Latinos Straying From Meg Whitman Despite Unprecedented Outreach Effort

ABC's Michael Falcone reports:

It’s impossible to know exactly what factors are motivating California’s growing population of Latino voters this year, but one thing is for certain: they appear to be flocking to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown and away from his GOP rival Meg Whitman.

Brown’s support among Latinos jumped 19 percentage points during the first three weeks of October, according to a poll released on Wednesday by the Public Policy Institute of California. In late September Brown was pulling in 32 percent support among likely Latino voters compared to 25 percent for Whitman. Forty-three percent said they favored another candidate or were undecided.

But this week’s poll indicates Latinos are beginning to make up their minds. Brown now enjoys a 29 percentage point advantage over Whitman among the group -- 51 percent to 22 percent. This time around only 21 percent of likely Latino voters remain undecided.

The Public Policy Institute of California released its earlier poll on September 29 -- the same day that Whitman’s former housekeeper, Nicky Diaz, came forward with allegations against the Republican contender.

What followed were days of dueling press conferences and news stories raising questions about whether Whitman, the former eBay CEO, and her husband, knowingly employed an undocumented immigrant, fired her in an act of political damage control and failed to report her to immigration authorities.

The Whitman campaign forcefully denied the accusations, but the damage was largely done. Political analysts who study voting trends in California noted that before the housekeeper scandal, Brown was under-performing among Latinos. Now he seems to be bringing them home despite Whitman’s aggressive effort to court them.

For months Whitman has been running Spanish-language and Latino-focused television, radio, billboard and bus stop ads, holding numerous events aimed at this constituency and touting the endorsements of prominent Latino Republicans.

Even though Democrats enjoy a large party registration advantage among Latinos, these efforts were the Whitman campaign’s attempt to match Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s success with this group. In the 2006 governor’s race, 39 percent of Latino voters cast their ballot for the GOP governor.

“What she has done is unprecedented,” said Richard Loa, chairman of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly of California, a group of politically-active Latinos. “I don’t think any Republican candidate -- and even few Democratic candidates -- have devoted so much energy and resources to this segment of the population.”

Loa, a lawyer in Southern California, said he hoped the housekeeper saga was a “blip that wouldn’t be that significant in the minds of Hispanic voters.”

As the saga of Nicky Diaz unfolded like a political soap opera, Whitman spokesman Hector Barajas, who helped organize the campaign’s Latino outreach effort, pledged that the team Whitman would redouble its efforts. Barajas said Californians would “start seeing more ads playing throughout the day -- morning, noon and night.”

Democratic political strategist Andre Pineda said that while Whitman’s ads were “nicely done,” her response to the allegations probably hurt more than it helped.

“I totally believed that she had the potential to get Schwarzenegger-like numbers or better with Hispanic voters because I don’t think there was any historical love for Brown,” among this group, Pineda said. “There was an opportunity here, and now I think that she has squandered that opportunity.”

Even earlier poll numbers on the California gubernatorial race appear to bear that theory out. In July Latinos supported Brown more than two-to-one -- 42 percent to 18 percent. But by late September, Brown’s support among likely Latino voters decreased while Whitman’s went up.

Louis Desipio, a political science professor at the University of California, Irvine, who has extensively researched Latino voting habits, said that Whitman had clearly not “gotten cost effectiveness out of her money.”

In the last weeks of the race, Desipio said it was natural to see Latinos break for the Democratic candidate, but he noted that Whitman “hasn’t done herself any service in the weeks since the revelation broke.” He added that she needed to offer Latinos a clearer message about why they should vote for her.

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