Decoding the Latino Vote

By Jane Burns
Summer 2007

When 40 percent of Latino voters chose President George W. Bush in 2004, headlines trumpeted the unprecedented Latino support for Republicans. But in 2006, just 30 percent of an estimated 6 million Latino votes cast went to Republicans—and closely contested congressional races in which Latinos made up 10 percent or more of all voters yielded four of the 30 net gain seats going to Democrats, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, a Washington, D.C.-based research organization. Now, with the Democrats controlling the House of Representatives for the first time since 1994, the presidential election approaching, and Latino voters possibly deciding whether states such as New Mexico, Nevada and Florida go into the Republican or Democratic column, strategists in both parties are frantically working to decode Latino voters.

“The Latino vote is hard to pigeonhole,” says Harry Pachon, professor of public policy at the University of Southern California. “It’s conservative on right-to-life, welfare and gay rights issues, but liberal on taxation, social services, gun control and active government. Which facet of the jewel do you look at, conservative or liberal? People make the mistake of trying to cram Latino voters into one category, and it’s self-defeating in the long run.”

At least there’s a good understanding of the size of the Latino voting bloc. For starters, the U.S. Latino population—an estimated 41.3 million out of a total population of nearly 294 million in 2004,
according to a June 2005 U.S. Census Bureau report—is the nation’s largest ethnic minority. It is growing faster than any other ethnic category, accounting for nearly half the nation’s total population
increase between 2000 and 2004, the bureau report says.

With about 425,000 native-born Latinos turning 18 every year since 2000, the Latino electorate —meaning citizens of voting age—is growing much faster than the non-Latino electorate, according to Pew researchers. In 2006, 17.2 million Latinos were eligible to vote, 8.6 percent of the 201.2 million-strong total U.S. electorate, they estimate. That was up from 8.2 percent (16.1 million Latino eligible voters) in 2004 and 7.4 percent (13.9 million) in 2000. Currently, 25 percent of Latino voters are naturalized citizens, and 75 percent are nativeborn, according to Pew.

Looking ahead, Strategic Telemetry, a Washington, D.C., political consulting firm working with the Hispanic Voter Project at Johns Hopkins University, projects that growth in the voting-age Latino
population will account for 44 percent of growth in the total U.S. voting age population between 2004 and 2020, compared to a 17 percent growth rate for non-Latino whites, 14 percent for African-Americans, 15 percent for Asian-Pacific Americans and 1 percent for Native Americans.

Being the nation’s fastest-growing electorate is one thing. Voting is another. In 2004, 57.9 percent of Latino citizens of voting age were registered to vote, compared to a 68.7 percent registration rate for African-Americans and 73.6 percent for whites, according to the Census Bureau. Estimates by the William C. Velasquez Institute (WCVI), a San Antonio-based Latino policy and research think tank, find that of 9.86 million registered Latino voters in 2006, 5.81 million actually went to the polls, casting some 7 percent of all 83 million votes.

One explanation for low Latino voter participation is the Latino electorate’s youth. Across all voting groups, young people are less likely to vote, and in 2004, Pew found, Latinos made up about 8 percent of the total U.S. electorate but 12 percent of its members aged 18 to 24. Poverty and lack of education also correlate with low registration, according to Ruy Teixeira, a joint fellow at the Center
for American Progress and the Century Foundation, Washington, D.C.-based think tanks. And many foreign-born citizens do not participate because they are afraid to give personal information or grew
up where voting was “either irrelevant or dangerous,” says Maria Echaveste, a fellow at the Center for American Progress and lecturer at the University of California’s Boalt School of Law.

But according to Gonzalez, the important numbers are Latino votes cast and their share of the total. “As long as you have a constantly growing universe of eligible voters and your population is young and you have new citizens, you’re hard pressed to increase registration and turnout numbers,” he explains. The Latino share of the total vote increased from 5.3 percent in the 2002 general election, says the Census Bureau, to 7 percent in 2006, according to WCVI estimates. And Latinos cast about 7.6 million votes in the 2004 presidential election, according to the Census Bureau. “When the Latino turnout is 12 million votes, Latinos will be electing tons of Latino legislators and deciding elections,”
predicts Gonzalez, projecting that between 9 and 10 million Latinos will vote in the 2008 election thanks to registration drives and voter excitement.

With those numbers, it’s no surprise Bush selected Florida’s Latino Republican senator, Mel Martinez, as Republican National Committee chairman. With variations by states and regions of the country, some 60 to 65 percent of Latinos generally identify as Democrats, and between 20 and 30 percent as Republicans, according to University of Washington political scientist Luis Fraga. (Florida Cuban-Americans tend to vote Republican, although that identification has been declining: In 2006, for example, Democrat Luis Garcia won the state House race for the district including Little Havana in
Miami.) Naturalized-citizen voters tend to have weak initial partisan identification, says Fraga, but succeeding generations increasingly identify as Democrats until hitting the 60 to 65 percent plateau in the fourth generation, while Republican identification remains fairly stable.

Many foreign-born U.S. citizens do not participate in elections because they are afraid to give personal information or grew up where voting was “either irrelevant
or dangerous.”

Teixeira says Latinos tend to be Democrats because, among things, they don’t have prejudices against big government. “It’s an immigrant-based population, and government here works pretty well compared to the places they come from—they support government that costs more and provides more services than one that costs less and provides less.” Republican National Committee director of Hispanic communications Hessy Fernandez contends otherwise: “It’s been shown the majority of Latinos supported the president’s tax cuts in 2001 and 2003, and most Democrats voted against those tax cuts.”

