The Complexity of the Latino Vote

Isabella Diminich, Dec 15, 2022

The most critical part of any political campaign is voter targeting. Candidates spend exorbitant amounts of money to ensure that their messages go out to as many voters as possible.  Political scientists make their careers out of the analysis of voting blocs – groups with common identities and political goals. The categorization of voters into distinct blocs based on identifiers such as religious belief, age, race, and/or ethnicity allows candidates to focus on defining their message for particular groups of people [1]. While there are several traditionally recognized voting blocs that are targeted by Republicans and Democrats, none have made headlines in the same way as Latinos. 

For several election cycles now, Latinos have been given the title of the voting bloc that has the power to sway elections [2]. The power of the Latino vote can be primarily attributed to the sheer size of the ethnic group – Latinos make up 19% of the total population in the United States. Furthermore, Latinos are by far the fastest-growing population in the U.S. In 2020, the Latino population in the U.S. reached 62.1 million, a 23% increase over the decade [3]. By contrast, the U.S. population only increased by 7% in the same period [4]. In the 2020 elections, Latinos were the second largest voting bloc, and every thirty seconds, a Latino becomes eligible to vote in the U.S. [5]. Given the size of the group, any party that can capture the majority of the Latino vote is at a considerable advantage. Historically, that party was the Democratic party [6], yet in 2020, Latinos shocked Democrats with their voting – although the majority of Latinos voted for Democrats in 2020, more Latinos changed their vote to Republican in 2020 than ever before [7].

However, Democrats should not have been shocked by changes in the voting tendency of Latinos in 2020. Indeed, “bloc” is not even the proper term to use when referring to the Latino vote. Referring to a group as a voting bloc requires the group to have common goals when voting or, at the very least, that the group be bound by a shared identity. While all Latinos are inherently Latino, the definition of the ethnicity – and even the use of the word itself – differs so extremely among individuals in the group that there are few commonalities to be found [8]. Ultimately, the mistake of both the Democratic and Republican parties when attempting to reach out to Latino voters is the treatment of Latinos as a homogenous group. By assigning fixed characteristics in certain categories such as immigration status, predetermined political preference, geographic location, and language spoken, based on preconceived perceptions of Latinos, parties create only a few different versions of the typical Latino voter. In doing so, Democrats and Republicans ignore the diversity inherent to the ethnic identity that makes Latinos both a critical and difficult vote to capture. 

The diversity of Latinos has gone long unrecognized in the American political landscape. As early as the 1950s, when there was an influx of immigrants from Latin American countries, there were attempts to group them together because they were all from Spanish-speaking countries [9]. Many believed this to be an impossible feat, with the cultural differences between groups being so significant that Mexican American intellectual George I. Sanchez even claimed it would require a “veritable shotgun wedding” to make the groups “appear to be culturally homogenous” [10]. Although this statement held true, the perceived cultural similarity of people of Latin American origin in the U.S. led to the formation of a certain common identity – that is, Latinos found common ground in their perceived ‘otherness.’ This common Latino identity became the basis for the now-recognized voting bloc in the 1960 presidential election when Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy worked with Los Angeles Councilman Edward R. Roybal to form the Viva Kennedy campaign. The Viva Kennedy campaign began as an effort to capture the Mexican American vote (particularly in Texas) but quickly spread to other Latino communities. With Kennedy’s win, the Viva Kennedy campaign established Latinos as an important voting demographic that was nationally recognized [11]. It also established the Democratic party as the party that held the interest of the Latino community since it was the first party to invest time and money into outreach to Latino voters. 

Along with the trend of Democratic-leaning Latino voters and the recognition of Latinos as an influential demographic, one crucial aspect of the Viva Kennedy campaign remained: the grouping of Latinos into defined geographic categories. These categories include New York Puerto Ricans, Florida Cubans, and Mexican Americans in California and Texas [12]. While these subgroups do exist, the assertion that they are monolithic blocs is a failure of political parties. Texas, Florida, and California hold about half of the U.S. Latino population [13]. However, the states with the fastest Latino population growth rates, such as South Dakota and North Dakota, are often left untouched by candidates running for nationally elected offices [14]. Even in the heavily targeted states discussed above, there is unrecognized diversity. For example, Florida’s Latino population – assumed to be entirely composed of Cuban Americans – is actually 21% Puerto Rican and 18% South American. These percentages do not indicate negligible amounts of non-Cuban Latinos, especially since Cubans make up 28% of Florida Latinos [15]. Texas and California Latino communities are majority Mexican American, who make up about 80% of the Latino population in each state, but the other 20%, composed of various Central and South Americans, are mostly left out of voter outreach [16]. 

