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Antonio Villaraigosa’s Victory in Los Angeles: Any Democratic Lessons for Winning Latino Votes?

By Michael Alvarez and Jonathan Nagler

In recent weeks, much has been written about Antonio Villaraigosa’s strong victory over then-incumbent Los Angeles City Mayor, James Hahn. Villaraigosa beat Hahn in the mayoral runoff election handily, winning almost 59% of the votes cast, making him LA’s first Latino elected mayor in 133 years. As Michael Finnegan of the Los Angeles Times wrote after the election, “Antonio Villaraigosa’s election victory as mayor of Los Angeles vaults him into the top ranks of Latino leaders, crowning him as a potent force in the Democratic Party and giving him a strong platform to reach for higher office...”

No doubt, Villaraigosa’s victory was exciting. Villaraigosa campaigned with vision and focus, keeping on his message of fixing pressing problems in Los Angeles, especially public education and transportation. He is indeed a progressive candidate to watch.

Further, his win attracted enormous media attention, and led many back to a question that loomed large after the 2004 presidential election for Democrats: what can the party do to attract Hispanic and Latino votes nationally? Villaraigosa’s win has led some to wonder if it holds important lessons for Democratic strategists as we seek to determine how best to attract more Hispanic votes to their candidates in 2006 and beyond.

Writing in a recent issue of Newsweek, in an issue with a beaming Villaraigosa standing on Venice Beach after his victory, Arian Campo-Flores and Howard Fine gushed that Villaraigosa had “energized Latino voters to turn out for him at historic levels and stitched together the sort of multiracial coalition that has often eluded less-gifted politicians.” And later in their story they noted that “Democrats will be studying Villaraigosa’s formula for victory, hoping to replicate it win other races nationwide --- where the terrain may be more challenging than two Democrats squaring off in a Left Coast city.”

The question for Democratic strategists remains --- what can be learned of Villaraigosa’s victory?

In our opinion, the primary lesson for Democrats is that they need to continue efforts to develop and support issue-oriented Hispanic candidates for office at all levels. Villaraigosa’s victory also does point out that progressive Democratic Latino candidates can win votes from all racial/ethnic groups --- and that drawing support from non-Latino voters is critical for these candidacies.

But we also need to point out that because of the unique characteristics of this election, there really are not many lessons for Democrats to learn in terms of national strategy for winning Hispanic votes.

First, it is really hard to see how anyone can claim that voters in LA were excited or energized by the 2005 campaign --- including Latino voters. Overall turnout in the mayoral runoff was extremely low, with only 34% of the city’s almost 1.5 million registered casting ballots for either candidate. In the 2001 runoff election, almost 38% of the city electorate voted. So the 2005 runoff election had a turnout rate that was 4% lower than in 2001!

It is remarkable to note that Villaraigosa only received about 289,000 votes in this election --- about 25,000 more votes than he received in 2001. In another perspective on this same point, Villaraigosa picked up votes from only about 20% of the city’s registered voters in 2005. Again, these hardly seem like the sort of numbers we would expect to see from an energized or excited electorate. Quite the opposite, as to us these numbers indicate a relatively apathetic or uninterested electorate.

Second, not only is it hard to see how someone can argue that Villaraigosa energized or excited the overall electorate, it is also difficult to see how pundits and the media have concluded that he energized the Latino electorate in Los Angeles. In the 2001 mayoral runoff election (which Villaraigosa lost to Jim Hahn), the Los Angeles Times Exit Poll estimated that 22% of the electorate was Latino and that Villaraigosa picked up 82% of the Latino vote. In the 2005 runoff, the Los Angeles Times Exit Poll estimated that 25% of the electorate was Latino and that Villaraigosa got 84% of that vote. We fail to see the logic that would lead anyone to think that as the Latino electorate increased by 3%, and that Villaraigosa’s Latino vote increased by 2%, there was a stunning transformation of Latino politics in Los Angeles.

Third, many pundits seem to either be unaware or dismissive of the unique context of Los Angeles mayoral elections, especially this one. The facts are:

a. Both Hahn and Villaraigosa are Democrats, and despite Hahn being portrayed as the more moderate of the two, in what we would consider the broader national context, Hahn anywhere else would be seen as a fairly liberal Democrat. It is only in the context of a progressive Villaraigosa, with his strong connections to the strong union movements in Los Angeles and the progressive community, that Hahn was seen as a moderate.

b. The Los Angeles electorate is politically vastly different from the national electorate. In both 2001 and 2005, the exit polls estimated that over 21% of the electorate were union members. Almost half of the electorate in both elections were self-identified liberals. 70% in both elections were Democrats. And in both elections, 41% were Liberal Democrats.

c. And while mayor, Hahn undertook a series of efforts that dramatically undercut the political foundation he had built in 2001. His opposition to Valley succession, and his firing of Bernard Parks as police chief, hurt Hahn with Valley and Black voters. Those peculiar aspects of the political context cannot be dismissed, as they constitute the strategic opening that Villaraigosa exploited in his second run to become mayor. Villaraigosa was probably as appealing to voters in 2001 as he was in 2005. In the final analysis, the difference between the two elections was the appeal of his opponent, Hahn.

Finally, most of the media has focused on Villaraigosa’s racial/ethnic identity. His Latino identity, combined with his progressive values, helped him to cement over 80% of the Latinos votes in this runoff election. But the most important lesson that we see in Villaraigosa’s recent win is that in certain contexts Democratic Latino candidates can draw support from white, black, and Asian voters. One of the key demographic shifts between 2001 and 2005 for Villaraigosa was his ability to increase his support among non-Latino voters. His white vote increased to 50% in 2005, up 9 percentage points from just four years earlier. His black vote share increased by a stunning 28% percentage points, to 48%. And his share of Asian voters increased by 9 percentage points, to 44%. We (along with Marisa A. Abrajano) have written about the importance of non-Latino votes for Latino candidates, in this specific case Villaraigosa’s first run for mayor in 2001, in an academic study, titled “Race Based vs. Issue Voting: A Natural Experiment” (just published in Political Research Quarterly). In this study, we found that non-Latinos (especially white voters) are willing to support Latino candidates because of issues or ideological identifications, and that the votes of non-Latinos can be of critical importance in the electoral coalitions that Latino candidates often need to construct to be successful in their bids for elected office.

In sum, Villaraigosa’s win helps demonstrate that progressive Latino Democratic candidates can get support from non-Latino voters. And thus, as part of a long-term strategy to insure that the Democratic party represents the diversity of America, it needs to recruit and support candidates – of all ethnicities -- throughout the nation who are in tune with the concerns of Hispanic voters, especially at the state and local level. They can ensure that Hispanic voices and concerns are reflected in Democratic party values and policies, and thus help keep Hispanic votes in the Democratic column in the long-term, as Hispanic votes are a key to Democratic success at the national level in coming elections.