Hispanic Political Power

Roberto Suro
Director, Pew Hispanic Center
Monday, June 27, 2005; 1:00 PM

The sharp growth in the Latino population in the United States has got politicians and the media talking about Latino power. Both political parties are wooing Latino voters and politicians. But in an article in Sunday's Outlook section, Roberto Suro says the real days of Latino political power still lie well into the future. That's because much of the Latino population is made up of illegal immigrants, U.S. born Hispanics who haven't reached voting age and voting age citizens who haven't bothered to register to vote. As a result, one out of every two white residents in the United States votes, but only one out of every five Latino residents ends up casting a ballot.

Roberto Suro, director of the Pew Hispanic Center, was online Monday, June 27, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss his Sunday Outlook article, Latino Power?

A transcript follows.


Olney, Md.: Does the impending rise in Hispanic political power also reflect a rise in Catholic prominence in the American politics?

Roberto Suro: To some extent it does as most Hispanics and most Hispanic voters are Catholics. But the share of the Hispanic population that is Protestant is growing and growing especially in political clout. Hispanic Protestants made up about a quarter of the Latino vote in 2000 and nearly a third in 2004.


Washington, D.C.: I was very disappointed with the artwork associated with the "Latino Power?" article. The artist attempted to illustrate the authors point that one in two whites vote compared to one in five Latinos.

Unfortunately, the artist's illustrations demonstrate the subtle racism that is all too common in the U.S. today. To illustrate the white voters, the artist presents the shadows of two professional looking people. The woman, with short hair, a long skirt carrying a large handbag and the man wearing a collared shirt, jacket in hand and hair parted on the side. To illustrate Latino voters, the artist presented shadows of three men and two women, none of whom have the professional attributes that the artist attributed to the white voters. The first Latino character is a male with exaggerated broad shoulders, wearing a baseball cap. Another Latino figure is a woman with exaggerated shapely hips and she appears to be either combing her hair or talking on a phone. The other three Latino figures all appear to be casually dressed and less sophisticated than their white counterparts.

I would hope that The Washington Post would demonstrate better editorial discretion.

Roberto Suro: I'm passing this one along without additional comment for the benefit of the folks at the Post. I would suggest the writer send a copy of this message to the Post's ombudsman.


Harrisburg, Pa.: How is the Hispanic vote concentrated nationwide? It seems one reason Hispanics, besides the many good ones you mentioned, tend to have few elected Hispanics representatives is that, in so many districts, it is difficult to mobilize a unified Hispanic vote into a victorious election. For instance, there is only one of 203 Hispanic state legislators in Pennsylvania because the Hispanic vote is significant only in one or two districts, and is essentially a small minority everywhere else. Realizing that the majority of Hispanics do not live in Northern states, I wonder how much less the dispersal of the Hispanic vote is less a problem, particularly in Southwestern states?

Roberto Suro: Hispanics are very concentrated in a few states. About 60% live in California, Texas and New York alone, three states that are notable politically because they have not been presidential battlegrounds for some time. Florida and Illinois add another big share. In all of these states there are significant numbers of Latino elected officials as well as in some smaller states with large Latino populations like Arizona and New Mexico. But, when you get to places like Pennsylvania, Hispanics are pretty well scattered about and that indeed does have an impact on representation. Nationally, it is also important to remember that a little more than half of the Hispanic population overall lives in neighborhoods where Hispanics are a relatively sparse presence. The places where all the signs are in Spanish are the most visible but that's not where most people live.


Washington, D.C. : Thank you for your informative article in the Sunday Washington Post.

From your research of the Latino regional population, what key issues do you believe galvanize the Latino voter populations, if any?

Roberto Suro: For this report we did not explore issues, but we have done several surveys in the past that have. Latinos very consistently place education at the top of their issues list, and this is pretty much the same for citizens and non-citizens alike and across all the economic and national origin categories. Shouldn't be surprising given that this is a young population with lots of kids. After education you usually see jobs and health care next in line. Contrary to a lot of expectations, immigration policy typically shows up well down the list of issue priorities for Latinos.


Laurel, Md.: When Prime Minister Fox claimed that Latino immigrants took the job "blacks didn't even want" he was roundly criticized for uttering one of those truths we're all supposed to pretend we don't know.

The question I have is: to what extent does the availability of this cheap labor supply drive the creation of such jobs? If there weren't low-cost farm laborers, food wouldn't just rot in the field; farmers would invest in better machinery and hire skilled operators. Jobs don't just exist or not exist, they're created under conditions of labor availability.

In the last 25 years, all new income growth has gone to the top 20% of the income group. Part of the reason is we import low-income persons. But how much has illegal immigration driven down the wages of the non-college educated?

Roberto Suro: First of all you misquote Fox. He was criticized for saying that Mexican immigrants took jobs that "even blacks" wouldn't take. His statement conveyed a clear sense or racial categorization that placed blacks in an inferior place rather any assertions about the nature of the US labor market.

On to your broader point: It's not that simple. The agricultural folks insist that certain crops simply cannot be mechanized, e.g. juice oranges because the trees have been planted too close together. They also argue that mechanization would increase the costs such that the market for some foods would decrease. If packets of skinless, boneless chicken breasts cost twice as much as they do, would they still be a staple?

