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Latino Voters

Latino Voters

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      During the 1990s the size of the Latino population in the United States soared. Most of the increase was the result of immigration, particularly from Mexico and Central America. The 2000 census revealed that for the first time in American history Hispanics had surpassed African Americans in population, thus becoming the largest minority group in the country. Though comprising a diversity of national origin, Latinos made their presence felt throughout American society in the last decades of the 20th century, from sports and music to language and culture. In the 1990s Latinos entered politics as never before: the number of Latino officeholders more than doubled, and Latino voting rates increased similarly. Although in that decade Latinos voted for Democratic candidates in national elections by a margin of two to one, Republicans made significant inroads at the state level. For example, Texas Governor George W. Bush won close to half the Latino vote in the 1998 gubernatorial election. Both Bush and Al Gore courted Latino voters in the tightly contested presidential election of 2000. Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, delivered the following speech in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in September 1999. Excerpted below, his address examines the impact of Latino voters on the American political landscape.

      I want to thank Phil Burgess, president of the Center for the New West, and Sol Trujillo, who is chairman of the Center's board and chairman and CEO of US West, for inviting me to be with you here this evening, and to speak about a topic that I think is very timely: the role of Latinos in American politics.

      And I have to tell you, it is somewhat frightening to see two white, middle-aged men speaking better Spanish than your own niece and nephews.

      Yet I believe it says a great deal about what is happening today with respect to Latinos and American politics. There are (and I do this for the benefit of my friends in the media) five main points I want to make with respect to this topic.

      First, the impact of Latinos in the electorate is largely based upon the increase of Latinos in the general population.

      Second, there has been a steady and consistent increase in Latino participation in voting since 1992, and much of this has been a result of a significant contribution of new citizens, newly naturalized citizens, who have had a demonstrable impact on the Latino electorate and their behavior.

      Third, the political hostility toward immigrants and Latinos contributed to the increase of legal permanent residents applying for U.S. citizenship and participating in voting, which set the stage for an overwhelming support for Democrats from Latinos from 1994 through 1998.

      Fourth, the concentration of Latinos in strategic states make their role in the Presidential election very important.

      And, lastly, the next election will be a true test of whether this trend of increased Latino voter participation holds, and also will be a major opportunity for the Republican Party to make up some lost ground with Latinos.

      In 1990, the Census Bureau counted 22.1 million Hispanics in the continental United States. When we (NALEO) count the number of Latinos in elected office, we include only the 50 states. We do not include elected officials in Puerto Rico. The 1990 census represented a 50% increase over 1980. Half of this increase was due to immigration. Half of that increase was due to natural factors, the difference of births or deaths.

      Two weeks ago, the U.S. Census Bureau released population growth estimates from 1990 through 1998, and reported a 36% increase in the Latino population during this period. About 7.9 million Latinos were added to the U.S. population. Latinos now account for about 11% of the U.S. population, and in about five years, Latinos are expected to surpass African-Americans and become the second largest population group in the United States.

      Latinos are a large and growing population as well as incredibly diverse: 63% of Latinos are of Mexican origin, about 14% are of Puerto Rican origin, 6% are of Cuban origin, and about 12% are of Central and South American origin.

      In the West, the Latino population is overwhelmingly of Mexican origin with a strong and growing Central American population, particularly in California. In fact, Los Angeles has the largest concentration of Salvadorenos of anywhere outside of El Salvador, second only to Washington, D.C., and followed by Houston. The Latino population's diversity also is geographic. Latinos live in each of the 50 states, yet we are concentrated in a handful of states. Latinos also are incredibly diverse politically, which I will discuss shortly. Latinos are also a youthful population, which has a fundamental impact on Latino voting strength. Nationally, Latinos have a median age of about 26 years, compared to a median of 36 years for the Anglo population in the United States.

      Thus, of every 100 Latinos, 40 of them are unable to vote because they are under 18. Of the remaining 60, about 40% of them cannot vote because they are not U.S. citizens. And when issues such as low levels of educational attainment, low levels of income, and low home ownership rates, are factored in, it is not hard to understand why 5% of the U.S. electorate is made up of Latinos while the U.S. population is 11%. Thus, when people claim, "Well, Latinos don't vote," this represents, I think, a lack of understanding about the nature of the Latino population. Often, Latinos do not vote because they cannot vote. Many are too young and many others are not citizens. Now, the age factor will adjust over time. The citizenship factor has been changing, and I will talk about that in a few seconds as well. Yet despite these factors that inhibit voting, there nevertheless has been a steady and consistent increase in Latino voting strength. . . .

      How did Latinos vote? Well, in 1992, 65% voted for Clinton, and 25% for Bush. Nineteen ninety-four was the year of the Republican landslide, but it also was the year of Proposition 187 in California, which I believe really became the defining moment for Latino politics this decade. . . .

      About 700,000 more Latinos voted in 1996 than in 1992, while the number of non-Latinos voting declined in absolute numbers. Thus, a phenomenon which is occurring is that as more Latinos are voting, more non-Latinos are not voting, which increases the overall Latino percentage of the electorate and makes the impact of Latinos so much stronger at the voting polls. Nineteen ninety-six also was the election that saw the strongest Latino support for a Democrat candidate. Clinton received about 71% of the Latino vote, while Dole received 21%, the lowest for a Republican candidate.

      And there is a gender gap among Latinos, just as there is among non-Latinos. Eighty percent of Latinas voted for Clinton, and 60% of Latinos voted for Clinton. Fifty-three percent of the electorate in the Latino community is made up of women; the gender gap is even more pronounced among Latinos than among non-Latinos. . . .

