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The Role Shifting Demographics Played In The Presidential Election

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We are still waiting for a winner to be called in this year's presidential election. But the race so far has illuminated one thing for certain - the country's shifting demographics have played a huge role in how our elections will be decided. One group that's been getting particular scrutiny this year, Latinos. They became the second-biggest voting demographic after white people for the first time this year, and that has big implications.

We're joined now by Shereen Marisol Meraji, host of NPR's very own Code Switch podcast, to talk through what we should keep in mind when thinking about Latino voters in this country. Shereen, hi.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: Hi.

MARTIN: All right. So let's start with just your own observations. What did you see happening on election night as results were rolling in?

MERAJI: Well, I saw a lot of confusion and a lot of hand-wringing over why Latino support for President Trump was higher in some places than polls had originally predicted. And Rachel, that got my antennae twitching, knowing that most polling of Latino voters is not great. I spoke to Matt Barreto. He's a political science professor at UCLA. He's been working with the Biden campaign for the last few months. And he told me sample sizes for Latinos tend to be really small - too small to draw clear conclusions about their voting behavior. And these polls tend to do a bad job of polling Latinos who are not college educated and who prefer to speak Spanish.

MATT BARRETO: That's a very large segment of the Latino electorate of voters. And so these folks are systematically underrepresented in mainstream polls.

MERAJI: Matt Barreto told me that's why ahead of the primaries - and I know, Rachel, that feels like forever ago.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Yeah.

MERAJI: But that's why ahead of the primaries, you saw wildly divergent stories about how Latino voters were all in for Bernie Sanders. And then the next week, it was like, just kidding - Hispanics love Donald Trump. It's like, wait, what? How does that work? I think we just need to look at polling ahead of elections with a much more critical eye, especially when the polls are saying anything about Latino voters.

MARTIN: Right. OK. So considering all of the holes in polling, all the blind spots - I mean, is that why you think Latinos seem, at least, to surprise us every election?

MERAJI: (Laughter) I think that's one reason. And I got to be frank here - most politicians and journalists have work to do when it comes to understanding Latinos. You know, this week there's been so much attention on how Latino votes in Miami-Dade County in Florida went more to Trump than in the last election. And as interesting as that may be - and it is interesting - it's highlighting two groups of Latinos, Cubans and Venezuelans, that make up 4% - that's Cubans - and less than 1% - that's Venezuelans - of the total Latino population.

MARTIN: Right.

MERAJI: So, you know, I think it's really important to note, the overwhelming majority of Latinos in the United States are of Mexican origin at 60-plus percent. Next up are Puerto Ricans. Both of those groups do tend to vote more Democratic. So spending outsized energy on a couple of counties in a couple of states, it's not really giving us the full picture of the, quote-unquote, "Latino vote."

MARTIN: So does that big category just lose any significance? Obviously, Latinos are not a monolith, and there is no such thing as a Latino vote.

MERAJI: I agree. Latinos are not a monolith, nor is any other ethnic or racial identity group, for that matter. And I wish we could just (laughter), you know, stop reminding people of that because it is obvious. But with Latinos, politicians and journalists, they really need to be taking into account country of origin, race, class, age, gender, language preference, where Latinos live in the United States, how long they've lived in the United States. And Rachel, in some cases, the answer to that question is long before there was a Texas, New Mexico and California.

MARTIN: Right.

MERAJI: All of those things affect what issues are important to Latino voters. And for years, both Democrats and Republicans have been inconsistent and sloppy in their outreach to Latinos. But despite that, patterns have emerged over the years. It's notable that two-thirds of Latino voters identify as and vote for Democrats. The other third vote Republican, which - this is not a new development, and I'm not sure why it keeps surprising everyone (laughter) every time there's an election.

That said, we also can't forget that Latinos are the youngest voting demographic in the United States. So they're the second-largest voting demographic, and they're the youngest voting demographic. They have more eligible voters under 30 years old than any other voter demographic, and it's going to stay that way for a while. We know - and you've reported on this - younger voters lean left.

MARTIN: Right.

MERAJI: So back to your question - are Latinos a monolith? No. Are they a voting bloc? Maybe - but obviously one that cannot be ignored or taken for granted. And these gains for President Trump are a sign that Democrats may have been taking Latino voters for granted.

MARTIN: So Latino voters have a lot of young people in that demographic. Young people lean left. Is that kind of political orientation, is it animating those voters? I mean, is any of this turning into grassroots political activism?

MERAJI: Oh, most definitely. I know we've been talking a lot about Arizona and how Arizona is in serious play. And lately I've been reading things like, oh, well, it's because so many Californians moved to Arizona or it's because Cindy McCain endorsed Biden and suburban moms rallied and got out the vote. You know, it's Senator John McCain's revenge from beyond the grave. But actually, a huge part of that story is that Latino grassroots groups have been working for years on the ground to get out the Latino vote, the young Latino vote. And they have been spurred on by hard-line immigration policies like the SB 1070 show-me-your-papers law.

So I'm really hoping that people will look, you know, beyond the surprise in some of these election stories and for the substance when it comes to Latinos and civic engagement. But, you know, that's my wish every election cycle.

MARTIN: NPR's Shereen Marisol Meraji, host of NPR's podcast Code Switch.

Shereen, thank you. We appreciate this.

MERAJI: Thanks, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS' "DQMOT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.