Foreign Policy and the 2012 Latino Electorate

Latino foreign policy perspectives, with rare exceptions (De la Garza 1980, De le Garza and Pachon 2000, Valeriano 2007) are an unexplored topic in the foreign policy academic and policy community.  The assumption by cultural critics such as the late Samuel Huntington is that Latinos will look to the South for culture, news, and foreign policy views because they will be unable to assimilate in the United States.  Basic evidence refutes this conjecture, but we do need to take more interest in Latino voter foreign policy preferences as their political engagement and participation increases.

Of course Latinos are not monolithic, there are important within group variations. The point for now is to understand the basics; once that is done, we can move towards a more fine tuned analysis of just what external perspectives Latinos have. A complete theory of Latino external foreign policy views would include standard factors such as party affiliations and location, but also diverging from the Anglo population – country of origin and its relationship to the United States or conflict events.  Certainly someone who experienced the Salvadoran conflict first hand will have different views on conflict and intervention compared to a third generation Latino from Chicago. Someone who fled drug violence in Mexico will have different perspectives on American intervention in drug violence questions than someone whose family has resided in New Mexico for many generations. Eventually such nuances should be taken into account, but for now, understanding basic views and motivations that shape Latino foreign policy preferences is a step missed by the news media (English language in particular) and scholars.

Previous studies found slight differences between Latino and Anglo foreign policy views. Freedom and democracy promotion are universally held values, but on matters specifically related to the Iraq War, Latinos were ten percentage points less supportive compared to non-Latinos (Valeriano 2007). Similar to non-Hispanics, Latinos prioritize jobs and the economy over foreign policy issues by a very large margin. Only four percent of Latino voters in the latest Latino Decisions tracking poll rank international relations or the war in Afghanistan as the most pressing issue. Immigration issues however, remain a top concern among Latino voters, but consistently track as less important to Anglo voters. Latinos are not immune to the importance and impact of major foreign policy questions.  While they rank economic and social issues over foreign policy concerns, Latinos serve in the United States armed forces and die at a greater rate than the Anglo population (Gifford 2005).  This is likely because the jobs they take often expose them to direct combat. There is a long history of Latinos serving proudly in the American military, in the foreign policy service branches (CIA, DOD, State Department), and playing a role through issue lobby efforts.  This point is often overlooked, and leads to pointed criticism when their service is not acknowledged in film, news, or documentaries.

Week five of the Latino Decisions tracking poll included foreign policy questions in the wake of embassy attacks in Libya and other Middle Eastern locations.  Voter evaluations of a candidate’s foreign policy competence and/or effectiveness can weigh heavily in their decision about who to vote for on Election Day. A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll finds Obama’s approval rating on foreign policy issues dropped from 54 percent to 49 percent in the wake of the protests in the Middle East in response to a film made in the United States that disparages and insults the Prophet Mohammed.  The Latino Decisions poll comes on September 24, a week after the inflammatory events and the dip in polling for Obama found in the WSJ/NBC survey.

The very low levels of trust in Romney’s foreign policy abilities are striking. Only 24% of Latino voters believe Romney would do a better job than President Obama on critical Middle East policy matters. This number nearly mirrors the share of Latino voters indicating they will vote for Romney in November. When asked about Latin American foreign policy, only 17% of Latino voters indicating Romney and the Republican Party would do a better job in the region. The trigger for this sentiment is likely associated with the Romney campaign’s approach to several different policy issues and international events that have been widely criticized, even among the Republican ranks.

Still, President Obama’s Latin American policy agenda remains unclear, and the American public (and Latinos) deserve a well-articulated plan that deals especially with questions on violence in the region and free trade agreements. The Obama campaign could build on existing enthusiasm and drive up Latino voter turnout by devoting more attention to the region and clarifying their immigration policy agenda beyond deferred action. It will be interesting to see if evaluations on Romney’s foreign policy effectiveness shift after the foreign policy debate later this month. For now, Latinos are solidly behind Obama and believe he will do a better job of dealing with foreign policy matters. The only question is if the mythical October (or November) foreign policy surprise will arrive, and alter perceptions.  To date, Obama has weathered such ‘surprises’ rather well.


Dr. Brandon Valeriano is on the faculty at the University of Glasgow, School of Politics and Global Security.

The commentary of this article reflects the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Latino Decisions. Latino Decisions and Pacific Market Research, LLC make no representations about the accuracy of the content of the article.

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