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Latino Voters and the 2012 Election

Story by
Nancy Joseph

Ten a day. That’s how many media interviews Matt Barreto estimates he’s done since the 2012 election season began heating up.

Barreto, UW associate professor of political science, director of the Washington Institute for the Study of Ethnicity, Race & Sexuality (WISER), and co-founder of the public opinion research firm Latino Decisions, is in high demand as an expert on election politics, particularly the Latino vote. He sat down with Perspectives editor Nancy Joseph in early October to share his insights on the upcoming election.

Matt Barreto

Matt Barreto.

Can you first provide an overview of the changing demographics of Latino voters in the U.S.?

That’s a great place to start. The Latino vote has been growing steadily for the last 20 years, as more immigrants have become citizens and registered to vote. More recently, we’re also seeing growth driven by U.S.-born Latinos turning 18. About 50,000 Latinos turn 18 every month in the United States and become eligible to vote. That’s about 600,000 Latinos a year being added to the voting pool, and that’s expected to continue. This growth has been taking place in a lot of traditional states like California and Texas, but also in states where there haven’t been huge numbers of Latinos, like North Carolina and Virginia.

Are you finding that second-generation Latino voters have different political views than their immigrant parents?

There tend to be a lot of similarities on issues, because the second generation is not that far removed from the immigrant generation. They still feel that immigrant identity. By the time you get to what we identify as the third or the fourth generation, meaning it was your grandparents who immigrated or even your great-great grandparents, then we do start to see some differences.

What’s interesting is that this year we’re seeing more things bringing Latinos together, even in the third and fourth generation. We suspect the reason for this is the negative rhetoric around immigration. The bill in Arizona [SB 1070] that allows police to ask anybody who “looks undocumented” for proof of citizenship has caused concern among U.S.-born Latinos who are getting swept up in a lot of police checks and immigration checks. That’s caused the issue of immigration to really resonate across generations and that’s not something that always used to happen.

Is immigration the biggest issue for Latino voters this year?

Immigration is the biggest mobilizing issue, but also jobs and the economy. Latino voters want to see more jobs created. They want to see the economy rebound. But you can't separate immigration from that equation.

Obama’s June 15 announcement of the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) must have had a big impact on Latino voters.

Yes. That announcement was a big deal. Before the announcement, Obama had a really bad reputation among Latinos on the issue of immigration, having deported more immigrants than any other president per year in his three years in office. It was very well known in the Latino community that he was pushing for immigration reform through the DREAM Act, but partisan gridlock in Congress had blocked that. When Obama finally took the executive action of issuing an administrative order through the Department of Homeland Security, this was greeted with great enthusiasm in the Latino community. We saw his polling numbers on the handling of the immigration issue shoot up about 20 to 30% almost literally overnight.

Are Latino voters a fairly solid block or is there a lot of variation and nuance in their views?

People ask about “the” Latino vote as if there is one viewpoint among all 50 million Latinos in the United States. That's a mistake, because there is a lot of diversity. And yet we are finding more commonalities than differences among Latinos. Cuban Americans concentrated in Miami tend to be an exception and are definitely more conservative, but non-Cuban Latinos tend to have similar viewpoints whether you’re talking about Puerto Ricans or Guatemalans. And even Republican Cuban voters will never go along with a policy that says you should not have Spanish available. That’s the language of their community. That’s where Republicans start to get in trouble even with their own Latino Republican constituents—when they go too hard and too far to the right on issues like language and these nationalistic notions of citizenship. These movements put off even Latino Republicans and that’s part of why we arrived at where we are now. The Republican Party was making so many of those overtures to the Right, to the Tea Party, early in the primary that they may not be able to make up that ground now with Latino voters.

Do you have statistics about Latino voters identifying as Democrat or Republican?

