The myth of the Latino voting bloc

Clinton, Obama and McCain are frantically courting Hispanics - but in an era of fluid, fly-by-night politics, blocs are unpredictable.

John Browne

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When Barack Obama’s charge in the Democratic primary race began in earnest after his good showing on Super Tuesday, many suggested that he would eventually be tripped up by the supposed tension between Latinos and African Americans. But, just as African Americans deserted Hillary Clinton when they began to see a winner in Obama, so it appears that Latinos are also trending towards him, sensing that the juggernaut is gathering steam. The latest results may have delayed a decision until the convention in Denver, but all that they show is that the Democratic Party is still undecided about whether a black man or a woman is best suited to unseat the Republican machine.

Just eight years ago, when George W Bush was running for president, Republicans could safely rely on about 40 per cent of Latinos supporting them. Now, with politics, and indeed political interests, being less well-defined, with so many issues finding a home in both parties (anyone for religion-friendly Democrats and environmentalist Republicans?), voting blocs, such as they are, have become much more fluid and unpredictable.

If Latinos can be seen to make up a single voting bloc, they would be the largest minority, at about 15 per cent, and make up more of the electorate than African Americans (12 per cent) or an even more disparate bloc, Asian Americans, who make up about eight per cent of the electorate. However, until last night’s Texas primary, an often-heard and well-deserved cry has noted that they rarely vote, in great numbers, least of all in primaries. With significant presence in some key states, gaining widespread support among Latinos could mean the difference between victory and defeat, both for Obama over Clinton and for the eventual Democratic nominee.

In many important states – most notably New Jersey, Florida, Obama’s home state of Illinois, and Texas – the Latino vote is a vital one to win. According to the New Democrat Network, a liberal think tank that focuses on Latino voters, they make up almost twice as much of the electorate as they did in 2000, up from 7.5million to 14million. By some estimates, one in three Americans will be Latino by 2040.

Until Super Tuesday, most considered that Senator Hillary Clinton had the Latino vote sewn up. Despite Obama’s surprisingly good showing overall, some commentators argued that in California and the south-western states of Arizona and New Mexico, Latinos probably tipped the balance in favour of Clinton. But that may change as the race heads towards the convention.

A CNN poll before the latest round of primaries had Clinton leading Obama 68 per cent to 17 (a ratio of 4-1) among Latinos trending towards the Democratic Party. Exit polls taken after the Wisconsin vote showed Obama had cut this lead to 3-2, suggesting that a) Latinos will vote for a black candidate and b) Clinton’s presumed hold on the Latino vote was, like her hold on every other voting bloc, slipping fast. However, early results from Texas showed Clinton reeling in Obama and winning two-thirds of the Latino vote.

As a voting bloc, the Latino vote was historically seen as somewhat of a swing vote, but the majority tended to vote Democrat. A recent survey by the Annenberg Foundation showed that Latinos tend to be more liberal on economic issues, with, for example, 80 per cent favoring more federal spending on schools and 75 per cent supporting better health coverage for the uninsured. However, on social issues, Latinos tend to be more conservative: for example, more than a third support a federal ban on abortion (compared to less than 15 per cent of the population at large). So they could easily vote for either party, depending on whether they are wearing their economic or their social hat.

Historically, Latino communities were not a major source of votes, so they could be largely ignored. Today, with immigration levels such as they are, that has changed somewhat. In the 2000 election, George W Bush captured some 40 per cent of the Latino vote; his compassionate conservatism mantra, his own record as Texas governor and the fact that he has Mexican in-laws (two of his brothers are married to Mexicans) all resonated strongly with Latinos. In 2004, he won slightly less as disillusionment with the Iraq war ran strong in Latino communities (and in many other places, too).

As Democratic Congressman Xavier Becerra from Los Angeles put it: ‘Remember, George Bush was acquainted with Latinos. He was governor of Texas [and has] relatives who are of Mexican ancestry. But after a while, people get tired of the serenata. They want deliverables. After you sing the song from the floor up to the balcony, after a while, someone wants to see a wedding ring. Someone wants to see a commitment that you are going to do something.’ As with so much of his promises, Bush never delivered for Latinos, just as he never delivered for the anti-abortion lobby or seniors who wanted affordable healthcare, leaving him with almost historically low approval ratings for a sitting president (1).

It is, however, the internecine war in the Republican Party over immigration that has many analysts arguing that the Republicans’ harsh rhetoric will likely destroy any significant level of support it might have got this time around. Characterised recently as ‘the party of xenophobia, nativism and anti-Latino demagoguery’ (2), the Republicans certainly seem to have lost their way. But all is certainly not lost. The fluidity in political affiliation means that much can change, perhaps not overnight, but certainly in the long months before November. The fact that John McCain has won the Republican nomination and sought to steer a centrist line on immigration, despite vicious attacks from within his own party, is important. In fact, it is his stance on immigration that has left many on the right of the party seemingly unwilling to support his candidacy.

