Are Latinos Loyal Partisans?

A recent post here discussed the widely held opinion that Latinos are not as welcome as whites in the Democratic or Republican Party. Latinos and Non-Latinos hold consistent perceptions, suggesting that both parties have a branding problem, insomuch as either party is interested in projecting an image of inclusiveness to the increasingly diverse American electorate. Distaste, distrust or even alienation from partisan politics can exacerbate already depressed levels of political participation among Latinos. For parties, it may become more difficult to determine the math that will predict electoral victories with any consistency. Neither party can rely on a particular tradition of group loyalties any longer – voter turnout, candidate preferences and party attachments need to be cultivated.

An overwhelming majority of Latino voters (72%) supported President Barack Obama, but his appeal does not necessarily transfer to other candidates or the party brand. One year after his election, a Latino Decisions poll found 75% of the national Latino electorate continues to view the President and his job performance favorably. Yet only 54% identify as Democrats and a mere 33% view the Dem party as very welcoming toward them. Why would Latinos, and non-Latinos for that matter, reach the conclusion that the party is not enthusiastic about Latinos? Two recent examples of party leadership relationship with Latinos might offer insight….

In December 2008, Latino State Senators, Leticia Van De Putte and Mario Gallegos, wrote a pointed letter to New York Senator Chuck Schumer, who had served as the party Chair of the Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) which is charged with allocating resources to Democratic candidates. They chastised him for disregarding the state’s senatorial Democratic candidate, Rick Noreiga and Latino constituencies. Excerpts:

“Of those in the Democratic coalition in the state, there is no emerging demography more important, with more unrealized potential, than Latino voters in Texas. Unfortunately, while we have made great strides to help ourselves, we have seen little enthusiasm toward recognizing that our efforts are worth investing in…The heat of election night had not cooled before the speculation began about DSCC support for several Anglo candidates in future races. This is not only disrespectful, it’s shameful…Rick Noriega was able to garner 43% of the vote in his race against Cornyn, the incumbent, without any financial support from the DSCC…Rick Noriega has an impeccable pedigree to run in Texas. He is an old-fashioned Democrat–a family man, a man of faith, a combat-decorated veteran, a legislator, with an Ivy-league education and time spent defending the border. He has a heart for the people, impeccable Democratic credentials and is an awesome retail campaigner. To some who chose to sit on the sidelines in this election, those characteristics were apparently not enough – he is not wealthy or white…State Senator Mario Gallegos, for his part, could not even get multiple phone calls made to the DSCC returned, in his efforts to discuss the situation.”

The tone and message of the letter offer insight on the results from the empirical analysis that finds widespread perception of Democrats as less enthusiastic toward Latinos and how this occurs among elected officials as well. [full text letter click here ]

It is no secret that former television commentator Lou Dobbs’ spiteful rhetoric and factually erroneous information about undocumented immigration became a political rallying point for many Latinos, and ultimately led to him leaving his cable news show. Google the words “Dobbs Latino” and the flood of information will indicate he became an embattled persona precisely because of his anti-immigration rhetoric. A month ago (January 28, 2010) Senator Schumer, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Immigration, announced he consulted with Lou Dobbs on immigration reform legislation. Let’s set aside the fact that Dobbs is not a policy expert on anything, merely a media personality. The Schumer meeting with Dobbs on immigration policy indicates one of two things — Schumer may not know that Latinos find Dobbs highly objectionable, or he does not care. In either case, Latino opinions and constituencies are not held in high regard.

Both of these illustrations point out Latinos are not incorporated into the party priorities, which can perpetuate the sense the party only turns to them, with tempered enthusiasm, at four year intervals.
Only 10% of Latinos think Republicans are very welcoming to Latinos; a paltry 5% of non-Latinos agree. This is no surprise though; at this point, it really is conventional wisdom that Republicans have a “Latino problem” – again, insomuch as there is interest in their votes. Another simple Google search for “Latino Republican” will provide scores of blog posts and media articles that identify how Republicans lost favor among Latinos and the internal party discussion around how and whether to address the issue.

The Republican Party and their political allies articulated their opinions about Latinos loudly and consistently in 2006 during the immigration marches, in 2008 party primaries, and in 2009 during the Sonia Sotomayor nomination and hearings. In all three cases, Latinos were following the news and heard themselves characterized as illegal aliens, free riders of American social welfare, an illegitimate voting base, under-qualified beneficiaries of social policies among other unfavorable frames. Time and again Latino Republican elected officials took to the airwaves on Spanish language media outlets to express frustration with the mainstream party positions and rhetoric that was distasteful to the majority of the Latino public. Indeed, party rhetoric placed these elected officials in a difficult position. In recent weeks, Latino and non-Latino leaders in the party have launched initiatives (e.g. Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, Hispanic Republicans of Texas) specifically designed to appeal to Latino voters and re-gain some of the good will that George W. Bush had cultivated a decade ago; response, at least in the blogosphere, has been mixed among party faithful.

However, at the same time, the GOP continues to attack itself over the issue of immigration from the right. J.D. Hayworth in a primary challenge to Senator John McCain has pledged to make illegal immigration a top issue and to do all he can to stop comprehensive immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship.

Oh yeah, and then there’s the Tea Party – Keynote speaker Tom Tancredo – ‘nuff said.

The Latino population and electorate are constantly in flux – this is not merely the Chicano generation all grown up. Strategies that worked in the 1970’s may not be so effective today. This increasing population is a blend of US and foreign born, 1st to 6th generation Americans, geographically dispersed, individuals that trace family origins to different countries and vary in terms of their fluency in English and Spanish. Despite this wide variation, it need not be so complicated to incorporate Latinos into American partisan politics. There are ideological and policy bases where both might appeal to this diverse subset of voters. Both parties have a deep pool of Latino political talent to draw from at different ranks. There are opportunities to build enduring voting bases, if the parties are so inclined.

Sylvia Manzano is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Texas A&M University


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