Why Every Assumption The Two Parties Have About Latino Voters Is Wrong
Latino voters in Texas have the numbers to shift the political paradigm in their state. However, turnout among Latinos continues to lag. There are misconceptions and social stigmas about why this is, but the truth lies in deep systemic issues and a history of disempowerment that has left many feeling voiceless and unrepresented.
In Open Primaries’ last virtual discussion of Summer 2021, the group’s president, John Opdycke, and spokesperson Danny Ortega were joined by the authors of a study titled, “Real Talk: Understanding Texas Latino Voters Through Meaningful Conversation” to discuss what is really causing low Latino turnout and what is needed to give these voters more confidence in the electoral process.
The study took a more in-depth approach to understanding the Latino voting population than is commonly discussed in the press, among public officials, and even among political scientists and data experts. The authors spent hundreds of hours talking and listening to Latino voters to get a nuanced understanding of how individuals in this demographic group felt about the political process.
“We spoke to 104 Latino voters and nonvoters in 5 different regions of Texas,” said Cecilia Balli, one of the study’s authors. “We were trying to see how they make sense of their place in the political system and the political world in this country.”
She added, “We weren’t polling them. We were getting to know them intimately.”
What the researchers found was a community filled with people both parties have failed to understand and have shown an unwillingness to understand. While the common myth that permeates in the national narrative is that the Latino community is largely apathetic -- a charge often levied on groups who historically don’t vote in high numbers -- the truth is many Latinos don't feel their vote matters or that anyone cares about their interests.
Feeling Forgotten and Unheard
Danny Ortega, who is a former Board Chair of La Raza, asked Ballí about a response from some Latinos that no one is reaching out to them. There is a notable lack of effort by political candidates to contact Latinos on a deeper level than just releasing Spanish-language ads.
Ballí remarked that the problem is the system, and the players who operate within it, give up on voters that data points show are less likely to participate in elections. Campaigns do not devote time, money, and resources to win over people whom they have already decided won’t vote.
“They way campaigns work is they purchase data on who has voted in the past and those are the people they do outreach to,” she explained. “They reason it is safest to just do outreach on a limited budget and time to people who have voted in the past to try to get them on your side.”
This, as Balli notes, has resulted in a self-perpetuating cycle.
A contributing factor to voter participation is engagement. If candidates engage with voters, politics becomes more personal to that voter. Candidates become more relatable. However, if potential voters are not engaged then it reinforces the perception that they are being excluded from the conversation and thus their vote doesn’t matter.
And, if candidates aren’t actively pursuing nonvoters, then this perception never changes, and neither does the status quo.
Balli added there is a related issue that contributes to the lack of connection to the Latino community, and that is her personal belief that “Americans don’t know what to do with” Latinos.
“We saw this for instance [in 2020],” she elaborated. “In the Democratic Party, we had a Latino candidate who ran for president, Julian Castro, and regardless of what you think of his quality as a candidate, his strengths and weaknesses, you could tell from the media narratives and the debates that no one really knew what to make of him and where to put him.”
“We have a tendency of thinking of Latinos only as immigrants, and as outsiders.”
Typecasting and social stigmas are commonly felt among communities of color. These stereotypes, based on inherent bias, apply specific social roles from which these communities aren’t allowed to escape. This extends to political behavior as well, because it is assumed that Latinos, Blacks, and other voters of color have to vote a certain way.
This paradigm, as John Opdycke notes, is roughly called “demographics are destiny.”
There is a common assumption in the national political narrative that as communities of color grow in size in the United States it will automatically translate to more gains for the Democratic Party. As a result, the Democratic Party assumes their support, while the Republican Party generally treats these voters like they don’t exist.
The consequence is a further detachment from these communities, because when support (or lack thereof) is assumed, just like the likelihood of a person to vote is assumed, campaigns feel less incentive to reach out and connect on a personal level and understand the struggles and experiences of individuals within a community, particularly the Latino community.
Balli said generalizations and assumptions cannot and should not be applied to Latinos. Latinos do not fit neatly within the social and political boxes that are often assigned to them. The political views among Latinos are broad and do not always fall along strict partisan or ideological lines.
“I think we’re just beginning to understand -- not even to understand, but just witness the great variety of political views among Latinos,” she said.
“Partisanship Is Low or Weak Among Latinos”
The US political system forces people to pick a side. People either have to be a Republican or a Democrat, because the electoral framework is designed to only give people those options. And, there can be no complexity or nuance to voters’ behavior, affiliation, or beliefs, because that would upset the two-party framework.