McCain advocates are now asserting that Latinos are only interested in immigration, with the aim of ensuring that McCain’s vaguely reasonable stance on immigration issues will ensure that he captures a decent share of the Latino vote. However, that may be a dangerous path, as any reminders about (successful) Republican demands for a wall to be built along the southern border of the US has many Latinos saying ‘enough’. So, while many Latinos, like African Americans, support many of the Republican Party’s more conservative policies on other issues such education, social policy and developing a strong military, and while many want secure borders, a physical wall represents a step too far – and conservative Republican demands to repatriate undocumented immigrants are absolutely taboo.

The alleged tensions between Latinos and African Americans are summed up by author and political analyst Earl Ofari Hutchinson, author of the forthcoming book, The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House. He argued that the ‘wariness between many Latinos and African-Americans could hurt Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama’.

He is not alone in presenting such an argument. Academic and social commentator Richard Rodriguez has said that the conflict between Latinos and African Americans is largely a political creation of the census bureau, which asserted in the 1980s that Latinos would soon replace African Americans as the largest minority. This is despite the fact that many Latinos are themselves black and are more similar culturally than racially. (A cursory look at the line up of any baseball team will show this to be true.) Rodriguez argues: ‘The prediction nonetheless set up a competition between blacks and Hispanics. African Americans began to see Hispanics as a threat to their place within the American racial dialectic. Since the Irish came to the country in the nineteenth century, the typical pattern for immigrant groups was to advance by distinguishing themselves from blacks. The competition grew most intense where it was economic. At the hotel hiring-office or the construction worksite, Hispanic newcomers, particularly those who had arrived illegally, were willing to undercut working-class wages and to work with Third-World fury.’ (3)

Rodriguez has a point, in that racial tensions tend to be manipulated to serve the interests of the political hierarchy, rather than emerging from any inherent tensions between people. But, as he notes, other factors also play a role, including the economy and power relations between and inside all minorities.

Obama’s recent gains among Latinos suggest that many have moved on from this particular conflict. There is a burgeoning Latino middle class, especially among second-, third-, and fourth-generation Latinos. Many more now speak English as their first language, and one commentator suggests that the millions of dollars being spent on reaching out to Latinos may well have been spent incorrectly. Maria Teresa Petersen, executive director of Voto Latino, a non-partisan voter registration organisation, said: ‘Candidates are spending tens of millions of dollars trying to capture the attention of Latino voters, mostly in the Spanish-language media. But what the campaigns haven’t figured out is that 79 per cent of the 18million eligible Latino voters consume media in English.’ (4) Voto Latino knows what it’s talking about as it is renowned for using the latest technology and pop culture to promote political participation among new Latino voters.

Just as other voting blocs have done, Latinos seem to be only too happy to prove that large minorities, if not majorities, of voters don’t blindly vote for whom they are expected to vote for.

The reality is that there is no Latino voting bloc. Yes Latinos are exercised over immigration, but Latinos in California are concerned about different issues than Latinos in New York, just as Cuban-Americans in Miami, despite the demise of Castro, also have an entirely different agenda. We can’t know now whether immigration will be a defining issue in November, but the Democrats are going to try their level best to make sure it is, along with the economy and the war in Iraq. All these are issues that rank highly on every voter survey, Latino or otherwise.

While the Republicans have not proved very effective at getting much done in the past few years, Rodriguez argues that they have succeeded in one area: ‘The Republicans have managed to turn Hispanic voters into a Hispanic vote, which isn’t necessarily going their way.’

It’s always easy to write in shorthand, to depict the African American vote or the Latino vote or the Catholic vote as likely to go one way or another. But the reality is always more complex; we can see trends, but unless we know what will be the defining issue of the election, we can’t say how any constituency will vote. Latino voters are as diverse as any other, and need to be courted and inspired just like any other voter should be.

Many voters have told pollsters they want a change in course. Presented with a competition between Clinton and McCain, they will have to choose between much of the same old, same old. The wife of a former president (which is how people view Clinton, whatever accomplishments she may have of her own) and a seventysomething politician who wants to stay the course in Iraq. Hardly a compelling choice. Obama, despite an apparent lack of strong principles or any politics, appears to represent some sort of change, so many voters, Latino and otherwise, are flocking to him. That itself can change, of course, especially as there is no single compelling issue around which voters are coalescing. And in an election with no issues, it can boil down to who sounds or looks the best on any given day, or who seems to best mirror the aspirations of any given voter – for Latinos as well as the rest of the electorate.

John Browne is a writer based in Washington, DC.

Previously on spiked

John Browne characterised Obama as white America’s candidate. Mick Hume asked what Hope for real Change in America?. Brendan O’Neill investigated the fears of Obamamania. Helen Searls analysed the reasons for Hillary Clinton’s fluctuating fortunes. Alan Miller believed Ron Paul was no friend of freedom. Or read more at spiked issues USA and White House 2008.

(1) Did the GOP Scare Off Latino Voters?, New America Media, 31 October 2007

(2) Our Flagging Faith in the GOP, Washington Post, 24 Fenruary 2008

(3) ‘Latin vote comes alive’, Tablet, 9 February 2008

(4) Real Latino stories on LatinLounge.tv, theLatinavoz.com, March 2008

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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