While Sen. Hillary Clinton was still in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, she regularly drew the lion's share of Latino voters from Obama, sometimes garnering 65 percent to 70 percent of the vote, culminating in a decisive victory in the Puerto Rico primary two weeks ago. Her commanding edge with Latinos, often a wider margin than she got with either white or women voters, stemmed from a variety of reasons.
First, Obama didn't do enough outreach to Latino voters, something acknowledged by his ally, Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., a native of Puerto Rico.
Second, Clinton had long-existing ties with local political machines, which delivered huge blocs of voters and high-profile endorsements.
Finally, tensions between Latinos and blacks, the result of economic competition for jobs and political influence, may have been a factor in the low Latino turnout for Obama.
While these factors had varying degrees of importance, Obama did show gains with young and urban Latino voters. He increased the sophistication of his advertising to Latinos and, in Puerto Rico, even stressed his childhood in Hawaii as a way of identifying with an "island" identity.
Obama's biracial identity, rooted in but not always defined by blackness, is parallel to Latino identity itself, and it should be naturally attractive to Latinos. As he continues to allow Latinos to "get to know him," previous notions of interethnic rivalry should dissipate.
But it is more likely that crucial issues like the war in Iraq, the failing economy, and national immigration policy will be most important in solidifying Obama's Latino edge. Like most Americans, Latinos are tired of the financial and human cost of the war, and are reeling from the credit crisis, sagging employment opportunities and high gas prices.
And over the last few years, Latinos have been particularly offended by the vitriolic tone of Republicans over immigration policy. While McCain has been more compassionate than his Republican peers over this issue, he faces a serious challenge in retaining his party's support if he continues down that road. He has already begun to shift his views from creating a path to citizenship for undocumented workers to focusing on militarizing the border.
Obama's early lead in the Latino vote is a strong indicator that the Democratic Party will not suffer from the divide feared earlier during his highly competitive contest with Clinton. His candidacy may wind up bringing together a broader cross section of Americans than any in recent memory.
Ed Morales is the author of Living in Spanglish.