What Drives Latino Voters?

By Lauren Feeney

More Latinos are expected to go to the polls this year than ever before, and their vote could be decisive in the presidential election. We reached out to Sylvia Manzano of Latino Decisions, a leading Latino polling organization whose clients include Univision, ABC News and the Los Angeles Times, to learn more about the concerns and influence of this growing demographic.

Volunteers for President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign, Carissa Valdez, right, and Vanessa Trujillo, left, as they leave campaign headquarters as they work to register new voters while they canvass a heavily Latino neighborhood shopping plaza Friday, June 29, 2012, in Phoenix. Across the country both political parties have been courting the Latino vote, the nation’s fastest-growing minority group. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Lauren Feeney: A record 24 million Latinos are eligible to vote this time around, about four million more than in 2008. Who are these new voters?

Manzano: Those four million new eligible voters are a combination of people who have become American citizens since the last round of elections and young Latinos who aged into the electorate. Hispanic Americans as a consumer base are much younger than non-Hispanics — an average age of 28 compared to 42 for whites.

Feeney: Your latest poll shows that Latino voters favor President Obama by a wide margin — 73 percent are for Obama compared to 21 percent for Romney. To what extent can that be attributed to issues that are of specific concern to the Latino community? Might it just be that Latinos skew younger and less well off economically and tend to favor Democrats for those reasons?

Manzano: We can’t really disentangle those issues. You’re right, the demographics are indeed that Latinos are lower resourced in terms of income, education, healthcare. But what we would call a Hispanic issue vs. a non-ethnic issue — I don’t think those two things can be easily parsed out.

So, unemployment and jobs are important issues because Latinos have higher unemployment rates and lower wages than non-Latinos. But some of that can be tied to immigration, because, for example, if a Latino American has a business that mostly caters to an immigrant clientele, and those people are no longer in their community, then they’re losing business. Education is another issue that doesn’t seem to have much to do with ethnicity. But if people don’t have the opportunity to complete college, or their schools are losing funding because there are fewer students due to deportation, then education becomes a Latino issue.

For the most part, when we look at non-ethnic issues — like taxes –most Latino voters are in favor of tax increases for the wealthy and fewer cuts to existing programs. Or the Affordable Care Act — the vast majority of Latinos are in favor of it. Latino voters tend to be on the same side as Democrats.

Feeney: More than two-thirds of Latino voters are Catholic. How do they poll on issues like abortion and marriage equality?

Manzano: Latinos tend to be much more religious than non-Latinos. They go to church at higher rates and are more likely to say that religion plays an important role in their lives. But when we asked what issues matter most, abortion and same-sex marriage come in last. They rank lower than “don’t know.” These sorts of social issues have never, in all the years that we’ve done our polling, been in the top four. The top four are jobs, immigration, education and healthcare, consistently.

It’s worth noting that in 2008 in California, when Prop 8 was on the ballot, over half of Hispanics voted against marriage equality. But well over half of Hispanics also voted for Barack Obama. So what that tells us is that if you ask about a specific issue, yes, a majority may take a conservative position. But it is not important enough that it would determine their presidential vote. We don’t see religiosity map onto political attitudes and behaviors they way we do amongst some whites.

Feeney: What influence does the media have on the Latino vote? We hear a lot of complaints about media bias in the English-language press. Is the Spanish-language press accused of a particular bias?

Manzano: Sometimes reality has a partisan bias, right? The reality is that Republicans have been very aggressive in promoting harsh anti-immigrant policies that are associated with harsh, even racist rhetoric — sometimes so harsh that they aren’t even about immigration anymore.

Policies like ending Mexican-American studies programs and making English the official language — that’s not about national security or about border control, that’s about culture. As those stories have increased, the Spanish language media has reported on them, because it matters to their audience. I can see how that might come across as an anti-Republican bias, but they’re just calling it like they see it.

If Democrats were passing these bills, they would report that too. It’s no secret that Univision — Jorge Ramos in particular — has been very clear that the Obama Administration deported more people than any other administration in years past. They’ve also been clear about the limitations of the deferred action policy and the political motivations for that policy being in place. You could certainly watch Univision or read La Opinión or listen to Spanish language radio and think, wow, this seems really anti-Republican. But Republicans have been on the attack, so it makes sense that the media outlets are reporting on it.

Feeney: Given all that, who are the 21 percent of Latinos that are currently supporting Mitt Romney?

Manzano: Many are first-generation Cuban Americans. They’re older, mainly in South Florida, and they’re very loyal partisans — it almost doesn’t matter who the candidate is, they’re going to vote Republican. But Republicans can’t hang their hat on Cuban-American voters when Mexican Americans make up 67 percent of the Latino electorate.

There’s a much smaller share of Mexican Americans who are also loyal Republicans. George W. Bush picked off somewhere between 40 to 44 percent of the Latino vote. He was a very Latino-friendly candidate. In fact, right before September 11, he met with the president of Mexico and was working towards comprehensive immigration reform, then after September 11 things went in a very different direction. But in terms of overtly racial policies directed at Latinos, it was rather friendly.

Feeney: What specifically has Mitt Romney said or done that has so alienated Latino voters?

Manzano: He said that Arizona is a model for the rest of the country. He said that he would have voted against Sonia Sotomayor. He said that he would veto the Dream Act. Just this week, he said that if he were president, he would honor the deferred action applications that have already been approved, but would not allow any further to be approved after he was inaugurated. As of today, only 29 applications have been approved. It’s a lot like the citizenship process; it takes many, many months to complete. So all those students who spent money and time getting those applications done, they wouldn’t be honored.

Feeney: The right-wing media has been claiming that the polls are skewed in favor of Obama — not your polls specifically, but in general. Can the numbers lie?

Manzano: There are some polls that lie. Ours don’t. Latino Decisions, like any other good, reputable polling outfit, is very transparent about the questionnaire, about how we go about sampling. It would be one thing if there was one poll that seemed off, but it’s unlikely that all the polls are all wrong. And that’s what’s being suggested — that there’s a big conspiracy among all of the pollsters to weave this story. The idea that all the polls, including Fox News, are incorrect, is I think a dubious assertion. We’re talking about very reputable outfits that have done this for a long time.

Feeney: Your organization looks specifically at Latino voters and what they’re thinking, but what I’ve learned from this conversation is that to a large extent, Latinos vote similarly to other people with similar demographics. As Latinos become more integrated into the general population, will there be a need for Latino Decisions?

Manzano: There will always be a need for Latino Decisions. Irish, Italians, Poles — two or three generations in they’ve totally assimilated into mainstream, melting pot American culture. The reason that Latinos are so different is that we share an incredibly long border with the mother country, so the culture remains fresh, there’s always a new wave of immigrants, there are always fluent Spanish speakers.

You’ve got a lot of Latinos, even second and third generation, who watch Spanish language television. There’s Univision, Telemundo, Spanish-language radio, Spanish-language websites. Latinos assimilate into mainstream American culture, but also remain more culturally attuned, and that bicultural reality isn’t just in entertainment, it’s in their everyday lives and experiences — and politics, too.

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