The Myth of the Latino Vote

Why do Democrats expect Mexican Americans in Arizona to line up behind a Puerto Rican guy from Harlem?

The weather was auspicious: at barely 75 degrees, the temperature was unusually low for Arizona in late May. The day should have been a perfect one for buttonholing strangers. But the Democratic political canvassers trying to sign up first-time voters at a bus stop outside Desert Sky, a shopping mall in Phoenix’s Maryvale district, were having little luck.

Maryvale, which was built in the 1950s, during the beginning of the aerospace boom, looks like a run-down southwestern Levittown. As in many original inner-ring suburban neighborhoods throughout the West, the white families who once filled its phalanxes of starter homes have left for bigger houses in newer suburbs. Latino families have taken their place, and department stores with names like La Curacoa and Mercado de Los Cielos have moved into Desert Sky alongside Sears and Dillard’s. When Democratic strategists say the road to the White House “runs through the barrio,” they are talking about places like Maryvale.

Earlier this year, the Obama campaign put two full-time staffers on the ground in Arizona in an effort to rouse what many call the state’s “sleeping giant”: Latino voters. In hopes of further boosting Latino turnout, the president personally recruited a Spanish-­speaking moderate named Richard Carmona to run for the Senate seat being vacated by Republican Jon Kyl. Carmona already has a résumé worthy of The Avengers: Vietnam vet with two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts, homicide detective, SWAT-team leader, trauma surgeon, onetime George W. Bush–­administration surgeon general turned principled dissenter. If he wins his race, he’ll add to his résumé Arizona’s first Latino senator. But if he doesn’t, his campaign may be remembered as a symbol of how Democrats misjudged what should be a natural constituency.

After an hour’s work, the four canvassers at the Desert Sky bus stop had succeeded in registering fewer than a dozen new voters. Beatriz Cisneros, a 72-year-old with silver tennis shoes and a determined expression, summoned all her rhetorical powers to persuade one morning shopper to miss the bus and add her name to the rolls. But while Cisneros and the other volunteers energetically talked up health care, education, and jobs with prospective voters, two other topics remained oddly untouched: immigration policy and Richard Carmona. One of the canvassers, a 48-year-old named Hector Acuña, said that Carmona, who was born in Harlem to Puerto Rican parents, hadn’t yet managed to establish much kinship with Arizona’s Latinos. “The name sounds Hispanic,” he said. “But if you talk to folks, they don’t even know he was surgeon general.” Acuña said that Democrats’ past efforts to mobilize Latinos had been “lazy” and “dismissive.” “They have a tendency to think of us as a monolith,” he said, “like all of us are from the same neighborhood.”

Carmona likes to suggest that he is, in some crucial sense, from the same spiritual neighborhood as the voters here. He told me that he can relate to Arizona’s many Mexican Americans precisely because they have shared a hard climb upward. “I’m not seen as Puerto Rican,” he told me. “I’m seen as another Latino. They know, most importantly, that they have lived my experience.”

But many longtime Arizona political observers are doubtful. One former Democratic congressional staffer was blunt about what he sees as his party’s inept outreach to Latinos here, calling the president’s drafting of Carmona a “ham-fisted move.” “They speak Spanish in Mexico, they speak Spanish in Puerto Rico. Really?” he asked incredulously. “It’s painting with a broad brush.” Of course, the broad brush is hardly the Democrats’ alone: similar logic recently led Time to conclude that Marco Rubio, the Cuban-American Republican senator from Florida, is “the man best ­positioned to improve his party’s standing among Latinos.” (Nationally, the Latino population is just 4 percent Cuban American.)

Bruce Merrill, a professor emeritus at Arizona State University who has worked as an Arizona pollster for four decades, is skeptical that the Latino “sleeping giant” will wake anytime soon. While Latinos make up about a third of Arizona’s population, they routinely cast little more than a tenth of the total votes in statewide elections. “Every single election, I’m told by the Hispanic leadership that this year is different and they’re going to go out and vote, and it’s never happened,” he said. Part of the problem, he observed, is that political leaders fail to understand that Latinos, like other voters, are motivated far more by bread-and-butter issues than by Spanish names or immigration rhetoric. While some Democrats assume that conservative immigration policies will prompt an anti-­Republican backlash among Latinos, Merrill estimates that a sizable chunk of likely Latino voters in Arizona—about 25 percent—are “flag wavers” who actually favor tough immigration-­enforcement measures.

Outsiders commonly assume that Arizona is obsessed with its leaky southern border, but this impression is outdated. By June, when the Supreme Court upheld the centerpiece of the contentious immigration law that Arizona passed in 2010, much of the fervor over immigration had already cooled. In the years since the law’s passage, a faltering U.S. economy and an even worse home-building market have accomplished what years of beefed-up enforcement and fiery speeches could not. Arrests by the U.S. Border Patrol are at a 40-year low, and the river of migrants crossing the desert has turned to an inter­mittent trickle. Gone as well is much of the rancor over immigration, except among diehard conservatives and Latino activists. As Andy Barr, Carmona’s communications director, put it to me, “We don’t get asked about it much.” In a recent GOP poll listing the importance of various issues to Republican voters in the state, immigration ranked a meager seventh place. Carmona’s likely Republican opponent, six-term Congressman Jeff Flake, has maintained a consistent lead over Carmona in the polls, and he has done so without making immigration a centerpiece of his campaign. He told me that the harsh rhetoric surrounding the issue has been “not helpful.”

Another reason the immigration debate has failed to incite Arizona’s Latino base may be that the state’s Latinos don’t have much of a base to begin with. In the 1950s, the Phoenix business establishment, led by Barry Goldwater, limited Latino neighbor­hoods to a single voting member on the city council; Phoenix was thus left with a tiny nucleus of Latino leadership. In Tucson, where Latino roots date from before the Revolutionary War, the close-knit Barrio Viejo district was largely gutted during the urban renewal of the 1960s. The social ties and parochial-­school networks that have elsewhere translated into political strength were razed along with the neighborhood’s townhouses. The state’s main minority group has never quite managed to recover, let alone advance to the kind of collective influence eventually achieved by, say, the Irish in Boston, or Arab Americans in Detroit. A common lament among Democrats here is “We have no bench.”

Carmona’s most enthusiastic fan base is not even Latino. The week after I saw the canvassers in Maryvale, I stopped in at a gated community called Hidden Paradise, 25 miles and many tax brackets away, where Carmona was making his pitch to a group of wealthy white donors who called themselves Women for Carmona. The dining-­room window of the Italianate mansion in which they had gathered offered a view of a golf-course fairway, its grass speckled beige from under-watering. Carmona talked about his rough Harlem childhood; about how he had been raised by his abuelita; about how, though his mother once whacked him with a broom for pouring her rum down the drain, she recognized his potential. The audience was visibly moved. “My name is Richard Henry. Some of my family wanted me to be Ricardo Enrique,” he went on. “But my mom later told me, ‘I named you Richard because you’re going to be a leader.’ ” “Smart woman,” someone murmured appreciatively.