The Latino Vote Isn’t Monolithic, But Their Political Treatment Unites Them

Oct 28, 2015

When politicians open their campaigns, they often consider how to cluster the U.S. population into smaller groups. That way, they can target the votes they need to win.

For example, politicians might support women’s access to contraception to rally the young, unmarried women’s vote. Or they might speak against same-sex marriage legislation to gain support from social conservatives.

Yet there’s a moment when these groups become problematic and ineffective. Not every conservative wishes to ban gay marriage. Not every woman is pro-choice. Not every Latino ranks immigration reform as a top priority.

“Everybody has this really complex multi-faceted identity,” says Celeste Montoya, an associate professor in the Women and Gender Studies department at the University of Colorado-Boulder, who studies what motivates people to become political activists.

The Latino population varies widely, just like the American population at large. Some are women; some are men. They could be rich or poor. Some have have legacies in the U.S. that reach back hundreds of years. Others arrived more recently.

“Some of this anti-immigration rhetoric has really served to unify a group that has a lot that normally might divide it,” says Montoya. “It’s manifested in these really anti-Latino ways.”

She points to the legislation in Arizona about identification requirements. Even if the law asked everyone to provide proof of citizenship, it meant that people treated Latinos with more suspicion.

Montoya sees the same thing with voter fraud initiatives. This election, she’s been asked to send in photo identification to verify her signature on her mail-in ballot, even though the only reason she might get flagged is her name.

“There's no way to know for sure that that's what drew it, but what else could it be about my signature?” says Montoya. “There's nothing to compare it to!”

So even Latinos who have been here for generations have felt the impacts of anti-immigrant sentiment. This makes it an issue where most Latinos would like reforms.

Angel Saavedra Cisneros, a professor of political science at the University of Texas-Pan American, explains that--save for Asian Americans--Latinos “tend to be much more pro-immigration than any other group.”

Yet this doesn’t mean that immigration is the top priority for all Latinos. Ask any individual, says Saavedra, and that person might care more about education reform or the economy. What’s more, one Latino might have a very different opinion of how to handle each issue than another.

“It's like comparing a gun owner in Colorado to a gun owner in Vermont to a gun owner in Texas,” says Saavedra. “They have very very different views on other things.”

Surprisingly, while it might seem frustrating to be generalized among a whole population of people, some Latinos find that the targeting is a bit empowering.

“It's a sign of the influence that Latinos as a group is having in politics,” says Martín Meráz García, an associate professor in Chicano education at Eastern Washington University. “So I'm encouraged by that, not bothered by it.”

Whether or not the targeting will bring in Latino votes is another question, one that political scientists are hesitant to answer before 2016. First, because there’s a feedback loop happening here: if Latinos form groups in response to targeted campaigns, they make themselves easier to target.

Finally, Latino voters are frustrated with the political system, just like everyone else. President Barack Obama received more than two-thirds of the Latino vote when he won in 2008. The other side of that coin is that 2 million Latinos were deported during Obama’s time in office.

Celeste Montoya says that this discrepancy might be hurting Hillary Clinton in the 2016 race.

“People are realizing that the rhetoric is not always going to unite with the actions,” says Montoya. “The average voter is much more savvy than sometimes they get credit for.”

She says that the first step toward better outreach for these voters is to make each group plural.

“When we talk about Latinos or Latino community, it should be Latino communities,” Montoya says. “If we recognize that, we have a much more accurate representation of reality, and then candidates will be more successful… Their ability to reach those diverse communities will be much more effective.”