La Voz: Mobilizing the Latino Vote in 2008

Historically, the Latino vote has been difficult to identify and mobilize in U.S. general elections, and there have been very few occasions in which the Latino population has made its political presence deeply felt. The widely commented upon social and political diversity of this population makes it tough for politicians to address issues that concern the entire Latino electorate in the U.S. Additionally, due to low registration rates, the Latino vote is only a relatively tiny portion of the entire American electorate, with politicians tending to cater their campaigns to larger audiences. However, given the narrow margins of victory that characterized the last two presidential elections, capturing and then activating the Latino vote could provide the edge that the next presidential candidate needs to win.

Past Mobilizations
Though still minimal, the recent voting patterns of Latinos in the U.S. indicate increasing interest in the U.S. political process. In 2006, the Pew Hispanic Center estimated that 5.6 million out of the total Latino population of 44 million voted in U.S. mid-term elections, amounting to a mere 5.8 percent of all votes cast. Moreover, only 13 percent of the total Latino population voted in 2006, far less than the 39 percent of whites and 27 percent of blacks who cast ballots in the election.

Despite the often apparent indifference of the Latino electorate to the ballot box, there are two prominent occasions that can be considered high-points in Latino mobilization. First, in 1994, Latinos organized against California’s Proposition 187 (also known as the “Save Our State” initiative) in order to combat what they saw as a violation of immigrant rights. The proposition, which became law in November of that year, but was later overturned by a federal court, denied public benefits such as health care, education, and other services normally afforded to illegal immigrants. The upheaval surrounding the proposition’s passage arose from the fact that it was specifically aimed against California’s Latino immigrant population, which subsequently responded in large numbers to protest the passage of the bill. Thousands of mostly Latino students walked out of schools in a series of protests against the proposition. In addition, thousands more attended impromptu protests with speakers and musical groups to express their indignation over Prop 187.

The second instance of significant Latino mobilization came in 2006 against the “Border Protection, Anti-Terrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005,” which proposed the construction of a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border and prohibited assistance to undocumented immigrants. This piece of legislation provoked mass marches through the streets of Los Angeles. “La Gran Marcha” took place on March 25th, 2006 and 750,000 people marched through the city. Nevertheless, the largest demonstration in a long series of protests occurred on April 10th in cities across the country, where crowds of up to 500,000 actively decried the measure.

The Latino Voter
It has become increasingly difficult to quantify the Latino voter as the population continues to diversify itself ethnically, economically, and socially. Politicians can no longer easily predict the hot-button issues of high interest in Latino communities. Moreover, Latinos cannot be clumped together in terms of attitudes and political tendencies, since diversity curbs the ability to readily do so.

Currently, 75 percent of eligible Latino voters are native born and 48 percent of these are third-generation U.S. citizens. These numbers indicate that it is no longer safe to assume that often racially-charged issues, such as immigration, are universally pertinent to Latinos, due to the population’s changing demographics. Ethnic differences have become increasingly apparent in the voting patterns and party alignment of Latinos in the United States. The 2006 National Survey of Latinos found that 28 percent of Cubans, 15 percent of Mexicans, 11 percent of Puerto Ricans, and 7 percent of Central and South Americans considered themselves Republicans. Meanwhile, 20 percent of Cubans, about 50 percent of Puerto Ricans, and 29 percent of Mexicans and Central and South Americans considered themselves Democrats. Like all constituents, Latinos are likely to be influenced by the political trends among voters in the regions in which they live.

Education levels and economic status also influence voting decisions. Although Latinos are the most rapidly growing minority population in the U.S., their education levels pale in comparison to those of other groups. For instance, by fourth grade, only 16 percent of Latino students are proficient in reading compared to 41 percent of white students. In 2005, only 11 percent of Latinos had received a bachelor’s degree as compared to over 34 percent of whites and over 17 percent of blacks. These statistics are alarming given education’s high correlation to voting patterns. In the 2006 midterm elections, only 39.5 percent of individuals with less than a high-school diploma voted, compared to 84.2 percent of those with an advanced degree.

Furthermore, economic status influences voter turnout. The aforementioned study found that 48.3 percent of those whose family income is less than $20,000 a year voted, as compared to 81.3 percent of those with a family income of over $100,000. Yet, only 11.7 percent of Latino families fall into the upper fifth quintile of income, whereas 23.7 percent fall into the lowest quintile. Additionally, the Latino population is much younger than the rest of the U.S. population, making Latinos statistically less likely to vote. In fact, an astonishingly high 46 percent of all Latinos in the U.S. are younger than 25.