Fraga believes that all voters make choices based on what he calls the “underlying predisposition”—including a voter’s partisan preferences, those of her or his parents, what’s going on in their party or state—and the candidates, what they are saying and the issues. “It’s always a
combination of these two things,” he says. “And we know that some of the issues that are important to all Americans at any point in time are also important to sizable numbers of Latinos, and that can coincide with Latinos understanding that issues important to them are different than those for the rest of the country.”

In 2006, immigration was the issue Latinos understood mattered most to them. They are far from uniform in their preferences for immigration reform: When the wcvi interviewed 1,320 Latinos
nationwide as they exited polls in 2006, fewer than half said allowing illegal immigrants to remain in the U.S. and become citizens if they worked and paid back taxes came closest to their view. Many Latinos, though, were angered by the language and images that some Republican candidates used in discussing immigration. “The way candidates communicate about immigration is a gauge by which Latinos measure the level of respect or the perspective that a candidate or political party has for their community,” says Clarissa Martinez De Castro, director of state policy and advocacy for the National Council of La Raza, a Latino rights advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C.

Compared to other voters, Latino voters know a great deal about immigration issues, because the Latino press covers them extensively. “They know it was the House that voted for stringent and draconian measures, and that Democrats were more liberal, so immigration was clearly one of the drivers in the 2006 election,” says Pachon. But Latino voters are citizens, he points out, which makes immigration a concern, but not a major one.

As Latino voters assimilate, they appear to become more conservative about immigration policy. When the 2006 Latino National Survey asked 8,600 Latinos, just 13 percent of third-generation and 16 percent of fourth-generation Latino residents said their top policy preference was “immediate legalization” of the undocumented. Second-generation (24 percent) and foreign-born, first-generation (55 percent) residents were likelier to prefer immediate legalization.

Like many voters, Latinos put economic issues at the top of their list. When WCVI 2006 exit poll interviewers asked Latino voters which one issue mattered most in deciding how they voted for Congress or the Senate, the issue most cited was economy/jobs at 19.6 percent, closely followed by education (17.8 percent) and the Iraq war (17.7 percent). “It was pretty much what we expected,”
Gonzalez says. “Immigration has never been at the top, and we didn’t think it would be as high as the others.”

Education policy is generally more important to Latino voters than to other voters. “Latinos believe education, which government provides, will make them more upwardly mobile,” Teixeira says. In
a 2004 Pew Hispanic Center and Kaiser Family Foundation survey asking registered Latinos which issues would be “extremely important” in determining their votes that fall, education drew the biggest response, at 54 percent of respondents, followed by the economy and jobs and health care and Medicare, both at 51 percent. (Compared with the general population, Latinos have a “long-standing
difference” in their emphasis on education, the survey report said, citing a broader Pew 2004 study in which education ranked seventh among issues voters most wanted to hear presidential candidates discuss.)

Moral values issues are also key for Latinos. But no study has found positions on abortion and free choice or gay marriage to be determinative in the vast majority of Latino voter decisions, Fraga says: “It doesn’t mean they don’t have preferences, but that these are not the issues upon which most wish to cast their votes.” The Latinos likelier to base their votes on these issues are Pentecostal and evangelical Christians, according to Pachon.

Pachon believes Latino voters generally resonate to the same currents as mainline American voters, and in that respect the determining issue for them in 2006 was the war in Iraq. “Spanish television carries European coverage of the war, which is very anti-American,” he says. “Latinos think the war is a mistake and they’ve been saying that since 2004. Fourteen percent of Marines in Iraq are of Hispanic descent, and the Marines, along with units of the National Guard, have been taking the heaviest casualties.”

Looking ahead to 2008, Fraga doesn’t see Latinos giving more than about 30 percent of their votes to Republicans: “When Bush is not the candidate, Latinos go back to their traditional partisan predispositions.” Bush takes a moderate, respectful position on immigration policy, speaks a broken “Tex-Mex” Spanish comfortably, and supported undocumented immigrants’ rights when he was governor of Texas. “Latinos like Bush, but they don’t like other Republicans in the same way,” Fraga says.

But Tamar Jacoby, a senior fellow who studies immigration for the Manhattan Institute think tank in New York, believes the gop’s appeal to Latinos goes beyond Bush. They are natural Republicans, she says: “They have conservative social values, they want schools that work, they are entrepreneurs and their families are the most important thing.”

The “ugly language” some Republicans used in discussing immigration in 2006 overwhelmed the issues that matter most to Latino voters, Jacoby says. “Republicans need to go out and repudiate the language and tone of the last years and start telling Latinos they understand they are valuable Americans. The hard part now is turning the ship around. It takes a candidate who understands the Latino community and is willing to invest the time and money and get the tone right. The GOP needs 30 to 40 percent of the Latino vote to remain a competitive national party.”

Going forward, just a 20 to 30 percent share of the Latino vote hardly makes the Latino vote a lost cause for Republicans, according to Fraga: “Anywhere the difference between a winner and loser is less than 20 percent, like in Florida where the vote splits pretty closely, 20 to 30 percent of the Latino vote is extremely valuable.”

Gonzalez sees it differently. “Republicans will become a permanent minority party if they can’t get more than 30 percent of the Latino vote as it grows,” he says. “That’s what Karl Rove [gop strategist and Bush’s deputy chief of staff] gets. He doesn’t get the part about selling Latinos what they want to buy. Republicans have to move to the center to take more Latino votes. Latinos like taxes—they get the benefits of them, like health care and schools. The average white voter is crying about how
good things used to be. Latinos say build things up so we and our kids can enjoy them in the future.”

Jane Burns is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.


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