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The Latino Vote and Down Ticket Races in Nevada

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Cross-Posted at Latino Decisions and Latino Vote Matters:

While presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s anemic support among Latinos is likely to weaken his prospects in states with large or emerging Latino voting populations, it is less clear whether his unpopularity among Latinos will spill-over to down ticket races; an issue of particular import for Republican candidates running in competitive House and Senate races in battleground states such as Colorado, Florida, and Nevada. In this post, I use data from the America’s Voice/Latino Decisions June 2012 Battleground Survey to examine this dynamic in the context of Nevada.[1] Specifically, I compare and contrast Latinos’ support in Nevada for President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney with these voters’ support for the candidates competing in the state’s US Senate race: Republican Dean Heller and Democrat Shelley Berkley.


To this end, Figure 1 above summarizes vote preferences for the presidential and US Senate races, and suggests a bit of good news for the GOP. Whereas President Obama holds a 49 point lead over Romney among Nevada Latinos, Berkley’s lead over Heller is less than half of that margin as Heller is running ten points ahead of Romney, while Berkley’s support lags 16 points behind Obama’s.[2] Also note that slightly more Nevada Latinos are undecided about the Senate race as compared to the presidential contest.


The second figure illustrates the cross-tabs between the two races. Inspection of these values suggests that Heller is doing a much better job gaining the support of Romney backers than Berkley is in attracting Obama voters. Specifically, 84% of Romney voters prefer Heller, while just 70% of those supporting Obama favor Berkley. About half of the remaining Obama voters are defecting to Heller (by way of comparison, Heller is bleeding 12% of Romney voters to Berkley) and the other half are undecided. In addition, 63% of respondents who are undecided in the presidential race are undecided in the U.S. Senate race.

The weaker support for Berkley relative to Obama is striking on a number of fronts. Most notably, while her House district (NV-1) contains the highest concentration of Latinos in Nevada, Heller is from northern Nevada; a region with a growing Latino population, but which remains overwhelmingly white. In terms of policy differences, in contrast to Berkley, Heller opposes both the DREAM Act and President Obama’s recent decision to halt deportations and provide temporary work permits to some young undocumented immigrants and he supported Arizona’s SB 1070. As a member of the House, Heller co-sponsored legislation to make English the country’s official language and he favors amending the Constitution to alter Section 1 of the 14th Amendment to end “birthright citizenship.” On many of these issues, Heller’s positions are anathema to many Latinos. [3]


So why then is Berkley lagging so far behind Obama? To get a sense of this, Figures 3 through 6 present cross-tabs capturing partisan, regional, and gender variation in Latino support for the presidential and US Senate candidates in Nevada. When interpreting these values caution should be taken given the small number of cases for some cells (e.g., undecided, rural Latinos). Looking first at the relationship between vote preference and partisanship suggests that of the four candidates, Obama has done the most to solidify his support within his party as 91% of Latino Democrats plan to vote for the President and only one in 20 of these voters are defecting to Romney.[4] In contrast, Romney is capturing just 72% of the vote from Latino Republicans and he is losing 14% of his co-partisans to Obama, while another 14% remain undecided (as compared to only 4% of Democrats). Among Latinos in the “Other” category (see note four), Obama has the support of about half of those voters as compared to just 5% for Romney.


For the US Senate candidates, Heller and Berkley’s performances are strikingly similar. Heller is holding the support of three-quarters of Republicans and Berkley is preferred by 71% of Democrats. Both Heller and Berkley are suffering defections of 15% and 14% of identifiers with both parties are undecided. Neither candidate has made much headway with voters unaffiliated with either of the major parties, as nearly two-thirds of these voters are undecided.


