Post Election Day -- The Impact of the Latino Vote

Let's say you're a Latino voter. (Not too hard, right?)
You're curious about turnout, and wins and losses, so you're looking over the landscape left by the momentous midterm elections. What do you see?

Some defeated Latino incumbents are there... Ciro Rodriguez and Solomon Ortiz in Texas border districts. But they were both defeated. And Mr. Rodriguez lost to another Latino candidate... a Republican.

There are new Latino governors... Susana Martinez in New Mexico and Brian Sandoval in Nevada. Governor-elect Martinez, the first Latina elected a state governor in American history, did well with Latino voters, Brian Sandoval did not.

There's a Puerto Rican congressman from... wait for it... Idaho! Raul Labrador beat a Democratic incumbent in a state tough for Democratic politicians. Labrador is an immigration attorney, a state representative, and was running against one of the rare Democrats to earn an endorsement from the Tea Party Express. Jaime Herrera will become the first Latina member of congress from Washington state, also a Republican.

While it is interesting to sift the tea leaves and figure out where Latino politicians did well, or did badly, what Latino voters did is probably one of the more enduring stories of the 2010 race. Governor Pat Quinn of Illinois, Governor-elect Jerry Brown, re-elected senators Harry Reid, Michael Bennett and Barbara Boxer all owe a big gracias to Latino voters, who became a western firewall, and provided a big share of the margin of victory and helped keep Democrats in charge in the US Senate.

Roughly two out of three Latinos cast votes for Democrats in congressional elections. Suffering disproportionately from the housing crisis, and the collapse of the job market, Latinos likely still perceive the need for a strong government able to provide emergency aid. The hoped-for rush to the polls in Arizona after SB1070 did not materialize... the Latino vote there was not very different from that in other western states.

So, class... what did we learn in the first week of November?

1) Republican campaigns in high Latino-population states can push voters with anxieties about immigration to the polls, but they also raise Latino turnout. And yes, I'm talking about you, Sharron Angle, Meg Whitman, and Tom Tancredo.

2) Latino voters appear to be issue-driven, not simply ethnically driven. The simple act of nominating a Latino candidate will not guarantee a strong performance among Latino voters.

3) For Democrats in red states like Texas, turnout is the key. Republican congressional candidates head into Election Day with a big share of the Anglo vote already in the bank, so a population advantage can only turn into a balloting advantage if strategies to drive Latino turnout are employed. Ciro Rodriguez was saying it weeks before Election Day. The fact that he'll soon be a former congressman proves he was right.

4) Meg Whitman spent heavily on Spanish-language media, but was found to be messaging differently to people who use English-language media... especially on immigration. Guess what: You can't say different things to the public in Spanish and English! The audience is too mixed, too savvy, and too bilingual for a candidate to be sure they can pull it off.

It sets the table for 2012 in an exciting kind of way. I've been a reporter for more than 30 years, and in all that time the Latino vote was either dismissed (and with good reason, too!), or spoken of as a "sleeping giant," or "the next big thing" that never quite got here. As a consequence, I've lived through three "Decades of the Hispanic," and was wondering whether that next big thing was ever going to arrive.

The Latino vote is growing faster than the electorate is growing overall. That state of play will likely continue for the next decade, as a big young age cohort is waiting to turn 18, and thousands more are deciding to naturalize and register to vote.

So, Republicans... you did well last week. Don't assume you can repeat the trick in a presidential year. Democrats, you've probably got a few more cycles to deliver, but last week showed a large enough share of the Latino vote is willing to consider other options to make "safe seats" not so safe.

The Sleeping Giant is up. Tread cautiously from here on out.

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