Wednesday, August 13, 2008 |There are not likely to be any huge surprises in November — no hanging chads, no landslides, no Truman upsets. The two presidential candidates are close in the polls, meaning we could have again, as in 2000 and nearly again in 2004, a minority president, but given our electoral system and political polarization, that would be no surprise.

This election, like the past two, will come down to a handful of states. What will make it unique is the Latino vote, ready to explode. Because of the rapidly growing Latino population — Latinos account for half the U.S. population growth this century — we’ve thought Latinos would make the difference in previous elections, but it didn’t happen. Here’s why:

According to U.S. Census data, only 17 percent of all Latinos voted in 2004, compared with 51 percent of all whites and 39 percent of all blacks. True, a higher percentage of Latinos was either under 18 or not U.S. citizens, but, in addition, a lower percentage of eligible Latino voters turned out. Only 47 percent of eligible Latinos voted in 2004, compared with 60 percent of blacks and 67 percent of whites.

Latinos have been largely self-disenfranchised in recent elections. Too many haven’t registered to vote, and, if registered, haven’t voted.

Only 7.5 million Latinos voted in the 2004 election (out of a total population of 46 million), but as low as their vote has been, it’s been rising, and Latino organizations promise a spectacular increase this year. Between the presidential elections of 1988 and 2004, the Latino vote doubled. The goal this year is to increase it by nearly 50 percent over 2004 — to 10 million voters.

If delivered, the significance of the increase will not be in total votes, but where they are cast. Latinos make up a large bloc of voters in four key states that George W. Bush carried by fewer than 5 percentage points in 2004. They comprise 37 percent of the eligible electorate in New Mexico, 14 percent in Florida, 12 percent in Colorado and 12 percent in Nevada.

In 2004, Bush won 40 percent of the Latino vote, a five percent increase from 2000. He did better among Latino voters than previous Republican candidates (Bob Dole won 22 percent in 1996), largely because he won nearly half the Latino vote in his home state of Texas, home to 19 percent of the nation’s Latinos.

Republican candidate John McCain, of Arizona, won’t have the Texas advantage, and the latest polls show McCain trailing Barack Obama among Latino voters by a crushing 66 to 23 percent, according to the Pew Research Center. By 41 to 14 percent Latinos say Democrats are doing a better job of dealing with illegal immigration, and by 44 to 8 percent Latinos say Democrats are the party with more concern for Latinos.

The polls have been influenced by the Bush administration’s new high-profile crackdown on illegal immigrants, featured nightly on Spanish-language news. The symbol of Bush policy is the recent raid in little Postville, Iowa. A battalion of helicopter-borne ICE officers attacked a Postville slaughterhouse as if it were an al Qaeda base in Afghanistan. Instead of the usual procedure of detaining, processing and deporting illegal workers, some 300 meatpackers, including children, working in appalling conditions, were tried in ad hoc courts and sentenced to five months in prison prior to deportation.

Bush has made Postville into a political issue, and McCain must deal with it. To whatever extent such raids may help McCain among Pat Buchanan nativists, they will not help him with those 10 million Latino voters, as appalled by Postville as the rest of us.

Illegal immigrants are not criminals. To treat them as terrorists, deny them acceptable legal representation, ignore that they have families here to support, and “disappear” them into prisons around the country is not how this nation historically deals with immigration. The Postville workers shouldn’t have been here and shouldn’t have been employed, and if this nation had a proper identity-card enforcement system in place, they wouldn’t have been here.

But 12 million of them are here, and you can do the math to figure out how many Postville raids it will take to arrest them all.

Along with Sen. Ted Kennedy, McCain was the author of a 2005 comprehensive immigration bill that would have addressed the issue of those 12 million undocumented immigrants. And, yes, that bill included a foolproof identity card system to enable employers to verify legal status. But since his nomination, McCain has abandoned all talk of what he once called a “comprehensive and humane” way of dealing with illegal immigrants. He now says he wouldn’t support his own bill.

Both Obama and McCain showed up in Albuquerque last month to address an umbrella meeting of national Latino organizations. Obama was the only one of the two candidates to speak of finding ways to bring those 12 million people — symbolized by the people of Postville — “out of the shadows.” McCain now speaks only of criminals and drug-traffickers among the 12 million.

The polarization of American politics, combined with a system that does not elect presidents by popular vote, means that a handful of states now determine who wins the White House. If Latinos have been underrepresented in the past, this looks like the year, thanks to their presence in swing states and the absurdity of Bush-McCain immigration policy, that they might pull more than just their weight.

James O. Goldsborough has written on foreign affairs for four decades, both from the United States and abroad, where he worked as a foreign correspondent for The New York Herald Tribune, International Herald Tribune and Newsweek magazine for 14 years, reporting from more than 40 countries. Visit his website here. Submit a letter to the editor here.

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