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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Latinos and the 2012 Elections

Event Recap

With a burgeoning population and increasing national political participation and prominence, Latino voters promised to be a decisive factor in the 2012 elections. On November 1, the Boisi Center hosted a panel featuring Alan Wolfe, Susan Eckstein, and Luis Lugo to discuss various dimensions of the Latino vote in the 2012 elections.

Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center and professor of political science, illustrated the larger political context in which the discussion about the Latino vote takes place. In 1969 political scientist Kevin Phillips correctly predicted the rise of the conservative Republican movement in his book The Emerging Republican Majority. In 2002 as conservative Republicans continued to maintain a firm grasp on national electoral power, political scientists John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira predicted that the nation would soon experience a political realignment in favor of the Democratic party in their book, The Emerging Democratic Majority. This shift, they argued, would be driven by the increasing electoral influence of young people, women, professionals and Hispanics, who tend to favor the Democratic party. In 2008 these constituencies played a key role in the political coalition that elected Barack Obama, but in the week prior to the 2012 election it was still uncertain if the Obama coalition would rematerialize. Wolfe argued that heavy Latino turnout in favor of the Democrats could signal an important shift in national politics.

Boston University sociologist Susan Eckstein argued that while Latinos on average tend to favor the Democratic party, it remains difficult to speak of a pan-Latino vote. Cuban-Americans in Florida, for example, lean heavily for Republican candidates and in 2004 were integral to securing a second term for George W. Bush. The Cuban-American preference for the Republic party, Eckstein claimed, reflects the unique circumstances that shape their relationship to the United States, especially the symbolic importance of resistance to the Castro regime in U.S. foreign policy and Cuban local political, social, and economic prominence in Florida. Cuban-Americans are thus more interested in maintaining anti-Castro policies and pro-business policies than other Latino groups. Additionally, immigration is a less significant issue among Cuban-Americans than other Latino communities, since Cubans have much higher rates of naturalization owing to the Cuban Refugee Adjustment Act of 1996. The Cuban-American anomaly indicates the importance of a nuanced view of Latino voters and communities in light of complex circumstances that influence voter behavior.

In light of these tensions, Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, provided statistical analysis that is integral to understanding political dynamics among U.S. Latinos. Latinos comprise 17 percent of the U.S. population and thus promise to play an increasingly significant role in politics in future elections. Still, the size of the Latino community has not yet translated into political and electoral power. One major reason for this lag, in addition to low registration among eligible voters, is the relative youth of the Latino community: the median age for U.S. Latinos is 18 years old—20 years younger than the population at large. With 50,000 native born Latinos turning 18 every month, however, this bloc will play an even bigger role in determining the character of our national politics. The increase in the number of eligible, registered, and active Latino voters can have a major effect on both major political parties. As Lugo noted, Catholic and evangelical Latinos (who still constitute a majority of this population) combine social conservatism with support for a larger government that provides more services. This is presently an unusual set of political opinions to hold together, but as the Latino vote increases in size and influence, both major parties will need to carefully scrutinize their platforms if they hope to successfully reach out to these communities.