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What Matters Most to Latino Voters? It's Not Always Immigration Reform.

David McNew/Getty Images

A friend of mine—a co-member of the “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” cohort—once turned to me and said that just because Obama gave 643,000 unauthorized immigrants temporary relief from deportation, it didn’t mean he was pleasing all 53 million Latinos. With the delay of comprehensive immigration reform, that sentiment seems sharper than ever. If Latinos don’t feel the support of either party, what will compel any to vote at all? But Latinos could have huge electoral impact—in the upcoming midterms and beyond. Ninety-three percent of Latinos under the age of 18 are citizens of the U.S., and 73,000 of these become eligible to vote every month. According to Pew Hispanic Center, the Latino population in the U.S. will rise to 128 million, or 29 percent of the population, by 2050. I spoke with Gary Segura, one of the authors of the new book, Latino America: How America’s Most Dynamic Population is Poised to Transform the Politics of the Nation, about these issues.

Juan David Romero: What are some of the perils faced by the GOP and Democrats as described in your book? What are the solutions to avoiding such pitfalls?

Gary Segura: I feel that it’s too late for the GOP to avoid any pitfalls. I don’t think they can undo their reputation, certainly not for this election. They had an opportunity to opt for immigration reform, they didn’t. I think they’re going to pay a pretty hefty price.

JDR: Even Hispanic opinion about immigration reform is fairly split, some supporting Obama, others not. Does this factor into the Hispanic vote for upcoming elections?

GS: The country is not split on immigration reform. Immigration reform is actually among the most consensual issues in the United States. Yes, there is a group of Latinos that are mad at Obama. But, the people that are mad at Obama, they’re not going to go vote Republican. … They’re more likely to stay home, and that’s a problem for Democrats. That should be their biggest fear.

JDR: In your book, you say that war was a huge issue for Latinos in the 2008 elections. Do you think war still plays a large role in how Latinos vote?

GS: As long as there are no ground troops, Latinos will not have strong opinions. … I don’t know what Latino opinions are on strikes in Syria and Iraq, but Latinos are more skeptical of all wars.

JDR: You write that the Latino agenda is the American agenda. Can you elaborate a little bit on this statement?

GS: This is a quote from Cruz Bustamante. Bustamante used to like to say that the Latino agenda is the American agenda because, when you take out immigration, the things that Latinos most often worry about are education, jobs, public safety, crime, and healthcare. None of those are particularly Latino-focused. Bustamante thought that Latino politics were more likely to be advanced successfully if the Latino agenda looked more mainstream and less minority specific.

JDR: What is one of the most striking and surprising demographic changes affecting Latinos?

GS: There are two really striking changes, one political and one social. The political change is that Latinos are highly more Democratic than they were just ten years ago. About 40 percent of Latinos voted for George W. Bush. Historically, about one-third of Latinos do not vote Democrat. In the last two presidential and congressional elections, we’ve been getting Democratic numbers in the 70 to 75 percent range. … The social change is the sense of pan-ethnicity. Back in the 1990s, relatively few Latinos thought of themselves in the Latino or Hispanic category and instead thought of themselves as Mexican or Puerto Rican or Cuban. What has happened since is that a huge percentage of Latinos now identify with the pan-ethnic term. … Over one-third say that it is their primary identity, that they put that before their national origin.

JDR: In studying the Hispanic population did it matter to you whether they referred to themselves as Latino or Hispanic?

GS: One of the first questions we ask them is if they want to speak in English or Spanish and we ask them if they consider themselves Hispanic or Latino. … Hispanic is the most popular term by far. Latino is very popular in the press and in academia, but in the general population, more than 50 percent of Latinos or Hispanics prefer the word Hispanic.

JDR: Tell me a little bit about Latino Decisions, your partnership for political opinion and public policy research that you founded with Matt Barreto in 2007?

GS: We started out nonprofit, and then we started polling for profit around 2008. Our biggest break came in 2010. We got the opportunity to do a state poll for Arizona and the week we conducted the poll was the week Jan Brewer signed SB 1070 into law. So we got the only data outlining Latino responses to SB 1070.

JDR: What is most crucial about collecting data about Hispanics today?

GS: For 30 percent of all Latino registered voters and over 50 percent of all Latino residents in the United States, Spanish is their first language. So, if you are not polling bilingually, you are not getting it right, which is really bad for the many mainstream polling houses. There’s also a big move now to internet-based polling, and only about 70 percent of Latinos have daily web access at home.

JDR: In your book you say: “Latinos are not as socially conservative as popularly conceived nor as susceptible.” Explain to me what this means for Hispanics now, in the midterm, and future elections?

GS: Going back to Ronald Reagan, Republicans have always believed that social conservatism—messages around religion, hard work, opposition to abortion, and gay rights—is going to get them a growing share of the Latino vote. It doesn’t work out that way. First of all, Latinos are about as pro-gay as all other Americans; Latinos don’t want ministers telling them who to vote for and they don’t want politicians relying on their religious beliefs to make policy. So they don’t see these things as defining how they vote, and Republicans don’t get that.

JDR: Is that what you are trying to say when you mention in your book that Latinos vote as economic pragmatists?

GS: Seventy-five percent of our respondents, including regular church-goers and self-identified born Christians, say politics is economic issues.

JDR: According to a Pew Study, Hispanics are not going to the polls to vote, though not because they don’t want to, but because they don’t qualify. Do you think that if most Hispanics qualified, numbers would still be low?

GS: There are a number of things holding the Latino voter turnout down. One is that the community is under-mobilized by political parties and candidates. Also, people from lower incomes vote less, and Latinos tend to be lower-income. People with lower levels of education vote less, and Latinos have less education than average. Then, back to the age thing. Young people don’t vote and Latinos are very young.

JDR: What do you think about education of Hispanics now and how will that play a role in the politics of the future?

GS: Somewhere around 90 percent of all Latinos aspire to have their children go to college. So it’s not a lack of desire, but a lack of opportunity. When opportunity is afforded, Latinos take advantage of it.

JDR: Why did Latinos oppose the individual mandate and how will awareness about the ACA (Affordable Care Act) play a role in the following elections?

GS: Latinos overwhelmingly support the Affordable Care Act and have consistently done so. Anti-healthcare is not going to win among Latinos. They support Obamacare.

This interview has been edited and condensed.