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Two groups to watch

Before the election, we were urged to focus our attention on the usual collection of semifictional swing groups — security moms, NASCAR dads and the like. But with the exit polls comes information about two voter segments that really will be central to the future of the Democratic Party — Hispanics and those under 30.Before the election, we were urged to focus our attention on the usual collection of semifictional swing groups — security moms, NASCAR dads and the like. But with the exit polls comes information about two voter segments that really will be central to the future of the Democratic Party — Hispanics and those under 30.

For too long we have merely assumed that Hispanics are part of our base. That is only partly true. Our own work for the Democratic National Committee, prior to the 2002 cycle, noted an important anomaly. While Hispanics identified as Democrats in large numbers and supported Democratic candidates, they did not like the Democratic Party any more than they liked the Republicans. We noted then that this unstable situation could be resolved either to our benefit or to our detriment.

Exit polls confirmed the problem, as just 53 percent of Hispanics supported John Kerry, a nine-point drop from Al Gore’s showing four years before. The separate Los Angeles Times exit poll confirmed the pattern, giving Kerry 54 percent of the Hispanic vote. That is the lowest share of the Hispanic vote for a Democrat in the history of exit polling.

In key states, the results were even more troubling. In New Mexico, George Bush got less of the Anglo vote than he had in losing the state four years ago. The president was able to move the state into his column only by increasing his share of the Hispanic vote by 12 points. In Florida, Bush posted the same results with whites as he had in 2000, but the president increased his share of the Hispanic vote by seven points. Democratic House candidates also got just 55 percent of the Hispanic vote.

Of course, these figures are not without controversy. The William C. Velasquez Institute claims that Bush did no better, and perhaps worse, than have other Republicans. Its exit poll gave 65 percent of the Hispanic vote to Kerry and just 34 percent to Bush. Indeed, all through the election, polls of Hispanics showed markedly different results. Some suggested no deterioration for Democrats, while others suggested real problems. New analyses purport to show inconsistencies in the Hispanic vote projections by the exit pollsters.

But Democrats should stop picking numerical nits and start addressing the problems. Being competitive in the Southwest is central to our future. Once again, getting larger margins among a growing Hispanic population is a sine qua non for being competitive in the region.

Young voters, by contrast, are a real success story for Democrats. Kerry garnered a higher percentage of the under-30 vote than any Democrat, at least since 1972. It also seems clear that turnout increased among younger voters. They did not increase their share of the electorate, but young people needed a turnout increase to continue to provide 17 percent of the vote.

With the country divided on culture, young people are vital assets for Democrats. They are much more open on such issues as abortion and gay rights than are their elders. Moreover, what I euphemistically call the inexorable forces of generational replacement mean that younger voters are continually replacing older ones.

Voters are, importantly, creatures of habit. Once they cast two or three Democratic (or Republican) votes, it is that much harder to get them to switch. We’ve gotten partway there with the under-30 cohort, already getting at least one Democratic vote out of it. If we can earn its votes a few more times, we can begin to lock it in for the long haul.

Young voters and Hispanics are key to our future success. We need to learn from ’04 and then execute.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) this year.