for the Democrat that is so widespread among African-Americans and younger white voters was clearly less evident. Just one or two participants showed any real bond.
Only the two McCain backers -- both men, one of whom was a 68-year-old Air Force retiree who was passionately against tax increases that he anticipated under a President Obama and the other a 51-year-old online bookstore salesman and committed social conservative -- had any real disagreement with Obama on substantive issues. Most other participants had a predisposition toward Obama, but they weren't enamored of him and they couldn't cite many positive things about him other than that he was very intelligent and good at basketball. As Hart commented to reporters after the focus group, "We're seeing too much of a one-dimensional Obama. We're not seeing the human side."
While the focus group revealed little to ratify the suspicion among some of a political and cultural rivalry between African-Americans and Latinos, it did show some commonality of interest. It seemed important for all minorities that a minority, even if not someone from their own group, could get elected president. But then, some doubted that a minority could win the White House just yet.
Perhaps the biggest question is whether Latino voters, while generally supportive of Obama, will turn out in significant numbers if they lack a sense of personal chemistry with him. In that sense, the challenge for Obama this week, and particularly when he speaks Thursday night, is to connect with these Hispanic voters on a real and personal level -- precisely the same challenge that he has with Anglo voters over age 50.