US election: The myth of the "Latino vote"

The mainstream media believes Latino voters are a monolith. But they're wrong

October 29, 2020
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Asked by the press whether he had any new perspectives on Latin America following his tour of the region in 1982, President Ronald Reagan responded, “You’d be surprised, because, you know, they’re all individual countries.”

It’s easy to laugh at Reagan’s comment, yet the president was trying to articulate something that is little understood in the United States—Latin America’s diversity. Almost four decades later, with 32m Latinos eligible to vote in next week’s presidential election, that diversity is a major part of American democracy. And whilst there is much that unites Latinos, they are far from monolithic.

This year, for the first time, Latinos are the largest minority group in the US electorate. With four million Latinos enfranchised since 2016, they now represent 13 per cent of potential voters. Their ballots could determine the swing states of Arizona, Wisconsin, Nevada and—most importantly of all—Florida.

Yet too often political commentators and armchair pundits bunch Latinos together uncritically, as though—by virtue of cultural similarities—they are bound to think the same way. That’s equating a Mexican agricultural worker in California with a blue-collar Puerto Rican in the Bronx and a Cuban anti-communist in Miami. And even those examples are stereotypes.

To give a sense of the electoral implications of this heterogeneity, it’s worth remembering that Hillary Clinton convinced two-thirds of Latino voters to cast their ballot for her in 2016. That’s double the number that opted for Trump, but still means that nearly one in three Latinos voted for a candidate who promised to build the wall and stereotyped Mexicans as drug dealers, criminals and rapists. “Latino voters” (or “Latinx voters”, in woke parlance) might be a convenient catch-all term, but it obscures their individuality.

Just as it would be vague to speak of “the white vote”—as though there were not major discrepancies between, for example, the white working class and white suburbanites—the term “Latino vote” conceals major sociological and political differences.

Campaign teams are acknowledging the nuances in the Latino . Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez launched an all-Spanish Twitter account earlier this year; and, in the presidential election, Spanish language adverts are micro-targeted to different states, and even different communities within the same state. For Phoenix, Arizona, the narrator of a Biden campaign message has a Mexican accent. When the same advert is shown in Orlando, Florida, the voice is Puerto Rican; and for Miami, Florida, it’s Cuban.

It’s a recognition of a diverse Latino electorate. This micro-targeting reaffirms that, of all the swing-states, Florida—with its 29 votes in the electoral college—is the most important. In 13 of the past 14 presidential elections, the candidate to carry Florida has taken the White House. In Florida, Latinos comprise nearly one in four residents. Cubans may be the historic majority, but there are sizeable diasporic populations from Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Colombia. For these voters, especially older ones, US foreign policy relating to their country of origin is often a determining factor.

The dynamics are different in Texas. Within the state’s Mexican-American community, “you have recent immigrants and you have people who have been here since the Mexican-American war (1846–48) and well before that,” explained David Leal, professor of political science at the University of Texas at Austin.

Some Texan Latinos speak an anglicised form of Spanish and are keen on curbing migration from Mexico, fearing that new migrants will compete for their jobs. “A lot of Latinos support the GOP for the same reason that anybody supports the GOP,” said Leal.

But a further factor complicates the attempt to delineate how people with Latino heritage vote. Leal calls it “the case of the disappearing Latinos.” These are people who are Latino by ancestry—possibly a half or a quarter Latino—but who, because of their acculturation into the mainstream, don’t identify as Latino on surveys. As Leal describes, “as soon as Latinos get more of the American Dream, many of them don’t count [themselves] as Latino anymore.” To speak of a “Latino vote,” then, is a gross oversimplification.

Despite so much at stake next week, especially for a community whose unemployment rate has nearly quadrupled since the start of the pandemic, and who are twice as likely to die of the virus than their white compatriots (and that’s not even mentioning the question of immigration reform), the Latino turnout may remain low. Fewer than half of eligible Latinos voted in 2016, and in August this year the polling firm Latino Decisions found that the majority of Latinos had not been reached by either the Democratic or Republican campaigns. Earlier in the summer, fewer than 60 per cent of Latino respondents in battleground states said they were definitely planning to vote.

Even if Latinos do want to vote, there are systemic hurdles to participation. Latino-dominant neighbourhoods tend to have fewer polling stations per capita than other parts of the same state and, on average, they have to wait 46 per cent longer than whites to cast their ballots. In Texas, making unsubstantiated claims that postal ballots are more likely to be fraudulent, the Republican Governor Greg Abbott is only authorising one ballot drop-off box per county. That includes Harris County, the third most populous in the USA, which spans an area larger than the entire state of Rhode Island. It’s also is 44 per cent Latino.

Despite major concerns over the beleaguered postal system’s ability to cope with the flurry of mailed votes, voters who wish to use the state’s drop-off box could have to travel 30 miles to reach it. The alternative, for a community hit disproportionately hard by the pandemic, is a long wait at a traditional polling booth. Harris County judge Lina Hidalgo wrote on Twitter: “It’s suppression.” And even if they do decide to vote by post, academic analysis of Florida and Georgia suggests that they have their postal ballots rejected at twice the usual rate.

And ultimately, Latinos whose votes are counted do not form in a nationwide racial or ethnic bloc. A variety of factors, including their individual location, age, and level of education, play critical roles in determining who they support. It’s far from clear that anything resembling the monolithic “Latino vote” that political pundits refer to exists—which makes predicting how, or even if, they will vote all the more difficult.