In our polling we’re finding that about 50% of Latino voters identify as Democrat, about 20% as Republican, and about 30% as independent or other. When it comes to actual voting, we find that Democrats do a lot better than 50%. Right now President Obama is polling at about 72%, and Mitt Romney at about 20%. So those who identify as Independents may not be Democrats, but they are certainly not Republicans. And that’s been a problem for the Republican Party.

In which states do you see Latino voters potentially making a difference in this year’s election?


"Stop the Raids + Deportations" reads a sign at an immigration rally. Media credit: Flickr contributor aymanfadel

There are a number of states this year that we are identifying as Latino-influenced states—states where the Latino vote, whether it’s high in number or breaks really strongly towards one party or the other, will tip the outcome, will influence the Presidential election as well as the election to U.S. Senate. Those states include Nevada, Colorado, and Florida. Those are the really big three that have a lot of influence.

After that, we look at states like North Carolina and Virginia—these are states that have had huge increases in the Latino voting population and are really really close, really tight. And then there are states like Iowa...[which] used to have a very small Latino population but we’ve seen huge growth over the years and now with those people becoming citizens or their children turning 18, the Latino voting population in Iowa could have a huge influence this year.

Then you have Arizona. That’s a state that has traditionally voted Republican through the last few election cycles and doesn’t seem like it would be very competitive. But it’s getting closer, and it’s getting closer entirely because of the Latino vote. It’s 20%—one out of every five voters in Arizona is Latino, and if those numbers are increased, Arizona is a state that could be won by the Democrats entirely because of the Latino vote. In Arizona we’re finding some of the highest Democratic vote numbers among Latinos of any state in the country. And that’s almost entirely driven by the very negatively perceived SB 1070, the bill that was signed by Republican Governor Jane Brewer and was recently decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. This is something that has turned Latinos off from the Republican Party in Arizona in droves. So if Arizona is one of those surprise states in 2012, it will be because of Latino participation.

Given the potential influence of Latino voters, have the two parties made special efforts to reach out to them?

In 2008, Obama did massive voter registration outreach to groups that traditionally had lower rates of registration, including young people, Latinos, African Americans, and other demographics where they thought they could win those votes. They have increased those efforts in key states in 2012. There’s been a lot of effort by the Obama campaign to register Latino voters. It’s important for the Latino community to hear that the candidates care about their vote and value their contributions.

Is Romney making overtures as well? Or has he decided that encouraging Latinos to vote will not be to his advantage?

The Romney campaign has been split on that. All through the primary, Romney was worried that he wasn’t going to be deemed the conservative candidate, that he was going to be portrayed as too moderate. So during the primary he tried to move to the right and then farther to the right and then farther to the right on issues like immigration. Now that the general election is here, he’s trying to soften his language on immigrants and bilingual education and immigration reform, but there’s a lot out there already and so I think he’s been reluctant—he’s seen the polling numbers and they’re not good—so he’s been reluctant to do too much. But his campaign is doing outreach to Latinos in Spanish and English, particularly in Florida where there are more Republican Latinos. The question is how effective it will be given everything he said in the primary, which was quite negative.

Where does Washington state fit in as far as the influence of Latino voters?

Washington is definitely a state that is on the horizon for the Latino vote. Latino voters make up about 5% of the electorate, so in a close election they could be quite influential. And the governor’s race this year is expected to be very, very close. If Latino voters turn out in very high numbers, that could really benefit Democrat Jay Inslee. However, if Latino voter turnout rates are low as they have been in some Washington elections, that could likewise cause McKenna to win the election by just a hair.

Any thoughts on why turnout rates have been low?

Latino voter registration rates in Washington State are lower than the national average. There hasn’t been that history of cultivating the Latino vote. Particularly in central Washington, the political parties have not attempted to bring Latino voters into the mix, so we see lower registration rates and lower participation rates in that region. That is something that needs to change for Latinos to have a larger influence here.

For links to other interviews with Matt Barreto, visit the WISIR website at or Latino Decisions at