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Memo: Latino Voters, The 2010 Elections, and Beyond

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To: Interested Parties
Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice

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What Happened

Quite simply, Latino voters delivered in 2010.  In 2010, Latinos kept the Senate in Democratic hands and were a key factor in Democratic gubernatorial wins in California, Colorado, and Illinois, as well as a number of House races.  In fact, were it not for the “Latino firewall” in the West, Democratic losses would have been much worse.  In past wave elections, when one chamber of Congress changes parties, both chambers changed parties. 

Despite predictions to the contrary, Latino voters turned out in record numbers, and voted for Democrats at extremely high levels.  What looked like a low-turnout election for low-propensity Latino and immigrant voters was turned around by a combination of sophisticated on-the-ground voter mobilization efforts, creative Spanish language advertising and clear contrasts between pro- and anti-immigrant candidates.  Here are some of the key results from election eve polling of Latino voters by Latino Decisions (information on why this is a more accurate assessment of Latino voter behavior here and here), along with exit polls that estimated turnout percentages:

  • In California, in the Senate race, Barbara Boxer’s margin over Carly Fiorina among Latinos was 86% – 14. In the gubernatorial race, Jerry Brown’s margin over Meg Whitman among Latinos was 86% – 13%.  Latino turnout was up from 19% of the electorate in 2006 to 22% of the electorate in 2010.
  • In Colorado, Senator Michael Bennet’s margin over Ken Buck among Latinos was 81% – 19%.  In the gubernatorial, John Hickenlooper’s margin over Tom Tancredo and Dan Maes among Latinos was 77% – 14% – 9%. Latino turnout was up from 9% of the electorate in 2006 to 13% in 2010.
  • In Illinois, Governor Pat Quinn’s margin over Bill Brady among Latinos was 83% – 13%. 
  • In the Nevada Senate race, Harry Reid’s margin over Sharron Angle among Latinos was 90% – 8%.  Latino turnout was up from 12% of the electorate in the 2006 midterms to 15% in 2010.

Why it Happened

Immigration is a key factor in moving Latino voters.  According to the Latino Decisions polling, 48% of Latino voters chose either “jobs” or “the economy” as a top concern, while 37% chose “immigration.”  In every state, immigration was among the top two issues that voters want policymakers to address.  When asked how important the issue of immigration was in their decision to vote, and who to vote for, 60% of Latino voters said it was very important and 34% said it was the most important issue.  Not surprisingly, the intensity is even greater for Latino immigrant voters who are closer to the debate.   

On immigration, the combination of Republicans going right and Democrats leaning into the issue proved to be a winner for the Democrats.  Key Republican candidates made all the wrong choices when it came to immigration and reaching out to Latinos. Sharron Angle’s despicable ads, Carly Fiorina’s embrace of the Arizona anti-immigrant law, Meg Whitman’s hypocritical general election posture after a hard-right primary against immigrants, and Tom Tancredo’s long career as a nativist extremist all backfired.  At the same time, Harry Reid, Michael Bennet, Barbara Boxer, Jerry Brown, and John Hickenlooper all leaned powerfully into the issue of immigration.  They didn’t hedge or dissemble. They explained common sense positions embraced by most Americans – and won.

In contrast, when Democrats failed to lean into the issue, they opened up running room for Republicans.  This was especially true in Florida.  Alex Sink missed a huge opportunity to make Rick Scott own his extreme positions against Latinos and immigrants.  She ran very few ads targeted at Latinos and chose not to challenge Scott directly on his anti-immigrant stance.  Her failures led to defeat. In the Senate race, neither Kendrick Meek nor Charlie Crist really challenged Marco Rubio’s hard right positions on immigration policy.  As a result, they left Rubio huge running room to broadcast Spanish language ads that focused on his immigrant and Latino biography instead of having to explain his anti-immigrant and anti-Latino policy positions.  Rubio’s story was compelling, his positions went unchallenged – and Rubio won.  

Latino voters rejected Republican candidates—including most Latino Republicans—who oppose comprehensive immigration reform.  While recent news articles have highlighted the overall success of Latino Republican candidates in 2010, the Latino Decisions polling shows that Latino voters are extremely disenchanted with Republican candidates who demonize immigrants and oppose comprehensive reform – Latino or non-Latino.  While Marco Rubio did win a majority of Latino voters in Florida, he was bolstered by winning 78% of the Cuban American vote (he won just 40% of the non-Cuban Latino vote), and he clearly downplayed his immigration stance during the general election.  In the New Mexico governor’s race, however, Republican Susana Martinez won just 38% of the Latino vote to Democrat Diane Denish’s 61%.  In Nevada, Republican gubernatorial candidate Brian Sandoval won just 15% of the Latino vote to Rory Reid’s 84%.