Common strategies of outreach to Latino voters include Spanish-language ads and websites, partnerships with local Latino politicians/celebrities, or a focus on so-called Latino-specific policies [17]. All of these strategies indicate a lack of understanding of the Latino community. While Spanish speaking is a commonality amongst Latinos, the increasing number of young U.S.-born Latino voters means there is an ever-increasing percentage of Latinos who are fluent in both English and Spanish. Over 70% of Latinos report fluency in English, a statistic coupled with the decline in the number of Latinos who report speaking Spanish at home [18]. While creating campaign materials in multiple languages is completely normal, the assumption that all Latinos only speak Spanish – one that American politicians consistently make – is an assumption that perpetuates the viewing of Latinos as a homogenous group of ‘others’ in the U.S. Furthermore, most Spanish language ads tend to have less political content than English ads – evidence that supports the notion that politicians tend to view Latinos as an easily swayed cluster [19]. 

These assumptions are further perpetuated by other campaign strategies, such as partnerships with Latino celebrities/politicians or having them rally on behalf of candidates. In 2000, Mexican singer Vicente Fernandez performed at the Republican convention in support of George W. Bush as part of Bush’s Texan-Latino targeting strategy [20]. Before Amy Coney Barrett was nominated to the Supreme Court, there were talks of nominating Barbara Lagoa, a Cuban American judge, and Republicans spoke about this possibility as if it would help them to garner the support of Latinos [21]. Similarly, Democrats boast of the election of Democratic officials such as New York District 14 representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez as evidence of their support of Latinos, particularly to seats of power. Actions like these, taken by both parties, not only ignore the diversity of Latino identity but also the diversity and complexity of Latino thought. Latinos are simply not an easily swayed population that will move towards one party because they see one person in that party who shares their ethnic background [22]. They have not, and will not, ignore personal policy preferences and concerns because of the ethnic and cultural identity of a candidate. For instance, in the Texas midterm elections of 2018, the majority of Latino voters (64%) cast their vote for Beto O’Rourke, not for Cuban American candidate Ted Cruz [23]. Indeed, dismissing the incredible diversity of Latino thought is a mistake made by all politicians. 

Politicians assume that all Latinos care about similar issues – one major issue being immigration. In the 2020 presidential elections, the beliefs of the Republican candidate made the change of Latino voting habits come as a particular shock to many. There is an assumption that most Latinos have strong ties to immigrants, and Donald Trump, the Republican presidential candidate in 2020, never shied away from expressing anti-immigrant sentiment [24]. Democrats assumed that they would capture most of the Latino vote without even having to actively work for it because Trump was pushing all of the votes away from Republicans. However, Democrats incorrectly assumed that all Latinos care strongly about immigration [25]. In reality, U.S born Latinos make up the majority of the current Latino population [26]. When Latinos were polled on issues they most cared about amidst the 2022 midterm elections, immigration was not even mentioned in the top three. Education and healthcare took two of the three spots and economics topped the list, which aligns with the preferences of the larger voting-eligible American population [27]. Indeed, on most policy items, Latinos vote in similar patterns to the larger American population [28]. 

Efforts by both parties to capture the vote are mostly ineffective and are put into effect based on broad, uneducated assumptions about Latinos. Indeed, Democrats and Republicans have ramped up their efforts of targeting the Latino vote over the past few years, spending a combined $73 million in the past election cycle [29] towards Latino-specific voter targeting, yet most Latinos still feel overlooked by politicians. The only common identity that politicians successfully target during attempted outreach is the common identity of otherness that was developed in 1960. In other words, the perpetual effort of politicians to target the Latino vote by using such ill-informed strategies actively turns Latinos away from both parties because such strategies show Latinos that these politicians do not know or understand their communities. No strategy or approach can capture significant enough portions of the Latino vote because Latinos are not a voting bloc. The ethnic label of Latino does not indicate any commonalities except for the label itself. There is as much diversity in the Latino community as there is in the entirety of the United States. The Latino community is composed of intelligent, diverse voters who – like all other Americans – will vote based on personal identifiers other than their ethnic background. Politicians should cease the employment of reductive Latino voter outreach strategies and start directing funds towards addressing issues that their voters, including Latinos, truly care about.


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