      Naturalized citizens are having a real impact on who Latino voters overall are. Many observers of Latino political behavior who have been following these trends in the Latino community believe that the increase in the interest in naturalization is a reaction, in fact, to Proposition 187 in California and to the welfare legislation passed by Congress in 1995 that denied benefits to legal, permanent residents. Not undocumented immigrants, but to legal, permanent residents.

      Many of these citizens during this period of overt hostility toward immigrants, and Latinos specifically, sought out U.S. citizenship, I believe, as an act of self-defense, out of anger, out of fear, and out of a real desire to play a role in politics. And they have had an impact on the Latino vote overall. Eighty percent of the new voters voted for Clinton and only 5% of the new voters voted for Dole. . . .

      A new generation has emerged, although not necessarily permanently, a generation of Latino voters who vote religiously and vote to support Democratic candidates. In the 1998 elections, Latino support helped in Congressional, state legislative and statewide races throughout the State of California and in the West. Again, the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute reported that [California Governor Pete] Wilson's high negatives among Latinos really dragged down Republican candidates. In fact, in a 1997 special election for a state legislative race in a heavily Latino and heavily immigrant district where all the candidates were Latinos, the one who won in a landslide used the message that he was the best candidate to oppose Pete Wilson's policies.

      Now, he was going to be one of 80 members of a legislature, but his campaign was, "I'm the best one to go up against Pete Wilson," and he won in a landslide in a Latino district.

      Gubernatorial candidate Gray Davis also was a huge beneficiary of the Latino vote. Eight-one percent of Latinos voted for Davis; 77% of Latinos voted for U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer. Cruz Bustamante, the first Latino to win a statewide race since 1871, was elected Lt. Governor. . . .

      A critical element in producing Latino voters is organized labor. I encourage you to look at the role of labor unions in not just organizing Latinos to join labor unions, but organizing Latinos to turn out at the polls. Unions have had a demonstrable impact on California races and could be pivotal in the 2000 election.

      Of course, there are notable exceptions to the Latino Democratic landslide, obviously George W. Bush in Texas is one of these exceptions. There are estimates that he received anywhere from 39% to 49% of the Latino vote in 1998. Some argue that Latino turnout in Texas was low to begin with, so it was only his hard-core supporters who turned out. So the percentage of Latino support that Bush received may not necessarily represent his strength throughout all the Latino community. Yet the bottom line is the Governor is popular among Latinos in Texas, and he had coattails as well. Tony Garza won statewide in the state of Texas as a Republican, and he now sits on the Texas Railroad Commission. California elected three Republican Latinos to the State Assembly, joining the one who was elected in 1996. There are now four Latinos in the Assembly who are Republican, and 13 who are Democrat. And there are two caucuses: the Latino Legislative Caucus that is Democrat, and a Hispanic Republican Caucus. Great diversity for the community that I think is very healthy. . . .

      The Republican strategy is really to try to get at least 40% of the Hispanic vote. If Republicans get 40% of the vote, they believe they will have been successful. They claim that they are going to work hard for the Latino vote. They are going to put money into TV ads, something that we have not seen nationally since the 1988 race between George Bush and Michael Dukakis. Bush is attractive to the Latinos. He has a base in Texas, and his brother (Gov. Jeb Bush) is very popular among Latinos in Florida where he received 67% of the Latino vote. Bush is also consciously distancing himself in California from Pete Wilson. I have yet to see George W. Bush and Pete Wilson in the same room, and to me it is no surprise. George W. Bush opposes English Only. He supports vouchers, which in fact are popular among Latinos, and he has worked well with Hispanic leaders in Texas. . . .

      I think the debates over the Census and sampling were harmful to the Republican Party. The Census is an issue that is very keen in the Latino community. Latino organizations and Latino leaders made the census a priority in 1970, 1980 and 1990, and we will again in the year 2000.

      Latino organizations and leaders are engaging in comprehensive outreach efforts to educate Latinos about the importance of being counted in the Census. Whenever anybody puts himself in the position of appearing not to advocate for a full Census count, it sends a strong message to Latinos that you are not on their side.

      There are a couple of other issues before Congress this session that also could hurt the image of the Republican party among Latinos. The restructuring of the INS is being proposed in a way that my organization opposes—my board of directors, which is 20% Republican—opposes. Congress is proposing to cut funds for bilingual education, which has strong support among Latinos. . . .

      The big question is, will the trend of voter participation among Latinos continue in the year 2000? There are some indications that the factors contributing to low voter turnout overall, the good old American political apathy, may be catching up to Latinos and affecting them as well.

      The sting of Proposition 187, welfare reform, Proposition 227 may be fading. And other than in Arizona, where there is another initiative to eliminate bilingual education, there do not seem to be emerging other wedge issues that may be galvanizing Latinos like they were in 1994, 1996 and 1998.

      Ultimately, I believe, the candidate who can best convey a message to Latinos on the most important issues that they care about will have the advantage.

      The most important issues for Latinos today are crime and drugs, education, and economic opportunity. Look for continued outreach to new voters. Look for the use of Spanish-language media to reach these voters.

      As the Presidential race unfolds, Latinos are settling into a position where we have worked very, very hard to be. We want to be in a place where our vote is not taken for granted by Democrats or Republicans; where candidates consciously reach out to Latino voters and work hard to convince us that they offer the better alternative to advance our interests, and that political parties think twice about pursuing policies that will alienate Latinos.

      This is essentially where we want to be. We are not there yet, but I think we are well on our way. Thank you.

Source: Vital Speeches of the Day, January 1, 2000.

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Universalium. 2010.

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