In the wake of the 2012 presidential election, the Latino vote in states like Colorado has been held up as a critical and influential factor. Latino voters turned out in record high numbers and their 75% vote for President Obama nationally set a new high for a Democratic presidential candidate. While much of the attention has been on changes to immigration policy, Latino voters, like all voters, are paying attention to a wide variety of issues. In Western states like Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Arizona protecting the environment is an issue that Latino voters care very deeply about, and they expect politicians to take action to protect the environment.
Following the election, President Obama and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced a new and balanced approach to energy development in the West, with respect to oil shale development and research. While some had called for unrestricted and unfettered oil shale development, many environmental leaders, including prominent Latino leaders called for a plan that balanced energy needs and protecting the environment. The new plan opens up new land for oil shale development, but only after research is carried out to prove the viability and potential impact on water resources.
Maite Arce, executive director of the Hispanic Access Foundation stated very clearly: “We needed a smart approach to oil shale development and Secretary Salazar deserves credit for making this a priority for Colorado, and for the state’s Latinos, which make up a significant portion of the state’s population and depend on Colorado River and water supplies for their quality of life and economic opportunity. Costly, water-hungry oil shale speculation would put western families’ health and safety at risk.”
According to polling by Latino Decisions and Nuestro Rio, Latino voters in Colorado strongly agree with an approach. When asked about the best approach to oil shale development, 70% of Colorado Latinos said the federal government should require companies to complete research and prove they can produce oil shale in a way that will not harm water and air resources. Only 17% of Latino voters opposed these federal guidelines.
What’s more, when asked how this would impact their possible vote when evaluating two competing candidates, by a 3-to-1 margin, Latino voters in Colorado said that they prefer a candidate who wants oil companies to research the issue and prove it won’t harm the environment. While 60% support a candidate who wants a research first approach, just 20% support a candidate that wants to let oil companies get started right away without the extra review.
In a statement released just after the announcement by Salazar, Colorado Senator Mark Udall presented a view consistent with what Latino voters in Colorado are saying. Udall, who faces re-election in 2014 praised the new decision, saying “I am glad the Interior Department is taking measured steps to encourage research and development of our oil shale resources. With water being one of our most precious commodities in the West, I have concerns about the potential impacts of commercial oil shale development. Nonetheless, I look forward to seeing this technology explored further.”
Not only do Latino voters support government role in protecting the environment, they rate environmental protection as among the most important issues they face. While issues like the economy and immigration reform tended to dominate the media coverage of Latino voters, when we asked how important protecting the environment was to their vote, almost 40% rated it as “one of the most important issues in 2012″ and another 38% said it was fairly important. Combined, well over 75% of Latino voters in Colorado identify environmental protection as a salient issue to their vote. Only 2% of Latinos said the environment was “not at all important”
According to Andres Ramirez, Director of Nuestro Rio, the connection between Latinos and protecting the environment is clear: “The Colorado River doesn’t just run through the southwest; it runs through our culture and it nourishes our lives.Saving the Colorado River is about protecting our Latino heritage and promoting our future.”
Even beyond Colorado, polling by Latino Decisions found that government involvement in protecting the environment was a top priority for Latino voters in other Western states including Nevada, New Mexico and Arizona. Across all four western states, over 70% of Latino voters saying protecting rivers and lakes is “very important” and an additional 20% or so who say it is “somewhat important.” For nearly all Latino voters across these key battleground states in the West, there is a strong belief that the federal government should play a role in protecting the environment and natural water resources. Further, Latinos are strong supporters of conservation. When asked if we should divert more water out of rivers and lakes so we can use it now, or be more efficient and careful with the water we already have, eight in ten Latino voters favor conservation. By any measure, polling data from Latino Decisions clearly finds Latino voters in Colorado and other Western states to be very strong supporters of protecting the environment.
Gabriel R. Sanchez is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Assistant Director of the RWJF Center for Health Policy at the University of New Mexico, and Research Director for Latino Decisions