This week, Team Obama launched the first in a series of Spanish-language television and radio ads in key swing states. The RNC also announced this week that it is placing Latino outreach directors in Colorado, Florida, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, and Virginia. The battle for the all-important Latino vote has officially begun.
Latinos are the nation’s fastest growing demographic group and both Republicans and Democrats have been vying for decades to permanently secure this demographic in their own camp. In national elections, two out of three Latinos generally vote for Democrats. But the 2004 elections, in which President Bush was re-elected with ~40 percent of the Latino vote, highlighted the fact that these voters can just as easily swing the other way. Obama currently leads Romney among Latino voters by 40 points, according to the latest Pew Research Center poll.
As the former head of the Republican National Committee Ed Gillespie (recently hired by Team Romney) notes, these numbers paint a bleak future for Republican prospects, given current demographic trends: “We’ll be in a situation where Florida won’t be a swing state — Texas will be a swing state. And that’s a tough row to hoe in the Electoral College.” Still, neither Republicans nor Democrats will be able to permanently lock down this ever-growing bloc of voters unless they change their pattern of courtship.
First, strategists should not approach this voting bloc under the assumption of a Pan-Latino identity. Although the vast majority of Latinos in the United States are Mexican-American or Mexican-born, there is still a significant chunk (~30%) of the U.S. Latino population that originates from a number of different countries. Republicans and Democrats are wrong to assume that just because Latinos share the same language, they also share the same backgrounds, cultures, and overall identity. Understanding how these differences break out in swing states will help strategists hone in on the key issues pertinent to specific demographics within the Latino bloc.
Second, the debate is too heavily centered on immigration issues. Although immigration is important, for many Latinos there are far more pressing matters at hand. For example, the unemployment rate for Latinos is 10.4% compared to the national average of 8.2% and Latinos saw their average household wealth drop by 66% compared to 16% and 53% for whites and blacks, respectively. It is no wonder that in a recent poll, Latino voters indicated their top issues for the 2012 election are actually jobs and the state of the economy.
Additionally, given that Latino students are dropping out of high school and college at much more alarming rates than their black or white counterparts, education stands as another very important, particularly amongst the younger generation of Latinos. Promising to pass legislation that extends financing to college-bound Latinos is a step in the right direction, but it does not go far enough. Whichever party best addresses the issue of education today will most likely secure permanent voters tomorrow. This potential becomes even more promising when one takes into account the fact that over the next two decades, 50,000 Latinos will turn 18 every month.
Third, a vast majority of Latino voters speak English. Running campaign ads in Spanish is not going to win you votes in the Latino community. If anything, it comes off as offensive and pandering.
Up until this point, both Republicans and Democrats have taken a very myopic view in courting Latinos. Both sides are only interested in Latinos when it is an election season and these politicians never follow through on campaign promises made specifically to Latino voters. The 22 million eligible Latino voters are a part of this country too. Given the growing political strength of this voter base, Republicans and Democrats would be wise to take a more nuanced and long-term approach in their courting efforts.