The Complex Latino Voter

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

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.

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
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

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”

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

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

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.