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CAHSS Professor Weighs in on Growing Influence of Latino Voters on Presidential Elections

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Susan Dugan


Feature  •
Jesse Acevedo

The Pew Research Center estimates 36.2 million Latinos are eligible to vote in the 2024 presidential election, up from 32.3 million in 2020. With the influence of Latino voters in the U.S. on the rise, Republicans and Democrats are scrambling to secure their votes in November. The parties’ success or failure in certain key swing states may help determine the results of the 2024 presidential election.

College of Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences (CAHSS) Assistant Political Science Professor Jesse Acevedo has been teaching the class “Latinx Politics in the United States” since 2019. The CAHSS newsroom asked him to share his thoughts on issues important to Latino voters and how their participation or lack of it could affect which candidate wins the White House in November.

What does your class cover in terms of the role of Latino voters in U.S. politics, particularly in view of the upcoming presidential election?

The 2020 presidential election created a lot of misperceptions, so I start off addressing the idea that Trump performed well with Latino voters and the belief that that is a growing trend. There were some shifts in Latino voting patterns during the pandemic, but the Democrats recovered Latino support in the 2022 midterm elections. And while it’s true that there was some increase in support for Trump in 2020, by comparison, support for George W. Bush in 2004 is still the best the Republicans have ever done with Latino voters.

Overall, support for Democrats among Latino voters has remained stable over the past two decades. Latino votes for Democrats are usually about two to one, meaning that two-thirds of Latino voters vote Democrat and one-third vote Republican. Any shift tends to be regional.

Also, at the beginning of class we talk about the difference between the Latino “population” and the “electorate,” meaning those that can vote. The electorate is not as representative of the actual Latino population because of immigration, legal status and turnout. Overall, Latino voter turnout  is among the lowest of all racial and ethnic groups.

Also, at the beginning of class we talk about the difference between the Latino “population” and the “electorate,” meaning those that can vote. The electorate is not as representative of the actual Latino population because of immigration, legal status and turnout.

Because my expertise is in the comparative politics of Latin America, I teach the first half of the class like a comparative politics class where we go through different Latino voter origin groups—Mexican American, Cuban American, Puerta Rican, etc. We look at growing migration from Latin America and South America and address myths about specific groups to enable students to question any misperceptions in media coverage and develop discernment when consuming information. The second half of the course is a conversation about what political science can learn from Latino politics in the United States and how Latino politics fits in.

What is the impact of the increase in Latino voters on American politics?

The fascinating thing about Latino politics is that it’s very regional in some ways but also very national. The Southwest, including Denver, has been historically important for the Chicano movement. But there are other Latino groups including Puerta Ricans in the Northeast and Florida and less visible groups such as Central Americans and Dominicans, who are among the largest groups of Latinos in the United States.

In the class we look at underlying factors affecting the U.S. Latino population and their political preferences/concerns over time and then apply them to understanding the role of Latinos in American politics today and how some things have changed, and others have not.

Can you address the impact of Latino voters on the 2020 presidential election and how that might affect the 2024 presidential election?

I think there’s just a general obsession with the non-white Republican and that’s why Latino voters have been getting so much attention. There are two things to look at with Latino voters — how they differ from the general electorate and whether Latino voter trends are national or regional.

In 2020 people focused a lot on Florida and Texas because this is where we’re seeing Latino voters’ trend Republican, but people overlook places like Arizona and Pennsylvania where Latino voters have really helped Democrats and are more representative of the overall Latino vote. Latino voters in Florida tend to be older and older voters lean Republican. And while there’s been attention on growing Latino Republican support in Texas, it’s mostly in South Texas and ignores the big shift in Democratic votes in Houston and Dallas.

Overall and in places like Arizona, the growing bloc of Latino voters are much younger than all other voting groups and younger people tend to support Democrats. They also are increasingly college-educated and college educations likewise are associated with voting Democrat.

I like to have students decide for themselves to what extent Latino voting is driven by Latino identity issues like racialization and immigration and to what extent it is driven by factors like income, education and age that have strong associations with partisan politics. Finally, we consider how the predominantly second-generation, U.S-born Latino population might influence future elections including the 2024 presidential election.

Previous immigration groups experienced discrimination when they first immigrated but over second and third generations became more conservative, right? Would that also apply to Latino voters?

