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Latino Voters: Misconceptions and Reality

Event discusses demographics, voting patterns, and key issues for Hispanics—a group politicians can no longer afford to ignore.

Latinos, the fastest growing major segment in the United States today, defy easy characterization, be it societal or political. That was the theme running throughout Latino Voters: Misconceptions and Reality, a half-day conference organized by The Americas Project at the Center for American Progress and the National Council of La Raza.

Hispanics express a desire to maintain distinct aspects of their cultural identity, but do so while also showing significant signs of and desire for assimilation into the broader American society, according to Prof. Gary Segura, one of the principal investigators behind the Latino National Survey, the first major national academic study of the country’s Latino population in nearly 15 years, who began the discussion Friday at the Center.

After another principal Latino National Survey investigator, Prof. Luis Fraga, highlighted the demographic, partisan, and civic participation characteristics of the Latino population, the conversation turned to the implications for public policy at the national level.

“If you’re a candidate, you ignore [the Hispanic] community at your peril,” Celinda Lake, President of Lake Research Partners, said Friday on one of the two panels organized to discuss how Latinos could be such a misunderstood portion of the national electorate.

Politicians’ lack of appreciation for the potential electoral power of the Hispanic community makes them an essentially untapped resource. There has yet to be a strong focus by either party on issues central to Latinos.

Panelists at Friday’s event delved into the issues that motivate Latino voters in order to highlight the effect their political behavior can have on the future policy direction of the country as a whole.

Although twice as many Latinos currently vote for Democrats than Republicans, many of the panelists explained that rhetoric and action on the important issues for the Latino community could determine what party or candidates they align themselves with in the future.

“The majority of Latinos vote Democrat and identify themselves as Democrats, but there are shifts,” said Clarissa Martinez De Castro, Director of State Policy and Advocacy at National Council of La Raza. Lionel Sosa, CEO of Mexicans and Americans Thinking Together (MATT.org), agreed with Castro, saying, “Most Latinos are predisposed to vote Democrat but are becoming more open to considering the person.”

Panelist pointed to a candidate’s take on immigration policy as being particularly indicative of whether or not they would be supported by the Latino community. “Immigration is to Hispanics what civil rights is to African Americans,” Sergio Bendixen, CEO of Bendixen and Associates, explained. “It is a litmus test [for a candidate].”

The panel discussed how the tone of the immigration debate this past year left a bitter taste in the mouths of many Hispanics, resulting in a voter shift that made the Democratic share of the Latino vote even more pronounced. “The nature of the immigration debate had a huge impact on the Republicans in the congressional elections,” Lake said.

“It’s about discrimination,” Tamar Jacoby, Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, agreed. “One side is talking about control and legality, the other side about do they want us here.”

“Seventy-five percent of Hispanic voters feel that there is a growing anti-immigrant, anti-Hispanic sentiment in the United States,” Bendixen stressed. “They reacted accordingly in the 2006 election.”

Bendixen also argued that the war in Iraq is another crucial issue for Hispanics. “They condemn U.S. foreign policy and its militaristic approach,” Bendixen said. “They look at the world in a different way than the average voter…They don’t celebrate the militaristic environment that the average American, in all honesty, is so proud of.”

The untapped resource of the Latino community will only become more important as the Hispanic population grows and the issues that affect them come to the forefront of American politics. “The fuss [about the Latino community] concerns only those who are concerned about long-term political survival,” Castro stated. During the past two presidential elections, “Gore spent little money on the Latino vote, Kerry spent zero,” Sosa explained. Yet Lake argued that during the 2008 presidential election, “The candidates are going to target this community if they are going to win.”

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