Five myths about Latino voters

By Valerie Martinez-Ebers,

At their recent national conventions, the Democratic and Republican parties featured high-profile Latino speakers: San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinezand Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, among others. This effort reflected the growing influence of Hispanic politicians, as well as the parties’ need to appeal to Hispanic voters. But what motivates those Voters? There are countless misunderstandings about Latinos, their allegiances and their interests.

1. Latinos do not vote.

They do vote — and in increasing numbers. According to the Census Bureau’s most recent Current Population Survey Report, the number of Latino voters grew from less than 4 million in 1988 to 9.7 million in 2008. In 2012, the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials expects at least 12.2 million Latinos to cast their votes, an increase of 26 percent over 2008. As a share of the total national electorate, Latinos have grown from 3.6 percent in 1988 to 7.4 percent in 2008, and they could be 9 percent of the voters in November.

Although only 55 percent of eligible Hispanic Americans are registered to vote, about 70 percent of those registered consistently turn out. Their impact is obvious in states such as California, which Latinos help make solidly Democratic, and Florida, without which no Republican can win the White House. And this November, the Latino vote will be pivotal in several battleground states such as Colorado, Nevada, Arizona and Virginia.

2. Latinos are social conservatives who should lean Republican.

Although Latinos are more conservative than many other groups in their views on same-sex marriage and abortion, these issues do not predict the party they affiliate with.

Nationally, Latinos identify more as Democrats than as Republicans by more than 3 to 1, according to the Pew Research Center. The Democratic advantage is even higher in states such as New York and New Jersey. And there are variations among Hispanic groups; this is not a monolithic voting bloc. Puerto Ricans identify more as Democrats than do Mexican Americans, for example.

Cuban Americans are the only group of Hispanic origin to prefer the Republican Party, though their attachment to the GOP is declining. For example, in South Florida’s Miami-Dade County, where approximately half of all Cuban Americans in the country reside, Republican identification among that group dropped from 68.5 percent in 2004 to 59 percent in 2008. Cuban American Republicans are more likely to say they are “pro-choice” and are more supportive of government-provided health care than Mexican American Democrats.

3. Latinos favor increased government services and therefore are reliable Democratic voters.

Latinos have historically cast most of their votes for Democratic candidates, but that support has fluctuated depending on various factors, including the candidate’s outreach or appeal to Hispanics and his or her policy positions. So even if Latinos support increasing government services — which they do — that does not automatically make them Democrats.

For example, the percentage of Latinos voting for Democratic presidential candidates has ranged from a high of 85 percent in 1960, when they are credited with providing the slim margin of victory for John F. Kennedy in Texas and other key states, to a low of 56 percent in 1980 for incumbent Jimmy Carter when he lost to Ronald Reagan.

Four years ago, 67 percent of Latino voters supported Barack Obama, but it is not at all certain that he will keep that level of support this time. Latinos are not blind followers of Obama. Tracking polls by ImpreMedia-Latino Decisions show that their enthusiasm for the president dropped precipitously in 2010 and 2011 when his administration didn’t deliver on its promises for immigration reform and when deportations of illegal immigrants spiked.

4. Latino voters care most about immigration.

Recent tracking polls of Latino registered voters show that they are most concerned about job creation and fixing the economy. Immigration reform ranks second in importance, followed closely by education and health care.

That is not saying that Latino voters are unconcerned about the ongoing prosecution and deportation of undocumented immigrants; you cannot separate the concerns of Latino citizens from those of illegal immigrants. Many families include legal citizens and undocumented aliens, and according to a 2011 ImpreMedia-Latino Decisions poll, 53 percent of registered Latino voters know someone who is here and undocumented, and 25 percent know someone who has faced detention or deportation for immigration reasons.

Even U.S.-born Latinos are not indifferent to the problems of undocumented immigrants. Polls show a strong consensus among Latino voters for reform that provides an earned pathway for legalization and possible citizenship.

5. Latino voters are swayed by the presence of a Latino candidate on the ballot.

Many people assume that Latinos are more likely to vote for a Latino candidate, or even just a Spanish-speaking one. But this is true only if that candidate’s issue positions are congruent with the Latino voter’s concerns and policy preferences. Indeed, substantive positions matter more than a last name or skin color.

In the 2010 New Mexico gubernatorial election, for example, Democrat Diane Denishreceived 61 percent of the Latino vote, while Republican Susana Martinez — with her tough stance on immigration and border control — got only 38 percent. (Martinez still won.)

And though Republican Marco Rubio won a majority of the Latino vote in his Florida Senate race that same year, this was largely because of support from his own Cuban American community. Among non-Cuban Latinos, Rubio won only 40 percent of the vote.

Valerie Martinez-Ebers is a professor of political science at the University of North Texas and a co-editor of the American Political Science Review. She is a co-author of “Latino Lives in America: Making It Home” and “Latinos in the New Millennium.”

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