Cuban-Americans defy the norms of the typical Latino voter because they tend to be extremely politically active and much more likely to vote Republican than most Latinos. This trend can be partially explained by many Cuban-Americans’ staunch opposition to the Castro regime and their avid support for the current U.S. embargo against Cuba. Furthermore, according to a Pew Hispanic Center report, “compared with the rest of the Hispanic population in the United States, Cubans are older, have a higher level of education, higher median household income and higher rate of home ownership.” These tendencies signify that there is a higher likelihood that Cuban-Americans will vote. In fact, although they make up only four percent of the Latino population in the U.S., Cuban-Americans comprise six percent of the Latino voting population.

The 2008 Presidential Election
Although the Democratic Party has consistently captured an overwhelming percentage of the Latino vote in past presidential elections, the 2004 elections saw a record 40 percent of Latinos voting for Republican candidate George W. Bush. However, the 2006 midterm elections showed a return to previous patterns, with a significant fraction of Congressional seats retaken by Democrats, many with large Latino electorates. For instance, in California’s 11th District, Democrat Jay McNery beat incumbent Richard Pombo due in part to the district’s 19.7 percent Latino make-up, which was successfully mobilized by voter-registration campaigns.

As the 2008 presidential election rapidly approaches, both Barack Obama and John McCain have been positioning themselves to try to secure the Latino vote. Although past mobilization of the Latino electorate has concentrated on immigration issues, these platforms were developed largely in response to specific restrictive policies. The evolving intricacies of this critical electoral population now necessitate more than a simple issue-based approach. Campaign strategy designed to court Latino voters requires a program that addresses economic insecurity, comprehensive immigration reform, health care, and the Iraq War. The current downturn of the U.S. economy is hitting Latinos particularly hard, since many belong to the middle and lower-classes. The Iraq War has also become a contentious issue in the Latino community, with a large majority opposed to the war. For instance, New Mexico, a swing state where three out of eight voters are Latino, has several military bases and an electorate comprised of many who are active in the military or have other military connections.

Additionally, there is still much tension within the Latino population stemming from the immigration protests in 2006. Many of these former student protesters are now old enough to vote and are still passionate about the issue. These individuals, if mobilized, could be important voters in the November general election.

Part of presidential hopeful Barack Obama’s obvious appeal to Latinos may stem from his background as the son of an immigrant from Kenya. At a February town hall meeting in Los Angeles in front of a largely Latino audience, he stated, “When my father came here, he didn’t look like he came off the Mayflower.” Such statements highlight his comparative experience as an ethnic minority in the U.S., something his competitor, John McCain, clearly lacks. On the other hand, given the often divisive rift between the Latino and African American populations in the U.S., this factor could hurt Obama’s Latino support. The key to capturing the Latino vote will be winning states with high Latino populations such as California, Arizona, Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, and Florida. John McCain has an advantage in Arizona, as one of the state’s senators, and in Florida, because of the state’s conservative Cuban population.

McCain initially began his candidacy in a strong position to court Latino voters, with his history of supporting comprehensive immigration reform. He also has visited Mexico and Colombia to exhibit his support for free trade and his desire to curtail drug trafficking. As for Obama, he has not yet travelled to Latin America. However, a recent Gallup poll indicated that only 26 percent of Latinos support McCain, setting the bar extremely high for him as the presidential race enters its final week. This is in part due to McCain’s strategy of only targeting discrete cohorts within the Latino community such as social conservatives and Hispanic veterans.

Both candidates have recently been reaching out to the Latino base. Obama and McCain have sponsored Spanish-language campaign advertisements and have held town-hall style meetings in areas with high Latino populations. In September, for example, McCain held one such meeting in Florida in a largely Puerto Rican community.

Ultimately, the Latino vote should be seen for the diverse demographic that it is. Issues such as immigration are of less importance to a variegated population whose main focus is not race, but rather economic well-being, health care, and other political issues that concern all Americans. As Maria Echaveste predicted, “in the polarized and closely-divided country that we live in, where elections are increasingly decided by minute percentages, increased participation by any segment of the population becomes important.” The main factors inhibiting Latino mobilization are poor registration and relatively low voting rates. The presidential candidate who will best capture the Latino vote in the 2008 election will therefore be the one that motivates the most Latinos to register and participate in the November ballot. This includes reaching out to Latino voters by attending Latino conferences, campaigning on Spanish-language media outlets in the U.S., encouraging Latino leaders to speak out, visiting Latin American nations, and organizing voter registration campaigns in Latino communities. There is every possibility that the winner of the 2008 presidential race will be able to thank Latinos for delivering the victory margin.