Getting a Piece … Political Power PieThe Latino population’s diversity makes appealing to this electorate a difficult task By Kendra HamiltonWhen the 2000 Census revealed that the Latino population had become the nation’s most populous minority a decade earlier than projected, the media began speculating how this would translate at the ballot box.
“Will Minorities Take Over America?” asked the Chattanooga Times/Free Press. (September 2000). “Census 2000 Blurs Black-or-White Issue; Some Fear Multiracial Snapshot Could Harm Civil Rights Efforts” said the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (March 2001), while the American Prospect predicted a “Liberal Crack-Up” (November 2001).
But conversations with scholars who study Latino electoral behavior suggest that the hand-wringing, while earnest, is probably ill-informed and certainly premature.
The facts are clear, however. The Latino American population grew 58 percent between 1990 and 2000, making this group — with 35.3 million people and 12.5 percent of the nation’s population, compared with 34.7 million people and 12.3 percent for African Americans — the nation’s largest minority. And if immigration and birth rates remain high, this population is poised to increase its share of the U.S. population in the coming decades.
Equally remarkable have been the gains Latinos have made at the ballot box.
“Going back to 1980, which is when the first reasonably solid data were available, (the Latino electorate) has grown about 20 percent every four years. And that’s a great number; no other large national electorate can match it,” says Dr. Louis DeSipio, a professor of political science at the University of California-Irvine whose many publications include the classroom standard, Counting the Latino Vote: Latinos as a New Electorate (1996).
But there’s more to the picture, DeSipio says.
“What that 20 percent growth obscures is that the number of those eligible who don’t vote is also growing by about that much. So you have two stories. One is increasing numbers turning out every four years. At the same time, even as the numbers grow, you have an equal share not turning out. It’s a glass-half-full-half-empty kind of thing.”
What this means for Latinos is that the political power has failed to keep pace with population growth, adds Dr. Melissa Michelson, an assistant professor of political science at California State University-Fresno. Michelson’s work focuses on the links between government policy and Latino voter mobilization.
“There’s a clear difference between having the numbers to be a potential source of political power and being politicized and mobilized to where you can get a piece of that political power pie,” she explains. And Latinos have not yet bridged that gap.
Michelson calls Latino electoral participation rates “dismal” in comparison to the group’s share of the American population. Indeed, an Associated Press analysis of the 2000 presidential election found that only about a quarter of voting age adults in predominantly Latino neighborhoods voted in the election, compared with 51 percent of the eligible electorate as a whole. Michelson explains that the factors that tend to encourage turnout are not in place among Latinos: Many are not citizens and the Latino population tends to be younger, to have lower-than-average incomes and lower-than-average education levels — all demographics associated with low voter turnout.
“The potential is there,” Michelson adds. “If Latinos were mobilized, they’d have the numbers to make an impact in many states — but they’re not close to realizing that potential yet.”
Latinos may not yet be a political force, but both political parties appear to be looking forward to the day when they will be. The 2000 presidential campaign saw unprecedented outreach efforts aimed at Latino voters. George Bush lost the Latino vote to Al Gore by a 35-to-62 percent margin, but he improved the GOP’s margin substantially over the 21 percent that Bob Dole managed against the Clinton-Gore ticket in 1996.
Until the events of Sept. 11 radically changed the political landscape, Bush kept Latino issues on the front burner. He met with Mexico’s President Vincente Fox five times during his first eight months in office. He even appeased Puerto Rican voters — a highly politicized and strongly Democratic voting bloc — with a pledge to stop the U.S. Navy from using the island of Vieques as a bombing range.
But while these efforts make excellent headlines, they obscure something very important — the Latino population’s diversity makes it quite difficult to appeal to this electorate at the mass level.
“There is no ‘typical Latino voter’ out there. In fact, our joke is, for every five Latinos, you’ll find 12 opinions,” says Raul Damas, a conservative commentator and director of operations with the polling firm Opiniones Latinas, which is based in Alexandria, Va. “The idea that there is ‘a Latino message’ that’s going to pull in these voters across geographic, cultural, educational lines — hopefully, that’s long been put to rest.”
“You have Puerto Ricans in the Northeast who look more like California Mexican Americans in their political behavior, while Texas Mexican Americans”— whom one might expect to have strong ties to Californians — “are (instead) more similar in their views and political behavior to Cuban Americans.” So in no way could the Latino electorate be mistaken for a brown monolith, notes Dr. Rodolfo O. de la Garza, professor of political science at Columbia University and vice president of the Claremont Graduate Institute’s Tomás Rivera Policy Institute, one of the nation’s most respected voices on Latino political issues.
As part of the research team that produced the first large-scale study of Latino political behavior in 1989, de la Garza agrees that the Latino electorate is far from reaching its potential, but he notes that there is one crucial area in which its impact has been felt.
“As a rising group that the Republicans are vying for, Latinos have succeeded in quieting nativist rhetoric of the Republican party,” he says. “If they continue to be successful, they’ll push the Republican party left.”
Indeed, the GOP is still smarting from the backlash against then-California Gov. Pete Wilson’s virulently anti-immigrant Proposition 187, which, among other measures, denied public assistance to legal immigrants.
“There’s all kinds of research, including some of mine, that shows that that really got the Latino population’s attention. If you look at the registration numbers since 1994, (the new voters in California are) more likely to be Democrats,” Michelson says. “They remember. When newly naturalized Mexican Americans take their citizenship test, and they’re asked, ‘By the way, would you like to register to vote?’— eight years later, they’ll say, ‘What party was Pete Wilson? I want to register for the other party.’ “
Not surprisingly, there is disagreement as to whether the Latino electorate is “naturally” Democratic or Republican.
“Regardless of previous voting patterns, we find Latinos to be ideologically well in synch with Republican ideas,” Damas notes.
De la Garza, meanwhile, is more impressed with how consistent Latino public opinion has remained since he participated in the Latino National Political Survey in 1989. “We see, for example, the same pattern of responses on partisanship. There’s been a small decline for the Democrats, but not toward being Republican — toward being uncommitted.
“Latinos remain a centrist to center right group with strong Democratic ties,” he says.
On the critical question of whether the GOP can continue to make inroads with the Latino vote, the experts are cautious.
“It very much depends on their goals,” DeSipio says. “Bush talks about winning the majority of Latino votes. That’s just not going to happen without something cataclysmic occurring. But if the real goal is to get the GOP share to, say, 40 percent in presidential races, then I think that’s quite possible. It won’t happen in 2004, but it could certainly happen in the twenty-teens.”
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