If voters affiliate with either major party then the assumption is they agree 100% with their preferred party’s platform. If voters say they don’t affiliate, then pollsters, political scientists, and data experts ask, “Which way do they lean?” And, depending on the answer, they say, ‘Well, then they are really a [insert party affiliation].”
The authors of “Real Talk: Understanding Texas Latino Voters Through Meaningful Conversation” found that a majority of the people they talked to did not adhere to the single-track political mindset that is assumed of them by those who control the political narrative.
“There are so many theories out there about partisanship, how it works, where it’s coming from,” said Michael Powell, another co-author of the study. “None of them after we talked to a 100 people seemed satisfactory.”
”People were not fitting neatly into any of the theories or any of the polling, and as we were studying the popular narratives, the public narratives in journalism and in the media, things didn’t really add up.”
Balli added that in the first 20 interviews they had with people, she and the other two researchers were a bit freaked out because they had no idea what they could say to broadly sum up the Latino vote.
This is not to say that Latinos don’t affiliate with political parties. The researchers interviewed people who identified as Democrats, Republicans, and independents. However. Balli explained that there is a great deal of fluidity in how Latinos define their political values that adds complexity to their political identities
“We didn’t hear people speaking very strongly about party platforms,” she said. “They were making sense of issues in a very complex way where on some issues they would express ideas that sounded more like Democrats. On other issues, you could classify them as Republican.”
She added that there were many people they talked to that said they vote for the candidate, not the party. Or, they would say they did not want to be too extreme or closed off to other ideas or policy positions.
This is what we call being independent with a lowercase “i,” which means they may not reject the two parties. They may vote primarily for candidates of one party. But, they don’t believe so strictly in the single-track partisan mindset that they immediately reject and distance themselves from anyone who disagrees with them.
It is independence as a mindset, not an ideology or affiliation. And, it can only be seen and heard from someone by sitting down and having a conversation with them. Traditional polling methods cannot capture the complexity of these views because they define everything in black and white (or red and blue) terms.
“It is possible all Americans see issues this way,” Balli said. “We just haven’t done these types of conversations and studies with them.”
Increasing Latino Involvement
During the Zoom event, Balli mentioned on more than one occasion that there is a common misconception that Latinos do not care about politics. Yet, the research done for “Real Talk: Understanding Texas Latino Voters Through Meaningful Conversation” found that most Latinos followed political news..
“The vast majority of them could speak to some degree on what was going on, especially in national politics,” she said.
She added that what they found was not apathy, but a community full of individuals who are following politics from the sidelines. And the reason many of them remain on the sidelines is because of a lack of confidence in their vote and the process.
On top of the absence of a committed effort to connect with Latinos on a personal level, many Latinos, particularly among the working class and in areas of poverty, haven’t seen change, and do not see their interests represented in government.
“They haven’t been able to tie specific leadership among candidates and elected officials to some improvement in their life,” she said.
But, Balli also said there is the reality that voting is a social habit. Like any other social behavior, people learn to vote by seeing other people doing it. And, the more an individual votes, the more natural it becomes, and a recurring habit is formed.
This could be considered a major part of why elections with the highest turnouts, like presidential elections, tend to be ones that get the most media coverage. When people see it, people do it.
The issue in many Latino communities, particularly in low-income areas, is that many people didn’t grow up watching their parents vote. Balli said not a single nonvoter they interviewed said they saw a parent vote from a young age.
“The strongest predictor of whether or not you vote is if you grew up watching your parents vote,” she remarked.
In the study, Balli and the other co-authors stress the importance of building communities of voting. To boost voter turnout among Latinos, it will quite literally take a village.
However, she also recognizes the layers to this discussion, because at the end of the day, we have a system in which politicians care more about winning elections than encouraging the most participation possible.
Politicians only reach out to voters they believe will actually vote. Politicians are encouraged to put partisan rhetoric and loyalty above community outreach and empathy. Politicians, particularly members of the major parties, feel entitled to certain votes while not actively seeking to earn those votes.
There are deep systemic problems that have fostered a political environment where historically marginalized communities, like the Latino community, never feel like they are being heard or that they are represented. Balli expressed cynicism that the people currently in power will ever try to change this.
She does, however, believe that pro-voter and civic engagement groups can make a difference. People who believe strongly in the principles of what a fair, accountable, and open electoral process should look like can be the catalyst for change and bring about or restore people’s confidence in the US political process.