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A Force to Contend With: Hispanic voters have become a crucial factor in American elections

Politics professor Ali Valenzuela, who studies the role of Hispanics in electoral politics, spoke to PAW about how Latino voters view the hot-button topic of immigration and how they will influence the upcoming presidential election.

How important have Hispanics become in American elections?

Over the last 10 to 15 years, the Latino population has grown to make Hispanic voters quite influential, and in some places pivotal, to the outcome of elections. Research documents extensive campaign targeting of Latinos — messages about the importance of the Hispanic vote, of turning out, and of supporting one candidate or another. In places where the Latino vote is not yet a majority, some conservative politicians and political interests have lined up against the interests of the Latino community, which has lately been about immigration. Attacks on immigration and immigration reform are interpreted by many Latinos as attacks against their group.

All of this works to shape Latino political identity. In particular, Latinos in competitive battleground states — where there are both more attacks and more appeals — become very politicized.

Do Latinos tend to vote as a bloc?

“Attacks on immigration and immigration reform are interpreted by many Latinos as attacks against their group.”

Ali Valenzuela

I would push back on the common thinking of Latinos as an undifferentiated voting bloc. It’s true that in recent electoral cycles Latino voters have largely supported the Democrats, and by wide margins. But there is a lot of diversity within the label Latino. It includes immigrants, native-born, and later-generation Latinos, people from over 20 Spanish-speaking countries, rich and poor, liberal and conservative.

There’s a notion that the views of Latinos fit more comfortably within the Republican Party.

Latinos are more conservative than white voters on social-policy issues such as abortion and gay marriage. But they’re much more liberal on economic policy, the value of government providing a social safety net, and of course on immigration policy. When Republicans talk about how evil government is, Latinos hear that as an attack against the very structures that have helped level the playing field and helped them to get ahead. When we analyze policy preferences, it’s never social policies such as abortion and gay marriage that predict their vote. It’s policies on immigration or economic fairness that shape their political preferences.

How important are Hispanics going to be in the presidential election?

After 2012, Republican leaders concluded that they can’t win the White House without more Hispanic support than they’ve gotten in the last two presidential elections. George W. Bush was the last Republican candidate to get north of 40 percent of the Hispanic vote. John McCain was in the low 30s, and Mitt Romney was at 23 percent. The dynamic I see playing out in the primaries today suggests that the current crop of Republican candidates — including the two Latinos, Ted Cruz [’92] and Marco Rubio — is going to have a hard time winning enough Hispanic support to win in the general election.  

Interview conducted and condensed by Eveline Chao ’02