We have this perception that second and third immigrant generations get more conservative but because of the racialization toward Latinos in U.S. politics, that’s probably not the case. In class we look at the Chicano movement in Denver, where the second and third generation of Mexican Americans started the Chicano movement, combatting racialization that was going on in Denver and many other cities around the United States.

The fun part of studying Latinos in the U.S. is that expectations based on other ethnic groups and traditional political science theories don’t always apply. Because of racialization and institutional barriers against Latinos that persist today, we instead have this very stable outcome in Latino voting.

How could Latino voters potentially affect the outcome in swing states in the 2024 presidential election?

Media and scholarship have always focused on Florida, but its Latino population is very different from the rest of the country. I think Arizona, Pennsylvania and Virginia are more appropriate to look at in understanding the role of Latino voters in swing states.

The effect of Latino voters in these three states is like what happened in Colorado 10-to-20 years ago. Colorado was once a swing state and has had a growing Latino electorate that has really supported Democrats. People forget that California was once a swing state. In the 1990s, Republicans wanted to pass a bill on immigration reform and that basically transformed California into a blue state by activating Latino voters. If Republicans double down on anti-immigrant legislation and Latino voters increase turnout, Republicans could lose one of these swing states like they did in California.

What are the most motivating issues for Latino voters?

Number one is the economy. And while Latinos do have the highest church attendance rate among racial and ethnic groups in the United States, that doesn’t translate to conservative politics. Latinos are very supportive of abortion and other social issues like LGBTQ rights. Their support is not as high as most liberals but Latinos are not as conservative on these issues as people might expect given their religiosity. We will see and hear a lot of coverage based on the presumption that social issues will drive Latino votes to Republicans, but we haven’t seen that, and I don’t think we’ll see that in 2024.

What about the environment and climate change?

I would expect climate change to be a factor, too. In Colorado for example, there is a lot of intersectional work around Latino issues and environmental issues in places like Commerce City, one of the most polluted areas in the country with a large Latino population. I think climate-change issues will have an effect because a lot of Latinos live and work in climate-vulnerable places.

A study on temperatures in Phoenix found that Latino populations live in hotter areas with less trees. In agricultural areas throughout the U.S., we have Latinos living and working at increasingly hot temperatures.

What is the best way to address historically low Latino voter turnout?

Knocking on doors is the most effective way to increase voter turnout among Latinos even in local elections like School Board. Historically there were institutional barriers that prevented Latinos from participating in American politics. Latinos in the U.S. have had their citizenship undermined and although 68% of Latinos are born in the U.S. and 81% of all Latinos are U.S. citizens, they don’t feel included in the American political community. Knocking on doors gives Latino voters a sense of belonging.

Students in my class engage in a fun, creative, role-playing activity to simulate the power of connecting one-on-one with voters by knocking on doors that helps them see how doing so makes the voter feel included. By saying “you can vote in this important election and here’s information on how and where to vote,” you overcome a lot of these barriers with simple human contact.

We know there is a lot of misinformation circulating and it is up to the local parties and community groups to help people understand they are American citizens, and their vote can make a difference.

How do you personally see Latino voters affecting the 2024 presidential election?

Latinos tend to live in states that are either solid blue like California and New York or solid red like Texas and Florida. But one thing to notice is states where we are seeing an increase in Latino voters in every election. Right now, we are seeing Arizona follow the path of California in the 1990s so Arizona is probably the key state to look at. People will also be looking at districts along the Texas/Mexico border that have been competitive in the last few elections and any shifts toward either party in 2024, as well as at Latino voting trends in Pennsylvania and North Carolina.

There will be a lot of attention again on Latino voters in Florida. If you’re going to look at Florida, you must divide it between South Florida where you have a larger Cuban [more Republican] population and Central Florida where you have a largely Puerta Rican [more Democratic] population. It would be smart in November to compare those two regions that have quite different types of Latino electorates.

Overall, do you see the two-to-one support for Democrats among Latino voters continuing?

I do. One thing to remember is that Trump did improve in Latino support in 2020 over 2016. But Obama also improved in Latino votes in 2012 compared to 2008 and Bush improved among Latino voters in 2004 compared to 2000. So, we do see a kind of incumbency advantage in Latino presidential voting which might mean that Biden will also benefit from that.

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