November 26, 2007

Vying For the Latino Vote

author_cn By C.N. Le

As any demographer will tell you-- and the Census Bureau documents-- Latinos are the fastest-growing racial/ethnic group in the United States. As of July 2006, (the most recent data available) estimates suggest that approximately 44 million, or 15% of the total U.S. population, identifies as Latino.

To give you a little more perspective, the Census Bureau reports that since  1990 the Latino population has basically doubled in size. Also, projections indicate that by 2050, Latinos will number around 103 million and would comprise about one-quarter of the entire U.S. population.

But just as important as their raw population numbers is the fact that in many metropolitan areas, Latinos are now a numerical majority -- they make up at least 50% of that area’s population. As the Census Bureau documents, Latinos are a numerical majority in Miami-Dade (FL), Bexar (TX), Bronx (NY), and close to a majority in Los Angeles (CA) and San Bernadino (CA).

With that rise in population size also comes more political clout. latino1aWhen any group is the majority group within a political representation area, we can generally assume that politicians need to win that group’s support in order to get elected or re-elected.

With the upcoming presidential and congressional races of 2008, it is not surprising that both the major political parties are vying for the “Latino vote.” As New American Media reports, both parties contend that they are better at representing issues that Latinos care about:

President George W. Bush put the Latino vote in play for Republicans when he captured about 40 percent of the Latino vote in his first presidential campaign. Although that percentage dipped a bit in his 2004 re-election, Republicans saw a chance to chip away at what had been thought of as a safe Democratic base.

This year's contentious immigration reform effort pitted a Republican administration against its conservative Republican base, and appears to have given Democrats a chance for an even greater share of Latino votes.

The candidacy of New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, the only Latino, could also drive more Latinos to the polls. Republicans haven't helped their cause by ignoring invitations to speak at conferences sponsored by major Latino organizations like the National Council of La Raza or debates organized by Univision, the country's largest Spanish-language television network.

But Republican strategist Alex Burgos believes it is wrong for Democrats to count their Latino votes so soon. “Democrats and others have long been dismissing the Republican Party's progress with Hispanic voters,” said Burgos. “The Republican Party's values of stronger families, a stronger economy, and a stronger military have great appeal to the Hispanic community as we've seen with Ronald Reagan's and President Bush's electoral successes.”

Burgos credits Reagan for putting the Latino vote into play for Republicans. Plus, he added, Democrats are overlooking the fact that millions of Latinos are latino3a small business owners who favor less government regulation and better access to overseas markets, issues that Republicans tout.

In the past 20 years, even though most Latinos still vote Democratic, more Latino voters are apparently choosing Republicans each election. However, in recent years, Republican politicians and their supporters around the country have become much more aggressive in cracking down on illegal immigration, raiding businesses that employ illegal immigrants, arresting and deporting illegal workers, and passing restrictions on public services and legal rights available to illegal immigrants.

As a result, most political observers note that the pendulum is starting to swing back toward the Democratic side, as many Latino voters are increasingly disillusioned with measures that they see as heavy-handed and punitive.

My colleague Carleen Basler at Amherst College has done in-depth research on this particular issue and provides some very interesting sociological insights on why Latino Americans (and Mexican Americans in particular) are drawn to President Bush’s authoritarian style. She also considers the general lure of symbolic Whiteness and “Americanness” that the Republican party seems to represent. At the same time, her research confirms that the Republican party’s aggressive approach to dealing with illegal immigration is costing them political support among many Latino American voters.

But is losing a large portion of the Latino vote a risk that the Republican party is willing to take in order to satisfy its core constituents of social conservatives? For now, the answer seems to be yes.

This may turn out to be a shortsighted decision, since Latinos are becoming a larger portion of the American population and the American electorate.

Republicans and Democrats need to keep this fundamental demographic and political fact in mind. They need to consider whether alienating the Latino community to achieve short-term goals is worth the potential long-term consequences.

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