The Latino vote is a prized political possession. Latinos are a rapidly growing slice of the U.S. populace: They made up a sixth of the national population in 2010, and that number is expected to rise to a third by 2050.
Over the past 30 years, Latinos have consistently supported liberal candidates at the state and national level. The Democratic presidential ticket hasn't won less than 60 percent of the two-party vote in 30 years.
Despite this, according to some, Latinos are still ideologically up for grabs. Ronald Reagan famously declared that Latinos "are Republicans, they just don't know it yet."
"It's a stereotype that, like many stereotypes, has a factual core to it," says Stanford political science Professor Gary Segura, the director of Chicana/o studies in the university's Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity. Latinos are, as a whole, an entrepreneurial, churchgoing group. "At least at first gloss they could be conservative."
But he respectfully disagrees with Reagan. "How much evidence is there to support this contention?" he writes in a recent paper. "Somewhere between little or none."
The essay appears in the most recent issue of Dædalus, the journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
The term "Latino" encompasses an enormously diverse population, including people of indigenous, African, European and mixed extractions with roots in 19 Latin American countries.
But, according to the 2006 Latino National Survey, 87.6 percent of these multifarious citizens identify themselves as "Latino." And, with the exception of Cubans, whose immigration experience and socioeconomic background are strikingly different from those of other Latinos, the group as a whole is consistently liberal.
"As a practical matter, we're not getting wildly different attitudes," Segura says. "They favor energetic government, which is not the conservative vision."
Drawing on data from the 2008 American National Election Study (ANES), run jointly by Michigan and Stanford universities, Latinos were substantially more liberal than non-Hispanic whites on a number of policy issues.
Majorities of Latino respondents believed that government should reduce inequality and increase spending on public education and the environment. Nearly half of Latino voters believed that the government should increase the standard of living of the poor and guarantee a job – almost double the support those concepts received among whites.
"The simplistic explanation could be, gee, Latinos are poor," says Segura.
And Latinos do, on average, have lower incomes than whites. Recent immigrants may also have experiences with other governments – Mexico, for instance, which has a significantly more expansive health care, pension and social security system than the United States. But that's not the whole story.
Focused on immigration
It has been suggested that Latinos' relatively conservative attitudes toward abortion – in the 2008 ANES, 33 percent of Latinos supported broad abortion rights versus 40 percent of whites – could pull the group rightward.
"There's certainly a single, driving political issue," said Segura. "But abortion isn't it."
It's immigration. The issue remains the single most important issue to Latino voters as a whole, and the single greatest barrier to Republican inroads into the bloc.
As Segura points out, the topic is often as personal as it is political. A whopping 90 percent of Latinos in the United States are within two generations of an immigrant. A majority of polled Latino voters know someone who's undocumented.
"It's very difficult for any candidate to have their voice be heard if they're anti-immigration," he says.
As Segura sees it, immigration remains the issue that will keep the growing numbers of Latinos firmly in the Democrats' camp for the foreseeable future.
"Latino Republicans are currently peaking at about 23 percent," he says. "It's difficult to see how the party gets out of its current position."