The Complex Latino Voter

Recent polls show that much of the common wisdom about the Latino vote is iffy at best.

| Thu Aug. 5, 2004 3:00 AM EDT

U.S. Latinos, with a population of nearly 40 million, are the nation's largest minority. They're also perhaps some of its most misunderstood voters. The conventional wisdom is that Latinos are social conservatives and that U.S. immigration policy is one of the most important issues -- if not THE issue -- upon which the Latino votes are lost or gained. Latinos -- 7 million of whom are expected to vote in this year's election -- are traditionally a Democratic constituency, and indeed John Kerry has a 2-1 advantage among Latinos over George Bush, according to polls. But the Latino vote is far from monolithic, and Latinos' values and voting behavior aren't as predictable as many think.

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Democrats and Republicans -- who between them are spending an unprecedented $17 million on Spanish language ads -- would do well to take a look at recent polls by Pew Hispanic Center /Kaiser Family Foundation and the Washington Post/Univision/Tomas Rivera Policy Institute (TRPI), which debunk some of the common wisdom. As it turns out, Latino voters are not staunch social conservatives, and their presidential pick won't be determined by the candidates' stances on immigration.

Both Bush and Kerry have neglected voters -- Latino or otherwise -- in California, New York, and Texas, the former two expected to be won safely by Kerry, the latter falling securely into the Bush column. Since most Latinos reside in those three states, it is safe to say that this election year, they will be feeling especially ignored. Not so for the Latino communities in the purple states of New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, Florida, Wisconsin and Colorado. While Wisconsin and Colorado may not be the first names that come to mind when thinking about the Latino vote, the growing Latino populations there may just decide the election. For example, Latinos make up 4 percent of the population of Wisconsin, a state that Bush lost to Gore in 2000 by just 5,700 votes.

The majority of Latinos -- 62 percent -- disapprove of the way Bush is handling the war in Iraq, but it is a less salient issue than the economy and education. According to the Washington Post/Univision/TRPI poll, 33 percent of registered Latino voters named the economy as the "single most important issue" on which they would base their vote, 18 percent education, 15 percent terrorism, and 13 percent the war in Iraq. By contrast, 20 percent of all registered voters named the war in Iraq as the "single most important" issue.

The Washington Post/Univision/TRPI poll did not offer immigration as one of the choices (a puzzling omission), but the earlier Pew Hispanic Center/Kaiser Family Foundation poll echoed its findings. When asked to name those issues that were "extremely important" in determining their vote, 54 percent of registered Latinos named education, 51 percent economy and jobs, another 51 percent health care, 45 percent terrorism, and 40 percent the war in Iraq. Immigration trailed behind these and several other issues with 27 percent. There was a wide consensus across party lines among Latinos on healthcare: 61 percent of both Democrats and Republicans said that they would be willing to pay higher taxes and insurance premiums for government to provide health insurance for the uninsured.

The Pew Hispanic Center/Kaiser Family Foundation poll also showed that Latinos were deeply divided on abortion and gay marriage, defying the stereotype that they are socially conservative and hence, a natural constituency for the Republicans. When asked if they supported the proposed federal amendment banning gay marriage, 45 percent favored it, while 48 percent opposed it. 49 percent said that abortion should be legal either in all or most cases, while 44 percent said that it should be illegal in all or most cases.

Latinos lack high-ranking positions on either campaign, and Kerry in particular has come under criticism for failing to represent this traditionally Democratic constituency, especially given that Bush appointed Latinos to positions of power as president. Bush of course has successfully cultivated the Latino vote since his days as Governor of Texas and it does not hurt the president that he speaks a little bit of Spanish (same goes for the Democratic camp with Teresa Heinz Kerry being a fluent-Spanish speaker). The president's brother Jeb has done well among Latinos as Governor of Florida, which will once again be one of the mostly closely watched states this presidential election. Some excitement was generated by Kerry's consideration of New Mexico's Latino Governor Bill Richardson for the veep spot, but Richardson withdrew his name from the running. Richardson of course chaired last month's Democratic National Convention (he closed the proceedings in Spanish) and made New Mexico quite popular among delegates by handing out 6,000 jars of his signature salsa.

Washington Post columnist Marcela Sanchez has criticized both parties for paying too much attention to immigration and Cuba when presenting their case to Latinos, given that those are not the most important issues to these voters. Arguing that a more "nuanced courtship" of the Latino voter is needed, Sanchez has also blamed stereotyping for the record amount of money spent on Spanish-language ads this year, pointing out that 80 percent of registered Latinos are primarily English-speakers. However, according to the Washington Post/ Univision/TRPI poll, 65 percent of these voters say that the candidate's ability to address them in Spanish is either "very important" or "somewhat important." Ironically, Spanish-language advertising maybe more critical for the Republican Party -- usually not known for its support of bilingualism -- because immigrants are seen as more likely to vote Republican than the U.S.-born Latinos. Republican Party Chairman Ed Gillespie, noting that "a slight shift among Hispanic voters" in states like New Mexico and Florida "can tip the Electoral College," said that Republicans "do better in households where Spanish is the principal language." In short, the parties are playing their cards right in terms of the language of the message, but as the recent polls suggest, it is the message itself that needs fine-tuning.

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