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Jewish World Review Oct. 7, 2002 / 1 Mar-Cheshvan, 5763

Michael Barone

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Latino voters and American politics |
Latinos are the fastest-growing segment of the electorate today, and their political choices in the future could break the current partisan deadlock between the parties. Democrats hope that the inevitably increasing number of Latino voters will vote Democratic in percentages as high as those in 2000 or higher, thus producing larger and larger Democratic popular vote margins every presidential and off-year cycle. Republicans hope they can increase the Republican percentage among Latinos up toward 50 percent, minimizing or eliminating Democratic popular vote margins.

Who's likely to be right? Interesting but not conclusive polls come from the release of results from a national survey of Latinos, a poll of 2,929 Hispanic adults (plus another 1,284 non-Hispanics for comparison purposes) conducted by the Pew Hispanic Center and the Kaiser Family Foundation from April through June 2002.

The Pew-Kaiser poll confirms that Latinos are inclined toward the Democratic party, but are not strongly committed to either party. The current party identification of Latinos registered to vote is 49 percent Democratic and 20 percent Republican. This is much more Democratic than whites (37 to 24 percent Republican) but substantially less Democratic than blacks (64 to 5 percent Democratic). And, interestingly, young Latinos are not nearly as likely to identify themselves as Democrats as their elders: those 18 to 29 are 34 percent Democratic and 21 percent Republican. Nearly half do not identify with either party: There is room for both parties to grow.

There is also room for growth among Latinos who are not yet voters or even citizens. Of those who are citizens but not voters, 31 percent are Democrats and 10 percent Republicans. But among Latinos who are planning on becoming U.S. citizens, the Democratic advantage is only 22 to 14 percent-not far from the statistical margin of error.

On the economy, Latino voters say they have more confidence in Democrats than Republicans by a 53 to 27 percent margin-a result that roughly tracks party identification. But when President Bush is mentioned the balance changes. On the economy, 43 percent have more confidence in Democrats in Congress, 42 percent in President Bush.

Pew's Roberto Suro and Kaiser's Mollyann Brodie point out that Latino voters, even when separated out by party, differ from non-Latino voters on important issues. On cultural issues, they tend to be more conservative. More than whites, they disapprove of abortion, homosexual sex, and divorce. Latinos born outside the United States are even more conservative on these matters. This suggests that many Latino Democrats will not be entirely comfortable in a party one of whose most fervently supported positions is "choice" on abortions.

On economic issues, Latinos are more likely than whites to express confidence in government and to favor larger government over tax cuts. This is even true of Latino Republicans, who may not be entirely comfortable in a party one of whose unifying issues is tax cuts. Interestingly, those Latinos born outside the United States are most likely to express confidence in government. This may be because they have an idealized concept of American government and assume that it lacks the defects of government which are common knowledge in Latin America. Then, as Latinos gain more and more experience of life in America, they tend to move toward the somewhat jaundiced view of government's operations and the opposition to bigger government expressed by most whites.

Pew and Kaiser plan to release the full results of their survey in December. But this initial release of political questions suggest that it will be a tricky business for either party to achieve its goals among Latino voters-and a tricky business for those of us in the predicting business to predict which way they'll go. One thing is clear. The "people of color" model, so beloved of leftist academics, is wrong. According to that model, Latinos being "nonwhite" will inevitably suffer great discrimination and poverty in this racist country and should support nearly unanimously ever-bigger government and racial entitlements: Browns should behave like blacks.

But they don't. Relatively few Latinos say they have experienced discrimination, Suro reports, and most are in the process of experiencing upward economic mobility. Their attitudes toward economic and cultural issues have been shaped by experiences in their home countries that are unfamiliar to most American political analysts and by experiences in America which do not fit well into the "people of color" model. And their attitudes on major issues tend to be in tension with the attitudes of major constituencies in both political parties.

Democrats may take encouragement from this poll that Latinos tend to trust American government and want more of it. But that trust and that desire tend to diminish as time goes on. And they may be pleased with this confirmation that at present they have a large, if not strong, advantage in party identification. Republicans may take encouragement from results showing that Latinos are relatively conservative on cultural issues-though it's a mistake to suppose they're all 1950s-style-Irish-incense-and-Latin-Mass Catholics; in fact, growing numbers of Latinos here and in Latin America are evangelical Protestants. This poll presents more evidence that George W. Bush's efforts to appeal to Latinos have had considerable success but that so far they have not done much for his party. This time 100 years ago no one knew for sure how Italian and Jewish and Polish immigrants would affect American politics; today no one knows how Latinos will.

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Michael Barone Archives

JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of, most recently, "The New Americans." He also edits the biennial "Almanac of American Politics". Send your comments to him by clicking here.


©2002, Michael Barone