The Republican Party needs to win at least 40% of the Latino vote to be competitive in the next presidential election and a growing number of Senate races.  If Republicans think Marco Rubio can save them for 2012, they’re wrong.  They actually do need to stop bashing immigrants.

Implications for the Future

Democrats have the advantage with Latinos – for now.  According to election-eve polling of Latino voters conducted in eight key states (AZ, CA, CO, FL, IL, NM, NV, TX), Latinos voted for Democrats over Republicans by roughly 75%-25%, or a 3-1 margin.  Overall, Latino immigrant voters (foreign-born, now naturalized citizens) supported Democrats by even larger margins.  This is in stark contrast to just six years ago, when Latinos voted for Democratic nominee John Kerry over President George W. Bush by 59% to 40%, or a 3-2 margin.  With respect to Latino immigrant voters, Kerry and Bush ended up even closer (52% for Kerry and 48% for Bush). 

This means that in six years, there has been a huge swing of the fastest-growing group of voters: away from Republicans and towards Democrats.  This is the exact opposite of what has been happening in the broader electorate.  How to explain the difference?  The immigration debate is a critical factor in many Latino voters’ political choices, and the debate is chronicled in great detail by Spanish language media.  The issue of immigration is not a key factor for most other groups of voters. 

Republicans need to do more than recruit Latino candidates – they need to end their opposition to immigration reform.  As the polling results in the Rubio, Martinez, and Sandoval races make clear, it takes more than just putting forth Latino or Latina candidates in order to capture Latino voter support.  No matter the ethnicity of its candidates, the Republican Party cannot expect to meaningfully compete for Latino votes while espousing anti-immigrant stances.

Unless they are reined in, Congressional Republicans will even further alienate Latinos with their mass-deportation strategy.  The new makeup of Congress will include a number of immigration hardliners in charge of committees that address immigration issues.  For example, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) will be in charge of the House Judiciary Committee and will use the platform to pursue a mass-deportation approach that will both make the existing problems of our broken immigration system worse, and further cement the views of many Latinos that the Republican Party is hostile to Latinos.  As the New York Times recently editorialized about the Smith and King mass-deportation approach, it “mocks American values.  It is irresponsibly expensive.  It is ineffective.”  How can Republicans possibly win over any new Latino voters with Lamar Smith in charge of the Party’s immigration platform? 

Democrats need to lean into the issue.  As we saw in key races, when Democrats lean into the issue of immigration reform, they galvanize Latino support and do well with other voters.  Numerous polls have shown consistent, strong support for comprehensive immigration reform among the general electorate, both nationwide and in swing districts and states.  According to election eve polling from Lake Research Partners, and other surveys, support for reform is strong and cuts across party lines.  Not only do candidates who lean into the issue motivate Latino voters to go to the polls, but they tell other Americans that they are about practical problem-solving, not grandstanding.   

This story captures it best.  The Las Vegas Sun quoted Gilberto Ramirez, a first-time, recently-naturalized voter from Reno, NV, as he explained how Sharron Angle’s anti-Latino ads influenced the fact that he turned out and the fact that he voted for Harry Reid: “She was depicting me as a gang member.  I served seven years in the Marine Corps.” 

The DREAM Act debate will be the first evidence of whether the two parties have learned the lessons from the 2010 elections.  The news that Democratic leadership is planning to bring the DREAM Act forward for action in the lame duck session of the 2010 Congress provides both parties with an opportunity.  The DREAM Act, traditionally a bipartisan bill, is supported by military, education, business, and religious leaders and is broadly popular with Americans of all political persuasions.  Democrats should follow their leadership and recognize that leaning into the issue will benefit both their Party and their country.  Republicans should follow the advice of their vocal pro-DREAM members, like Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-FL) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), and seize the opportunity to strengthen their relationship with Latino voters and America’s future at the same time.

More Information on Latino Voters in the 2010 Elections

  • Results of Latino Decisions Election Eve polling available here, with state-by-state results available here
  • Information on Latino Decisions’ methodology on Latino voters here and here.