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Misreading the Hispanic voter

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Esther Cepeda
April 12, 2012
— Will Latinos actually have an impact on the 2012 elections? And will the Republican Party’s hard line on illegal immigration drive Latino voters into the waiting arms of the incumbent deporter in chief?

I’m beyond tired of seeing these questions all over the news. They’re the wrong questions.


Let’s first start with the very concept of the “Latino vote.”


Last week the Pew Hispanic Center released its report “When Labels Don’t Fit: Hispanics and Their Views of Identity” and noted that of the 1,220 Latino adults surveyed who even care about the labels “Hispanic” or “Latino,” the term “Hispanic” is favored by more than a 2-1 margin (33 percent versus 14 percent).


I was thrilled. “Latino” bugs me to no end. It’s like nails on a chalkboard to me, especially when I’ve been asked where I’m from and the answer “Chicago” doesn’t stop the questioner from insisting on guessing my ethnicity.


Since the majority of those of Hispanic/Latino origin who can live with a single ethnic label to describe a diverse group of people hailing from any of 20 Latin American countries prefer “Hispanic,” can we also please start referring to them as “Hispanic voters”?


And the emphasis is on “voters” because there is no such thing as a monolithic “Hispanic vote.” Sure, you can go back 10 presidential elections and give precise numbers as to how many Hispanics voted Democrat over Republican, but that won’t make a difference this fall. This November’s elections will be decided on issues—and not the ones usually associated with Hispanics.


For at least two years, Hispanics have repeatedly said that the economy—not immigration—is their top concern going into the 2012 presidential elections. Even early last November, following a full month of outrage after Alabama put the harshest anti-illegal immigration laws in the country into practice, 65 percent of Hispanic registered voters reported to Univision/Latino Decisions that jobs and the economy were the top concerns. Only 23 percent cited immigration.


Pew Hispanic Center data from 2002 listed education as the most important issue to Hispanic voters, with the economy trailing a strong second. A late December 2011 Pew Hispanic Center analysis ranked education as the No. 2 most important issue behind jobs among registered Hispanic voters. Health care, taxes, and the federal budget rounded out the top five.


And the ironclad belief that Hispanics only vote for Democrats? Sure, in the last few elections a majority have, but no party can comfortably rely on past numbers. In its 2002 national survey of the Latino electorate, the Pew Hispanic Center found that 49 percent of Hispanics were registered as Democrats, 26 percent as independent/other, and 20 percent as Republican.


Today, 30 percent of Hispanics consider themselves liberal, 31 percent moderate and 32 percent conservative—an almost equal distribution. But again, who will vote Democrat or Republican is the wrong question. The right one is: Will Hispanics vote at all?


A few weeks back, several journalists finally began casting doubt on whether Hispanics would actually move the dial for either candidate since Hispanic voter registration dropped 6 percent from 2008 to 2010. This gets lost, of course, in the sea of cliched story lines proclaiming that since Hispanics are the fastest-growing portion of the population, they alone will have the power to decide who wins the presidency.


For years, the nation’s few Hispanic pundits have been warning that population growth is not a guarantee of political power. In a February 2011 syndicated column, “‘Largest Minority’ Still Means ‘Nada,’” Miguel Perez put it thusly: “Perhaps the blame (for the over-hype) should go to all the politicians who have spent years telling Latinos that ‘soon, you will be the nation’s largest minority group’—as if that would solve all our problems.”


Enough with trying to predict what the registered-to-vote portion of one group of very different people who happen to share some strong or weak connection to Latin America will do come Nov. 6. In fact, forget gender, race and religion, too. The only question that really matters is: Which candidate will convince the 35 percent of the general population who call themselves “moderate” that he can fix the economy?


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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