The analysis illustrated in Figure 5 suggests, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, little regional variation in the distribution of the candidates’ support. In an earlier blog post (“The State of Play in the Silver State: Understanding the Three Nevadas”), I dissected Nevada’s regional demographic and political differences and examined how those factors might play out in November. These differences are expected to be more acute for the US Senate race given that the contest features a classic Nevada match-up between a southern Democrat and a northern Republican. However, other than a small decline in support for Berkley among rural Latinos and a slight uptick in undecided Senate voters in the rural counties, the data reveal no significant regional variation in Latinos’ support for any of the candidates. So while geographical considerations may factor into the behavior of non-Latino voters, region appears to be exerting little influence on Latinos’ vote preferences for either the presidential or US Senate races.


Where Berkeley is struggling though is among Latino males. Specifically, as Figure 6 indicates, less than half of Latino men are supporting her as compared to 59% of Latinas. While the gender gap for Obama and Berkley are equivalent (14% for Obama and 13% for Berkley), Obama’s sky-high levels of support among Latinos means that the President is still preferred by just under two-thirds of males. The data also reinforce the point that Obama’s strongest supporters are minority women as better than three-quarters of Latinas are supporting the President’s reelection bid. In contrast, these voters have no truck with Romney as the former Massachusetts Governor garners a paltry 14% of the female Latino voter; ten points less than Heller.

A common refrain from survey respondents is that they support the best candidates regardless of partisanship. Based upon these data, this appears to be the case for some Nevada Latinos; a finding that is not all that surprising given that many of these voters have only recently engaged in the political process. As a consequence, they may be less beholden to cues such as partisanship that tend to strengthen over time. At the same time and consistent with the greater attention that the presidential campaign has received in Nevada relative to the US Senate race, the data indicate that the Latino electorate’s presidential preferences have largely crystallized as only 11% remain undecided and less than half of Latinos who do not identify with either of the major parties have yet to decide. In contrast, Latinos’ preferences for the US Senate race are less settled as evidenced by the larger number of undecided voters, particularly among those unaffiliated with either of the major parties. Unfortunately for Berkley, much of the messaging that these voters are likely hearing through paid and earned media address her ethics investigation. Berkley has sought to counter this narrative by focusing on Heller’s support for the Ryan budget plan and its implications for Medicare, while playing up her support for veterans’ health care. In her Spanish language spots she highlights Heller’s opposition to the DREAM Act and votes to cut Pell grants. In light of some of Heller’s other positions, it might behoove the Berkley campaign to more aggressively define the differences between her and Heller on issues that resonate in the Latino community, particularly among males. Indeed, any drop-off in Latino support from the top of the ticket may loom large in the final count and cost the Democrats one of their few chances to pick-up a Senate seat in the 2012 cycle.

[1] The America’s Voice/Latino Decisions June 2012 Battleground Survey sampled 400 Latinos who are registered to vote in five states: Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Nevada, and Virginia. The margin of error for the Nevada sample is 4.9%. There are two caveats associated with these data. First, for the weighted sub-group comparisons presented here, the error margins are larger than for the entire sample and thus, should be interpreted with caution. Second, the collection of these data pre-date July’s decision by the House Ethics Committee to continue its investigation into Representative Berkley’s advocacy on behalf of a kidney transplant program in Las Vegas in which her husband, Dr. Larry Lehrner, has an interest. Since that decision, Berkley’s ethics have become a prominent issue in the campaign, causing some pundits and prognosticators to move the race from toss-up to leaning Republican.

[2] All else equal, if this difference were to hold and Latinos constitute 15% of the turn-out as was the case in 2008 and 2010, this would shave 2.4% off Berkley’s aggregate vote share relative to Obama’s.

[3] Heller’s English language campaign website notes his support for making English the nation’s official language and his desire to amend the Constitution to end “birthright citizenship.” These positions, however, are absent from his campaign’s Spanish language website.

[4] For the weighted Nevada sample, 67% of respondents were identified as Democrats or leaning Democrats; 25% reported their partisanship as being Republican or Republican leaning; and 8% were coded as nonpartisan, registered with a minor party, or either refused to respond or did not know (the “Other” category).

David F. Damore is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and an expert in Nevada politics.

The commentary of this article reflects the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Latino Decisions. Latino Decisions and Pacific Market Research, LLC make no representations about the accuracy of the content of the article.