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Missing from the debate: Latinos

Top moments from the Democratic presidential debate
Top moments from the Democratic presidential debate

Hillary Clinton, whose comatose campaign for president came to life Tuesday night, has learned she can’t take her front-runner status for granted. She may soon learn that her longstanding support from Latinos is not a sure thing either.

Why? Hispanics have been harboring some discontent with the Democratic Party, in large part because of President Obama’s aggressive deportation policies (which earned him the moniker “deporter-in-chief.”) Moreover, the Democratic Party seems reluctant to embrace diversity fully. During the debate, it was striking to see an all-white lineup of presidential candidates. Ironically, the GOP field is more diverse (yes, larger, too) with two Latino candidates. CNN’s Anderson Cooper said it Tuesday night: half of the Democratic Party is nonwhite. It is only fair to ask, then, are Democrats doing enough to promote Latinos’ agenda?


To her credit, Clinton’s campaign has a solid Hispanic presence and outreach apparatus. She’s hired a few Hispanics in her campaign, and not just for Hispanic-oriented posts but campaign-wide: she hired a Latina as her national political director. Clinton has said that her deportation policies would be “less harsh and aggressive” than the Obama administration’s. And she has received the support of leading Latino office-holders, such as Representative Xavier Becerra of California and HUD Secretary Julian Castro.

She has the highest favorability rating with Hispanics among all the presidential candidates in either party. In the 2008 primary, in fact, Latinos voted for Clinton over Obama by nearly a 2-to-1 ratio.

But she, and the other Democratic candidates, have to do so some damage control. The debate was an early chance to cement Clinton’s position with the Latino community — or for the other candidates to elevate their standing with Hispanics. But immigration — certainly the most emotional and mobilizing issue for Latinos — didn’t even come up until after an hour and 45 minutes into the debate.


And while Clinton said she would go further than the president in advancing immigration reform, she made no case for a concrete plan of action. Her answer about in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants seemed vague and legalistic.

Clinton still has some work to do if she is to maintain, never mind expand, her base among Latinos. It is estimated that every 30 seconds a Latino citizen reaches voting age. Make no mistake: the road to the White House includes winning about half of the Latino vote.

Marcela García is a Globe editorial writer. Follow her on Twitter @marcela_elisa.