Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Latinos: How Will They Vote?

As the number of Latinos has increased, their collective effect on US politics has also grown. There are more of them and they are spreading out across the country changing the nature of the electorate in a number of states. Data on Latino voters by state can be found here. Latino population fractions by state can be found here. We will continue the practice of using "Hispanic" and "Latino" interchangeably even though the two terms are not precisely equivalent. 

Florida, Nevada, and Colorado are battleground states in the 2012 election, and the number of Latino voters is easily large enough to affect the results. A number of factors have conspired to push the Latino population in the Democratic direction—by roughly two to one. Does this mean that either party should consider Latinos as a homogenous group that can be expected to vote in a certain way? Even if that may be true today, what might the future hold in store?

Ray Suarez addresses these types of questions in an article in Foreign Affairs: Latin Lessons: Who Are Hispanic Americans, and How Will They Vote? Suarez discusses the Latino National Survey (LNS) that concluded in 2006, and the compilation of findings from that study published in Latinos in the New Millenium.

He begins by reminding us that Latinos come from a variety of regions: Mexico, Central America, South America, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and parts of the Caribbean. It would be a stretch to assume that people from such a variety of backgrounds would end up with identical sets of cultural and political values. Understanding Latinos may prove more complex than most political analysts have chosen to admit.

"Strategists and theorists from both major political parties, take heed: making this group yours in the years to come might be much harder than you think. Doing so will require contending with a set of contradictory qualities: progressive politics mixed with conservative values, assimilationist ideals in conflict with hardening ethnic identities, and meritocratic aspirations bumping up against the reality of academic underachievement."

The purpose of the LNS was to produce data that would aid in the understanding of where this growing contingent of Latinos might be heading in the future.

"The social scientists behind the LNS quantify the kinds of thoughts and behaviors that journalists usually explore through less rigorous methods: questions of identity, aspirations, political allegiance, and civic engagement. Perhaps most intriguing, the LNS represents an attempt to tease out just what it means that by 2042, an estimated 40 percent of U.S. residents will be able to trace their families back to the Caribbean, Central America, Mexico, or South America."

One thing that is clear is that the Latinos will not be assimilated and disappear into the "melting pot" as many other immigrants of the past have. The ubiquity of their native language and the ease of maintaining connections with the culture of the land they left through radio and cable television outlets provide important differences. Return visits to the country of origin are relatively easily accomplished. They may choose to maintain cultural differences between themselves and the rest of the population.

There is also the fact that Latinos are generally easy to identify by the darkness of their skin. This could affect how others perceive them, and how they perceive themselves.

"....in a fascinating, if somewhat dispiriting, analysis, Latinos in the New Millennium reveals that the "racialization" of Latinos has as much to do with how Latinos believe they are perceived as it does with how they see themselves. A ‘substantial percentage of Latinos perceive discrimination,’ the authors report, ‘and one response to this perception of being singled out because of their accent, skin color, immigrant origin or ethnic background is a strengthening of ethnic attachment and a sense that Latinos are a distinct racial group. Thus, the paradox is that even as Latinos Americanize, they may increasingly see themselves as part of a distinct ethnic or racial group’."

In terms of political alignment, Latinos tend to be progressive in terms of political and economic issues, and conservative on cultural matters. Much of the latter effect derives from the importance of religion in their lives.

"The LNS showed that two out of three Latinos nationwide either identified or strongly identified with the Democratic Party. When asked about specific issues, such as government support for low-wage workers, government-backed access to health care, the provision of in-state college tuition to illegal immigrants, and creating paths to legal status for illegal immigrants, large majorities of Latinos across all income ranges, educational levels, and national origins chose policies that more closely resemble the positions of the national Democratic Party than those of the GOP."

"When it comes to social issues, such as gay marriage and abortion, most Latinos still hold conservative views that are more in tune with those supported by the Republican Party."

"Religiosity certainly plays a role in shaping those values. More than 70 percent of LNS respondents identified as Catholic, and the survey found that Latinos are relatively devout, with more than half of respondents attending church at least once a week. And although the proportion of Latinos who are Catholic is declining, the Protestant churches to which many Latinos are now flocking -- often seeking a more expressive form of worship -- are just as disapproving of abortion, divorce, and homosexuality as mainstream Catholicism."

Suarez points out that there are nuances to the Latino position on abortion. They recognize the economic necessity that can be associated with reproductive rights, and are sympathetic to progressive politicians even though they may not publicly condone abortion.

"In minority communities with high levels of family dissolution, high rates of unemployment among already low-income male breadwinners, and high numbers of households headed by single women, the issue of abortion has a palpable economic dimension that is rarely reflected by the rather abstract national political debate over reproductive rights. That might explain why African Americans and Latinos tend to support politicians who are pro-choice, even though the dominant black and Hispanic religious groups disapprove of abortion. Republicans hoping to appeal to the presumed religious conservatism of Hispanics might find this complexity a difficult obstacle to overcome."

An interesting cultural insight that emerged from the LNS involves gender equality.

"Although popular culture stereotypes Latino men as macho brutes and Latino women as submissive caregivers, the LNS showed that Latinos hold relatively egalitarian views on gender. Firm majorities of Latinos, across most national groups and socioeconomic levels, supported women's access to birth control, agreed with the concept of "equal pay for equal work," and approved of men and women sharing child-rearing responsibilities."

Those attitudes are more consistent with progressive Democrats than conservative Republicans.

No one knows for sure how all this will gradually play out over succeeding election cycles, but for the time being it appears that the progressive Democrats have the upper hand. Given the growth in Latino population (and other minorities) that is anticipated in the future, it is hard to envisage a viable two-party system where one of the parties insists on alienating such a huge fraction of the population. The Republican Party will have to embrace change.

And wouldn’t the emergence of a third party based on Latino issues make life interesting!

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