Hispanics and National Politics

How Latinos Are Transforming the Electoral Map

(Kevin Lamarque / Courtesy Reuters)

Since Election Day, pundits have broadly disagreed on why Mitt Romney lost. But they have largely agreed on why President Barack Obama won. Experts and strategists in the Republican Party had been predicting that the coalition that elected Obama in 2008 had splintered, was disenchanted, and would be unlikely to vote. They could not have been more wrong: black, young, and Latino voters came out in tremendous numbers, making up a big share of the president’s three-million-plus margin of victory.

In the election postmortems, Latinos have received a special level of attention, and for good reason. According to most estimates, Latino support for Obama was just a whisker short of the record 72 percent Bill Clinton got in 1992. Some reports even put it higher: The polling organization Latino Decisions gave Obama an eye-popping 75 percent of the vote, compared with 23 percent for Romney --a 3:1 margin.

“Almost everything you heard about the Latino vote in advance of the election turned out to be untrue,” said Juan Andrade, president of the U.S. Hispanic Leadership Institute and a longtime organizer and activist. Contrary to forecasts that the Latino vote would fail to materialize, Andrade noted that an estimated 1.5 to two million more Latinos voted this year than in 2008, even though overall turnout was lower this year. This time around, the Latino percentage of the overall national vote -- an estimated 29 million eligible voters -- moved into double digits for the first time, to roughly 11 percent. 

Current demographic trends suggest that that percentage will grow in the decades to come, and if Democrats continue to win lopsided margins among Latinos, it will become nearly impossible for Republicans to win enough Electoral College votes to put a candidate in the White House. This year’s race saw Latinos voting Democratic in swing states such as Colorado and Nevada. Those states, along with California, Florida, and Illinois, could easily remain out of reach for Republicans in the future. Even states solidly in the GOP camp -- such as Georgia, Texas, and Arizona -- are already turning purple and could eventually become blue.

The morning after Obama declared victory, I spoke to Juan Sepulveda, the national Latino coordinator for the Democratic National Committee. He said the outcome was the result of careful planning in advance of election season, with registration drives, field contacts, and banking early votes to avoid problems on Election Day. “Overall, we’re incredibly pleased,” he said. “We carried out our strategy exactly as we planned to carry it out, and we got even better results than we expected.” Sepulveda has no doubt that Latinos gave the president his margin of victory in Virginia, Colorado, and Nevada -- all of which were vital to his victory. 

WHAT HAS NOT COME TO PASS

What can the Republican Party do in the face of a demographic transformation that seems to threaten the GOP’s very status as a national party? I put this question to Stanford University’s Gary Segura, a political scientist who heads the polling group Latino Decisions and is a co-author of Latinos in the New Millennium, a recently published book that examines Hispanic opinions and preferences on a wide range of political and social issues. It is a sobering read for any Republican hoping for better news in the future. “Latinos are just simply not very conservative,” Segura said. Republicans have long believed that they could appeal to Latinos on social issues, especially abortion. But, Segura explained, “Latinos are more conservative than other racial and ethnic groups on the subject of abortion but not wildly so.” When it comes to Latino opposition to abortion rights compared with the general public, he said, “We’re talking about a difference of five to seven points, not a difference of 30 points.”

Moreover, on other social issues, widespread assumptions about Latino conservatism are simply false. “Latinos support same-sex marriage,” Segura said. “We did a poll for Univision a year ago showing that the plurality of Latinos favored same-sex marriage, and then another segment favored civil unions, and only about 25 percent were in the ‘opposed government recognition’ crowd. NBC Latino released a poll showing that 60 percent of Latino registered voters favored same-sex marriage equality. That is not what Ronald Reagan had in mind when he said that Latinos are closet Republicans.”

Once upon a time, there was a hope in GOP circles that because many Latinos are devout Roman Catholics, and a fast-growing minority of them has embraced evangelical Protestant sects, they would eventually make common cause with Republicans. Other Republicans found solace in rising Republican Latino political stars such as Governor Susan Martinez of New Mexico, newly elected Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida. But last week’s elections suggest that, when it comes to Latino voters, economic concerns trump cultural and religious ones. 

There is one other hope among a small sliver of the GOP: Statistics show that Latinos launch an impressive number of small businesses. According to some Republican strategists, this entrepreneurial drive will eventually propel Latinos more securely into the middle class and beyond. As they become more affluent, they will favor the GOP’s platform of lower taxes and fewer regulations. After all, it has worked that way with many immigrant groups in the past. Why, the thinking goes, should Latinos not be like Italians? 

“That had been my assumption. That’s been the assumption built into political science for a long time,” Segura says. But he argues that such a forecast ignores another possibility -- that the Latino electorate will develop in a way similar to the African-American one. “The African-American experience is that as people move into the middle class or the upper class, their political behavior does not diversify,” Segura says. “That’s because they are still connected in meaningful ways” -- especially through family -- “to people who are still wildly disadvantaged.” Political scientists refer to this as “linked fate,” Segura explained: “The idea [is] that if African-Americans do better, everyone does better, and if African-Americans do worse, individual African-Americans will do worse.”

BREAKING OLD HABITS

Already there is talk from left, right, and center on a quick resolution to the nation’s unsolved debates concerning illegal immigration and the millions already living in the country without legal status. You are not likely to hear much talk of “self-deportation,” or the kind of slashing rhetoric heard as anti-Latino among legal residents and the undocumented alike.

Latinos face huge challenges ahead in education, unemployment, and clawing back that two-thirds of household wealth lost in the recession. Immigration is not all they talk about. It is, however, a threshold issue that signals how seriously politicians take Latino concerns. Many Latinos entered the 2012 campaign season convinced that neither party had taken immigration seriously as an issue. Obama had promised immigration reform as a top priority for his first term, while interdicting, detaining, and deporting record numbers of illegal border-crossers.

Republicans said they would be willing to deal on immigration, but Washington had to put “border security first,” refusing to acknowledge that the Obama administration had done anything, even as the country approached “net zero” immigration status with Mexico, meaning that as many people were going back home as attempting to enter the country. One of the Hispanic Congressional Caucus’ leaders on immigration, Illinois Democrat Luis Gutierrez told NPR, “There is pressure on Republicans to change their tune, but there is also pressure on Democrats to deliver.” In the days following the election, Democrats were quick to praise and thank Latino voters, and Republicans were rapidly moderating their previously tough talk.

But old habits die hard. Republicans are not going to change their party overnight. At the same time, though, Democrats will have to resist the temptation to take this growing vote for granted. Both big parties are now on notice: The road to the White House runs through barrios across the United States. Watch closely: Latinos will soon be figuring out what, if anything, their lealtad, or “loyalty,” to Democratic candidates brings them.

 

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