Will Latino Voters Doom Meg Whitman?

FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver has given Jerry Brown a 75 percent chance of beating out Meg Whitman in the California race for governor. The site's aggregated polling shows Brown leading Whitman by only three points, but Silver's legendary simulations give Brown much more security than these polls would suggest.

One factor likely affecting Brown's rise is Whitman's recent housekeeper hullabaloo. Last week, attorney Gloria Allred held a press conference in which Nicandra Diaz Santillan, who worked as Whitman's housekeeper for nine years, accused Whitman of exploitation and emotional and financial abuse. Diaz claimed that Whitman had known of Diaz's illegal status for years, but that when Diaz asked her boss for help obtaining legal residency, Whitman fired her on the spot.

Whitman claims she did not know that Diaz was in the country illegally until Diaz asked for help with her papers, and that she had no choice but to fire her at that time.

Diaz's teary face has been broadcast across California's Spanish-language TV networks, her claims against Whitman replayed again and again. While this appears to be a serious hit for the Whitman campaign, Hector Barajas, Whitman's spokesman, argues that it could end up being a net plus.

Recommended Reading

"As long as they continue to talk about this particular issue, we're starting to see a shifting of the tide, especially in Spanish-language television," he said. "The other information that's been very helpful is that [Diaz] was getting paid $23 an hour to work 15 hours a week. She used to bring her kids over and they used to play soccer in Meg Whitman's backyard. She and Meg exchanged gifts at Christmas."

Not that the story hasn't tripped up Whitman's campaign. "The first day stories were very difficult," Barajas admits. "But going into the third and fourth day, the responses from [viewers of Spanish-language television who commented on the networks' websites or Facebook pages] are saying that Nicky Diaz shouldn't have used false documents, and how could she turn her back on an employer who was paying her nearly three times the minimum wage in California."

The Latino vote is a pivotal issue in both the governor's and Senate race in California this year, with candidates running countless Spanish-language ads and walking a careful line on immigration. 

Polling Latino voters, however, can be difficult. Nate Silver explains why linking Brown's resurgence to Whitman's housekeeper saga may be premature:

Any impact may be hard to measure because it might be felt most among Hispanic voters, and the polls were already in disagreement about how many of their votes Ms. Whitman might gain. About 40 percent of Hispanic voters in California prefer to speak Spanish to pollsters, according to the research firm Latino Decisions, and these voters may be underrepresented in some polls.

Still, the allegations are obviously not helpful to Ms. Whitman, whose campaign has reacted with a certain lack of dexterity -- with Ms. Whitman, for instance, having volunteered to take a polygraph test to rebut them.

In late September, the Los Angeles Times released a poll of Latino voters that had been conducted in English and Spanish. Its respondents gave Brown a 19-point lead over Whitman, and Sen. Barbara Boxer a 38-point lead over Republican challenger Carly Fiorina. A Rasmussen poll conducted after the Diaz scandal broke found that likely Hispanic and Asian voters favored Brown over Whitman by a whopping 65 to 7 percent. A Field poll from July, in contrast, found a mere 11-point gap between the two candidates, with 50 percent of likely Latino voters favoring Brown and 39 percent favoring Whitman.

While Barajas is not thrilled with the 35 percent of Latino voters the LA Times poll found favoring Whitman, he points out that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger won only a third of the Latino vote in 2003. "We're not exactly where we want to be, per se, but we're going to continue to fight for every single vote across California," Barajas said. "As long as Gloria Allred continues to parade [Diaz] around ... I think people are starting to look at it for what it is, a political sideshow that has really been devastating to the voters."

But Allred isn't all Whitman has to worry about. The Service Employees International Union has followed a $5-million Spanish-language ad campaign focusing on Diaz with a Spanish-language ad featuring Cesar Chavez's grandniece, who laments Whitman's opposition to illegal immigrants attending state universities.

Whitman's campaign plans to counter such attacks with more Spanish-language TV and radio ads of its own, several mailings, and targeted advertising on Spanish-language websites.

Whoever wins in November, the next four weeks will prove just how vital the Hispanic vote is to candidates running for office in California--and indicate what they will have to do to win.