By The Bakersfield Californian
It's nice to see more national recognition for a hero of Latino-American culture and the poorest of the nation's working poor. But few in Kern County or anywhere else are naive enough to believe that President Obama's honor-conferring Oct. 8 visit to Cesar Chavez's headquarters in the mountain burg of Keene, 30 miles east of Bakersfield, is anything more than a campaign stop.
Obama will blow through the United Farm Workers' property, known as La Paz, just long enough to announce the establishment of a Cesar E. Chavez National Monument, an act of presidential privilege authorized under the Antiquities Act. Obama is not the first president to make such a decree on Kern Country soil, but he is the first to find the time to do so in the midst of a harried, tension-filled campaign that just happens to be taking place against a backdrop of troubling international developments.
Obama is, quite clearly, making this pilgrimage to shore up support among the nation's Latino voters.
But he's in good company. Mitt Romney also covets Latino voters -- or as many of them as he can possibly get. After months of saying very little about immigration, Romney announced recently that he would not attempt to reverse Obama's order blocking the deportation of hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants under the age of 30 who came to the U.S. as children.
California is not in play in this election, of course -- it will go Obama's way. Romney and Obama have no reason to swing through the Golden State except to scoop up campaign donations. Or, as Obama makes clear, to pander to a vital voting bloc. Latinos comprise a major portion of the electorate in Colorado, Nevada, Florida and other states.
Romney had little choice but to endorse Obama's immigration order. Once he secured the Republican nomination, he was free to move to the center -- a place he inhabits comfortably anyway -- but the popularity of the order forced his hand. Obama has opened a 50-percentage-point lead over Romney among likely Latino voters, 72 percent to 22 percent, according to the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.
The U.S. has some 11 million Latinos who are registered to vote. Winning a significant share of their support will make a difference for someone on Election Day. But the challenge for Obama isn't so much keeping them from defecting to Romney, it's getting them to vote at all: Voter turnout tends to be lower among Latinos than other groups. Obama badly needs to energize them.
Romney might have tried to stifle Latino votes -- and many will argue that's precisely what the new voter ID laws in several states are intended to do -- but he has gone after those voters instead, rolling out Spanish-language television commercials in key, Latino-heavy battlegrounds.
Latino voters are among a small group of constituencies that will choose the next American president.
That's why gestures like the creation of a Cesar E. Chavez National Monument matter in the transparent world of election-eve politics. It's not that Chavez, who gave his life to the cause of bettering farmworkers' lot, doesn't deserve lasting recognition. It's that Obama is bestowing that recognition with one eye on the polls.