Certain policy issues tend to define presidential elections. In the 1992 election, economic issues played a decisive role, or as Clinton’s campaign advisor James Carville noted, “It’s the economy, stupid.” In 2004, the war on terror and moral issues were prominent issues. Looking forward to the 2016 election, foreign policy issues may come to play a significant role in voters’ minds in light of the resurgence of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). If foreign policy issues define the 2016 election, will Latinos sit on the sidelines, since it is believed that their policy priorities are domestically oriented?
On the surface, Latinos appear to be disengaged when it comes to international politics; they do not currently have the political weight to significantly shape international relations at any governmental level. As Harvard Professor Jorge Dominguez wrote in a study for the Weatherhead Center for International Relations, “These newest U.S. Latinos are too poor, too disorganized, and too busy to be able to influence U.S. policy toward their homelands.”
It is true that Latinos have yet to become influential actors in shaping American foreign policy. However, a lack of influence does not mean that they are unconcerned with international affairs. In 1997, I had the chance to survey and analyze the foreign policy attitudes of 454 Latino leaders (Pachon, de la Garza and Pantoja 2000). What we found challenged the stereotype of a globally unconcerned and isolationist electorate. In the survey, Latino leaders were asked to rank the importance of 18 domestic and foreign policy issues. Six of the top ten issues ranked could be classified as foreign policy issues. While a domestic issue, “improving education”, was ranked first, “preventing the spread of nuclear weapons” was ranked fourth.
Throughout the survey and broader study, we found Latinos to be interested and engaged with matters related to foreign affairs. Thus, the recent findings by The Chicago Council on Global Affairs reaffirms what we discovered about Latinos nearly 20 years ago. We can go back further to the 1960s, when a group of Mexican Americans leaders developed the Viva Kennedy Clubs to help elect John F. Kennedy. Historian Ignacio M. Garcia in his book Viva Kennedy: Mexican Americans in Search of Camelot writes that their activism came out of a desire to attain appointments as ambassadors or other foreign policy posts. It seems counter-intuitive that in the 1960s Mexican American leaders would want to serve the nation and their respective communities by being involved in international affairs. But ongoing linkages with Latin America, concerns over immigration, and their longstanding service in the U.S. military make foreign policy issues as important to Latinos as many domestic policy issues.
Having established that Latinos will not sit on the sidelines in the 2016 presidential election, even if foreign policy issues play a preeminent role, the question we should consider is whether Latino foreign policy attitudes are similar or different to other groups in the electorate. Often comparisons between Latinos and non-Latinos on foreign policy issues are used to gauge whether Latinos have divided or dual loyalties. However, attitudinal differences on foreign policy cannot be used as an indication of ambivalent loyalties to the nation any more than are differences over domestic policy issues.
Overall Latino foreign policy attitudes are more alike than different from those of non-Latinos, but there are a handful of important exceptions where the attitudinal gap between Latinos and non-Latinos is significantly large. Our 1997 study revealed that protecting the “global environment” was ranked 8th out of the eighteen policy issues listed. When we compared Latino elite attitudes with non-Latino elites (drawn from a separate survey), we found significant differences on issues related to the environment and climate change.
Climate change is a top policy priority for Latinos. This was a major finding of surveys we recently conducted in collaboration with Voces Verdes. This bodes well for Democratic candidates whose record on the environment aligns with those of Latino voters. Global warming may be one of many foreign policy issues debated in the 2016 presidential election. Other foreign policy issues may also dominate the 2016 election. On most foreign policy issues, Latinos and non-Latinos have similar attitudes, offering no clear advantage to either party. However, Democrats do have a clear advantage with Latino voters when it comes to their position on global warming. A winning strategy for securing the Latino vote in 2016 is for the Democratic presidential candidate to emphasize his or her strategy for fighting climate change.
Adrian Pantoja, Ph.D. is Senior Analyst for Latino Decisions and Professor of Political Studies and Chicano Studies at Pitzer College, a member of the Claremont Colleges.