The Latino Tug-of-War

How should partisans on both sides of the aisle lure the influential voting block for the next election?
December 14, 2012 |
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Latino voters garnered considerable attention for their role in reelecting President Barack Obama this year. An estimated 12.5 million Latinos went to the polls on Election Day, and  the number of eligible Latino voters, currently at 23.5 million, is expected to double by 2030, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. As a demographic that overwhelmingly supported Obama, it’s easy to view the Latino vote as a Democratic stronghold. But the group’s rapid growth could prove vital to either party’s policies—and victories—in the future.

Thus, the question of how to capture this voting bloc is hugely important for strategists on both sides of the aisle. But a clear answer on how to do that is elusive. Experts sorted through these issues Monday at “The Decisive Vote?: How Latinos Voted and What It Means for Policy,” an event co-hosted by ImmigrationWorks USA, Arizona State University, and the Woodrow Wilson Center.

One common problem when discussing the Latino vote is the tendency to conflate the group’s vote with its views on immigration policy, said Tamar Jacoby, president and CEO of ImmigrationWorks USA and a 2012 Bernard L. Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation. While Latinos are more likely than the average voter to support a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, they regularly identified the economy as the most important issue facing the country this year. Their feelings toward issues like health care and foreign policy often matched the feelings of the overall electorate.

Still, immigration policy has become a threshold issue. “If you’re OK on immigration, [Latinos] will listen to the rest of [your platform]. If you’re not OK on immigration, they won’t,” said Dan Restrepo, an Obama campaign surrogate and former director of Western Hemisphere Affairs at the National Security Council. Restrepo worked this year to communicate the Obama campaign’s messages to Latinos, and said it was much easier for Democrats to reach this threshold because of the Republican Party’s hardline immigration stance over the last decade. But, he says, Democrats are fooling themselves if they think they’ve locked up the Latino vote. That’s partly because it’s not a unified voting bloc.

Latino communities around the country have different experiences. Communities in California and Texas are often a more established part of the local culture than they are in the more recently populated states of Nevada or Colorado, Restrepo said. In Florida, Cubans have traditionally supported Republicans, while Cubans in New Jersey are one of the most solidly Democratic groups in the country. Broad generalizations of these voters will also skim over the disparate perspectives of Latinos in New York, New Mexico, or Arizona.

At the same time, there’s a significant generational change occurring. “The Latino electorate is young and getting younger,” Restrepo said. There are currently 18 million Latinos who will be eligible to vote as soon as they turn 18. He says their views generally match the broader millennial movement in support of gay marriage, abortion, and other liberal issues.

The question, then, is if future young voters will hold the same values, and if the Republican Party can gain some traction among Latino voters. Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, says no matter what course the GOP takes in the future, the lesson from this year was clear: “Republicans cannot engage Latinos two months before an election… It has to be a continuous effort.”

Aguilar said Mitt Romney proposed terrible policies for Latinos, and waited too long to engage the community in his campaign. In the primary season, Romney advocated a policy of “self-deportation” and criticized Texas Gov. Rick Perry for signing a law that allows children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition for college. Romney softened some of his immigration positions after the primary season, but by that time it was too little, too late. Aguilar said Romney’s failures drove voters to Obama, and that a better candidate in the future could draw Latino support up to the 40 percent George Bush received in 2004.

It’s not an impossible task -- Latinos in many areas have traditionally Republican values, Aguilar said. Many Latino communities are socially conservative, and Republican candidates found that evangelical churches were great places to engage with Latinos during the campaign. Additionally, Latinos are opening small businesses at a rate about three times higher than average, giving Republicans a natural message for outreach.

Both parties see Latinos as a crucial part of their shot at electoral success in the future, but the group’s role as the deciding vote isn’t quite so straightforward.

Roberto Suro, a professor of journalism and policy at the University of Southern California, says 50 to 55 percent of Latino voters are not likely to switch party affiliation.  Even though many Latino Democrats may be upset that Obama did not pursue comprehensive immigration reform in his first term, the Latino communities in New York, California, and Chicago will probably remain among the most liberal voters in the country, for example.

Suro says Romney’s and Bush’s performances—about 30 and 40 percent, respectively—cover the range of Republican support in the Latino community. Had Romney won an extra 10 percent of the Latino vote in every state, only Florida would have switched to a red state, and Nevada would have been a close call.

Looking ahead, though Democrats won the Latino demographic handily this year, they could lose some ground if they can’t deliver on longstanding promises for immigration reform – especially since many Republicans are already eager to discuss more inclusive immigration policies. Whether or not the Latino vote decided the 2012 election, this burgeoning demographic is likely to become an even more powerful voice in upcoming political contests.

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