The argument gets harder still when you look at industries that employ far greater shares of immigrant workers than agriculture and food processing. Consider home construction, the largest and fastest growing category. No easy mechanization there. And, if labor costs in home construction had increased considerably over the past five years (instead of falling due to an oversupply of immigrant labor), would that industry have served as the engine driving the US economy?

Finally, it is hard to calculate wage effects. There is some good evidence that the flow of new migrants, most of them unauthorized, has hurt the prospects of some of the most vulnerable workers, e.g. young black high school dropouts, but the largest effects seem to be with other immigrants. In areas like janitorial services, another one of those industries that would be hard to mechanize, the immigrants have been competing with themselves and reducing their own wage potential.


Washington, D.C.: Do you expect there will be enough Latino voter turn-out in the next two or three presidential elections to warrant a Latino on the ticket?

Roberto Suro: The short answer is "no." Depending on turnout among whites and blacks, it could be a couple of election cycles before the Hispanic votes tops even 10% of the total. If a Latino gets picked for a national ticket anytime in the next decade or more, it will be because of his or her ability to attract non-Latino voters as much or more so than appeal to Latino voters.


Arlington, Va.: If most Latinos are young, what do you believe that fact portends for the future of American politics at the national level and in suburban communities like Northern Virginia?

Roberto Suro: Latinos are fast becoming a larger share of the youth vote and that trend will accelerate for the next decade or more. Young people of all sorts, Latinos are no different, are difficult to mobilize. For quite a while now, they have tended to register and vote less than their elders. But there is nothing to say that is permanent, and there are a lot efforts aimed at them from all sides of the political spectrum. I think this is one of the fascinating wild cards in the future of American politics.


Washington, D.C.: Does your organization have a "top ten" list of Latinos issues? If so, would you mind sharing?

Roberto Suro: not quite a top ten list but a pretty good list. Go to our Web site, look under the politics heading of topics and you'll see the Pew Hispanic Center/Kaiser Family Foundation 2004 National Survey Of Latinos: Politics and Civic Participation published last July.


Austin, Tex.: Any comments specifically about the Cuban-American community? From my observations, the children (and grandchildren, in some cases) of people who came to the U.S. in the early 60's increasingly tend to think and vote on the same issues as other Americans. More recent immigrants have more contacts in Cuba and a more nuanced view of things in general.

So I guess I'm suggesting that the old-fashioned anti-Castro hardline politics of the Cuban American National Foundation may have about run its course.

Your comments?

Roberto Suro: Surveys conducted by other researchers in the Cuban community indicate, just as you say, that the offspring of the original exiles are less preoccupied with Castro and US policy towards Cuba than their parents and grandparents. And yes, recent Cuban immigrants have more family ties to the island than the folks who left decades ago, and so the recent arrivals tended to react more negatively to the Bush administrations decision to tighten up on family visits to Cuba.


Atlanta, Ga.: Do you think that one of the problems Latinos face is that there are so many diverse interests tied to national origin? Do you have any ideas on how that can that be addressed?

Roberto Suro: I'm not sure we know the answer to that one. In that survey we conducted last year and mentioned in a response to an earlier question, a significant share of Latino voters said they might vote for a Latino candidate over an equally qualified non-Latino, but they would not pick a Latino over a better qualified non-Latino candidate. The strength of ethnic ties is hard to figure in politics because as the report we released today indicates, a much smaller share of voters are native born than in the population as a whole, and we know that ethnic identity is much weaker among the native born than immigrants. This is even more true when it comes to identifying with a country of origin. Having said all that Latino candidates have tended to reflect the national origins of their constituencies i.e. Puerto Ricans running where most of the voters are Puerto Ricans. The problem in giving you a simple answer is that we don't have a lot of cases in which you've had cross over, e.g. a Puerto Rican running in a Mexican American district, to be able to test the hypothesis.


New York, N.Y.: Language? Is speaking Spanish THAT important in reaching Latino voters? Does a viable candidate HAVE to be proficient? Does a candidate's ability to speak Spanish well EVER trump their position on an issue? And, what about long-term young Latinos who speak mostly English? Is there any point to candidates who campaign to them in Spanish? Lastly, what about Latinos as a largely suburban/exurban community - are the issues this community cares about changing because of where they live and the jobs they hold?

Roberto Suro: AS the report indicates, only 9 percent of Latino voters live in households where only Spanish is spoken. Many more live in bilingual households where people get their news and their political messages in both languages. The question for political campaigns is how best to spent advertising dollars aimed at Latinos and the answer so far has been to use Spanish-language media.

As to candidates, Spanish is not essential by any means. But, a lot of experience, and here President Bush is a prime example, shows that politicians can connect with Hispanic voters simply by using a few Spanish phrases. Bush is hardly proficient but he tries to project interest and sympathy by sprinkling Spanish into his speeches with Latino audience.

Finally, there is the question of whether Latino voters, the news media or anyone else expects a Latino candidate to speak Spanish. When one doesn't, or speaks it badly, it tends to get noticed.


Roberto Suro: Thank you all for joining this forum. It has been a pleasure being with you. If you want to read more about these issues, be sure to visit our Web site The full text of the report on the 2004 election is there along with lots more. All the best, Roberto Suro


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