Playing the Environmental Card: A Winning Strategy for Mobilizing Latinos in 2014

Heading into the 2014 midterm election, President Obama faced an opportunity with Latino voters.  If he issued an executive order on immigration, Latino voters would be very enthusiastic about turning out to vote and Democratic candidates would undoubtedly win the lion’s share of the Latino vote.  However the White House decided to delay any action which resulted in considerable backlash from Latino advocacy groups. Further, the cost of delaying an executive order could come in the form of a demobilized Latino electorate in 2014 as noted in a recent Latino Decisions poll.  In the end, Obama was convinced that congressional Democrats had more to gain by delaying an executive order on immigration.  Does this mean that Latinos are sitting out this election, or that there is little either party could do to reengage them?

There is no question that research finds immigration to be a mobilizing issue for Latinos. However, if the immigration card is no longer in play for Democrats, polling data indicates that there other possible policy issues that can to engage Latinos.  At the top of the list is protecting the environment.  This may come as a surprise since environmental issues are not often associated with Latinos, despite the fact that when polled, these issues rank high among them (Pantoja 2014; Whittaker, Segura and Bowler 2005).  It is well documented that candidates and other political elites drive the salience of an issue among the public.  Latino Decisions and scholars associated with them have shown empirically how immigration went from an obscure issue to one of the most important issues facing Latinos as a result of contentious politics, beginning in California in the mid 1990s (Pantoja, Ramirez and Segura 2001; Damore and Pantoja 2013).  Indeed, just a few years earlier, immigration was ranked tenth among the most important issues facing Latinos according to data from the 1989-90 Latino National Political Survey (de la Garza et al., 1992, pg. 88).

In short, opportunities for Latino mobilization still exist.  This is critical in light of Latino Decisions research showing that Latinos could be pivotal in a number of House races this fall (see Table1).  Careful analysis by Professor David Damore found 14 seats Democrats currently hold which are expected to be very competitive in 2014 and have sizable Latino electorates.  Likewise Damore counts 12 Republican held seats that are competitive with possible Latino swing votes. The rate of Latino turnout will prove critical in the outcomes of these 26 House races. So what cards could campaigns play when it comes to energizing Latinos?  According to considerable polling data, protecting the environment, addressing climate change, and conservation of land and waterways are a top priority for Latino voters.

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A December 2013 survey of 800 Latino registered voters carried out by Latino Decisions and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found that environmental issues are a top priority for Latinos.  In the survey, 75% of Latino registered voters said it was extremely or very important for the government to address climate change, and support was broad across sub-groups within the Latino electorate (see Figure 1).  Support for political action on climate change scores consistently ranks about equal to Latino support for immigration reform.  In a June 2014 survey with 800 Latino registered voters, 89% of respondents said it was extremely to somewhat important that Congress and the President address immigration reform before the midterm election.  While immigration reform is a top priority for Latinos, action on climate change and protecting the environment is also a top Latino issue, and perhaps an opportunity to connect with and mobilize Latinos this Fall.

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For many years, I have overseen polling for Latino Decisions on environmental issues and we have consistently found a strong connection between candidates’ positions on the environment and the degree to which they win or lose Latino voters.  For example, in a 2012 Colorado survey of Latinos, respondents were asked to evaluate two candidates who had competing views on the need for oil shale regulations, a salient issue for Colorado voters at the time, and then pick which candidate they would support.  Let’s say there are two candidates running for office, and one candidate supported a proposal to require oil companies to prove that oil shale is feasible and won’t harm western water before it commercially occurs on public lands—and the other candidate said oil companies should be able to get started developing oil shale right away to create jobs and energy.  Which candidate are you more likely to support?  Latino supported the environmental candidate by a margin of three-to-one (60% vs 20%).  In the 2013 survey, we found that 78% of Latinos said they would feel more favorable toward their Congressional representatives if they “issued a statement giving strong support to limit the pollution that cases climate change” (see Figure 2).  The 2014 midterm election provides opportunities for congressional candidates to make significant inroads with Latinos by emphasizing their environmental records and proposals.

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Above I point to 26 House races where Latino voters could have an impact on the outcomes (Table1), and for each member I include the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) National Environmental Scorecard to gauge representative’s environmental records.[1]  The scores range from 0 to 100.  Scores of 100 indicate the representative voted pro-environment on all of the bills analyzed by the LCV.  A score of 0 indicates the representative voted anti-environment all bills.  What is most evident about the scores is the gap in support for pro-environmental policies between Democrats and Republicans.  Indeed the degree of polarization on environmental bills between the two parties is striking.  Eight of the 12 Republicans have scores below 10 and 3 have a score of 0.  Among Democrats, 10 of the 14 have scores of 79 or greater.

Given that a large majority of Latinos display pro-environmental values, Democrats have an opportunity to reengage Latino voters by highlighting their strong environmental records and/or the lackluster environmental records of their Republican opponents.  Even as many have sounded alarm bells about Latinos lack of enthusiasm for Democrats due to Obama’s lack of action on immigration, the environment may present an opportunity for Latino mobilization in 2014.

[1] The National Environmental Scorecard represents the consensus of experts from about 20 respected environmental and conservation organizations who selected the key votes on which members of Congress should be scored and is found here: http://scorecard.lcv.org/

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