The “Latino vote” doesn’t exist. Not really.

June 24, 2013

Conventional wisdom has settled on this reality: Republicans' inability to attract Hispanic voters not only cost them the 2012 presidential election but has the potential to doom them as a national party in future national elections too.

And, the numbers are stark. MItt Romney won just 27 percent of the Hispanic vote last November, a dismal showing that made the 31 percent Arizona Sen. John McCain won in 2008 look good by comparison.

But, the numbers don't tell the whole story -- or even close to it.  Carlos Lozada, the editor of the Post's Outlook section and the brains behind "Worst Week in Washington", explained why in a piece that ran over the weekend entitled "Who is Latino?"

Lozada makes two very important points in the article.

First, he notes that the Latino community is only thought of as "the Latino community" by those not in it -- that there isn't a single definitional (or electoral) strain that runs through everyone who, at least according to the Census Bureau, is Hispanic.  (Here's a good look at how the Census Bureau decides if you are Hispanic.)

Writes Lozada:

"Is being Latino a matter of geography, as simple as where you or your ancestors came from? Is it the language you speak or how well you speak it? Is it some common culture? Or is it just a vaguely brown complexion and a last name ending in 'a,' 'o' or 'z'? Politicians build Latino-voter-outreach operations, businesses launch marketing campaigns to attract Hispanic 'super-consumers,' yet depending on whom you ask — politicians, academics, journalists, activists, researchers or pollsters — contradictory definitions and interpretations emerge."

Latinos themselves seem uninterested in being broadly characterized. A 2011 Pew Research Center survey of Latinos showed that just one in four (24 percent) think of themselves as Latinos while a majority (51 percent) prefer to identify themselves with the country of their origin. (One in five describe themselves as Americans.)  Asked whether all Latinos living in America share a "common culture", nearly seven in ten Hispanics said they did not.

The simple fact is that there is no real "Latino vote" but rather a series of smaller splinters -- based largely around country of origin -- suggests that the current tendency in politics to treat all Hispanics with a broad-brush message may be missing the point. That may become more evident as the Latino community in the U.S. continues to grow and expand -- and politicians' understanding of it grows more nuanced.

The second key takeaway from Lozada's piece is that because there isn't a "Hispanic" vote, it's also impossible/wrong to describe the issues that everyone in that non-existent community cares about.  And so is the idea -- forwarded in some Republican circles -- that passing comprehensive immigration reform will solve the GOP's issues in courting Hispanics. (Many GOPers -- including the likes of South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham -- view comprehensive immigration reform as a first step, not a last one, in courting the Hispanic community.)

In a Pew poll conducted shortly before the 2012 election, immigration ranked as the fifth (of six) most important issues to Latinos -- behind education, jobs and the economy, health care and the federal budget deficit. As Lozada points out, those priorities are a mirror image of the broader American population.

What, if any, impact will the two points Lozada makes about the Hispanic "community" have to politics in future elections? Possibly none. Remember that politics tends to practice the art of simplification rather than that of complexity. And the fact remains that the ethnic group defined by the Census Bureau as Hispanics voted overwhelmingly for President Obama in 2012 -- and have displayed an increasing Democratic tilt in recent elections.

Regardless of the immediate political impact (or lack thereof), Lozada's piece is an important one as the politicians and party strategists -- particularly on the Republican side -- attempt to persuade this large and growing constituency to their side. And, if Lozada is right about the lack of a definitional "Latino" -- in politics or anywhere else in society -- those wooing efforts will get harder not easier for both sides as the Hispanic population grows in the country.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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