Against a backdrop of ever-changing polls, the debate last night highlighted the essential political question for Americans – certainly for Mitt Romney’s disdained 47-percent and most assuredly for HispanicLatinos: Whether they believe the tiger trying mightily to shear his stripes. All Americans have heard – and seen on videotape – Romney denigrate HispanicLatinos and dismiss at least 47 percent of the American people at a time when national unity is elementally important. We do not know what he might think of undecided voters after last night. The polls will soon enough begin to tell the latest version of the tale but no one knows what other images of the candidates – stripes or no stripes – the optical nerves of 70 million Americans sent to their brains.
Did they see a President in Barack Obama or did they see through the superficial arguments that Romney floats into the air hoping that the weight of truth does not crash them back to earth? The debate and its results are important but there seems to be more going on with the innumerable polls that change storylines from day to day. Polls of states are more reliable than national polls, and so what is happening in Arizona might be instructive. Indeed, Arizona might be the most important state in the 2012 election. And the polls after the debate in Arizona will probably conclude that the public has seen enough of the campaign.
The race in Arizona was not expected to be close but some surveys show that the contest for its 11 electoral votes is tight. If so, Romney could be running into the Pete Wilson effect that Romney has managed somehow to expand to include 47 percent of Americans and perhaps undecided voters.
Pete Wilson, readers will remember, was the Republican governor of California that converted it into a reliably Democratic state. When Wilson went on his anti-immigrant rampage that scapegoated HispanicLatinos in 1994, he set in motion the same kind of dynamics now making the Romney campaign nervous about next-door neighbor Arizona. There is every reason to believe that HispanicLatinos in that state see in Republican Gov. Jan Brewer what their counterparts in California saw in Wilson. And so, in short time, HispanicLatinos helped turn Republicans out of every statewide office. And how can the 47 percent not see Romney in similar ways, of someone who is not and will not ever be in their corner?
In many ways as it almost always does, California foreshadowed the future. It was in California where the components of the new demography changing America first expressed themselves politically. HispanicLatinos, African Americans, women, progressives, gays and lesbians and a more tolerant electorate banded together to undo the Republican party there. So, now, too, Arizona might have taken up the same task with a new Democratic coalition incorporating a huge slice of its population, the 47 percent.
With HispanicLatino voter registration up in Arizona, Romney’s 47-percenters might as well have been immigrants in Wilson’s day. The electoral formula that worked in California – take the Democratic party base and add a dash of HispanicLatino – is being replicated in Arizona, but with a twist: The missing progressive-Hollywood-Jewish-union component in California is being replaced by a large portion of Arizona’s Medicare-worried elderly who are charter members of the 47-Percent Club.
The presidential election probably will have been decided by the time the polls close in Arizona on Election Day, but what a kick in the pants it would be if the state’s new demography and the California formula gave Obama the electoral-vote margin he needed to win. That would make for a long, sweaty night. More likely, if Arizona votes Democratic, Virginia, Ohio or Florida by then will have re-elected Obama. But news might yet come from Arizona that night if its Californiazation elects Richard Carmona, a HispanicLatino, to the U.S. Senate.
If Arizona goes for Obama or elects Carmona to the Senate or if the margins are close in a Republican win, it will have proved its all-importance in 2012 by setting the stage already for 2016 by pointing directly to the next prize in the sight of the new demography: Texas, the last Republican electoral redoubt.
Now that is a tiger worth changing stripes.
Jesse Treviño is formerly editorial page editor of The Austin American-Statesman.