In April, a child born somewhere in California made Hispanics the state's largest racial-ethnic group, replacing whites. Texas will be majority-Hispanic by 2020. In Alabama, Alaska, Georgia, and South Dakota, Hispanic populations have doubled since 2000.
"If the past is the prologue, the more than 53 million souls who make up this (mostly) new American community may well rewrite the political history of the United States," social scientists Matt Barreto and Gary Segura write in their new book, Latino America. And yet, they say, Republican and Democratic strategies toward Hispanics are largely built on false assumptions.
Myth #1: Hispanic racism and/or antagonism toward African-Americans threatens the Democratic coalition. "Latinos are not immune to the racism that is prevalent in American society," Segura told me via email, a follow-up to an hour-long conversation about the book. But their analysis of voting data, coupled with polling that measures racial attitudes, found two clear differentiators between whites and Hispanics.
First, Hispanics are significantly less likely than whites to present racial hostility. Second, while the racial attitudes of whites are strikingly predictive of their voting behavior, there is virtually no correlation among Hispanics between attitudes and action.
In other words, the most bigoted Hispanics were no less likely to vote for Barack Obama than the most tolerant Hispanics. Among whites, antiblack attitudes almost always led to a vote against Obama.
"Racial resentment, or animus, while not altogether absent among Latinos, did not play a meaningful role in shaping their preferences in the 2008 election," Segura and Barreto wrote in Latino America.
Myth #2: Hispanics are religious conservatives, ripe for GOP appeals. The authors' polling suggests that Hispanics are generally less likely to support abortion rights than whites, but only by a margin of about 10 percentage points. On marriage equality, Hispanics are at least as supportive, and in some cases are more liberal than whites.
But these aren't issues that generally determine how Hispanics vote. When asked to name the two "most important" problems, the combined total for all moral/values issues never rises above 3 percent. In a December 2011 study conducted by the authors, overwhelming majorities of Hispanic voters said they don't want ministers giving them political direction; don't want politicians relying on their personal religious beliefs; and think politics should focus on economic kitchen-table issues, not social issues.
In other words, like on matters of race, Hispanics hold strong views about social issues, but don't predicate their votes upon them.
Myth #3: Hispanics are "self-reliant" conservatives, ripe for GOP appeals. Nearly three-quarters of Hispanics tell pollsters that if minorities don't do well, they have only themselves to blame. Among whites, voters sharing that view almost always support small-government conservatism. Not so among Hispanics.
"In fact," the authors write, "though a significant majority of Latinos express support for self-reliance, supermajorities of Latinos also reliably embrace a greater role for government. Latino Americans evidently see no contradiction of the two views."
Hispanics tend to believe that government growth is a consequence of big social challenges, and they trust government more than the free market to improve the lives of Americans. Furthermore, Latinos are more supportive than whites on guaranteed jobs, reducing inequality, education spending, and environmental spending.
Myth #4: The GOP can't win Hispanic votes, so why pass immigration reform and create more Democratic voters? In addition to President George W. Bush's success among Hispanics, the authors point to their own data showing that about half of Hispanic registered voters have voted Republican at least once. They could do so again—but there's a huge caveat.
If the GOP manages to settle the immigration debate in a way that satisfies Hispanics, more than 60 percent of Latinos are willing to listen to Republicans on other issues. About 45 percent said they would think more favorably of the GOP.
"To be clear," Segura emailed me, "the GOP does not have a simple path to a majority of Latino votes, but they do NOT need to get crushed at the rate they are currently experiencing."
Myth #5: Who cares? Hispanics don't vote anyhow. Segura and Barreto argue that Hispanic turnout will grow significantly as the population ages and becomes more socially mobile.
Currently, Hispanics are under-motivated for three reasons. First, the median age is about 16 years younger than that of whites—and young people, regardless of race, tend not to vote. Second, income and education are predictors of voter engagement, which accounts for most of the difference between whites and Hispanics on turnout.
Third, Hispanics are contacted prior to elections by political parties and candidates far less than whites and blacks (32 percent of Hispanics; 38 percent of blacks; and 47 percent of whites). "Campaign contact can increase turnout by several percentage points," Segura and Barreto write, "especially if the contact is personal in some way."
In the book's introduction, Barreto and Segura offer tailored warnings to both political parties:
"For Republicans, the current numbers look grim. These new Americans enter the electorate two-to-one Democratic. In 2012 they voted nearly three-to-one Democratic. It wasn't always so. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush both performed significantly better among Latinos in their reelection fights. But those days appears to be long gone, and as we discuss later in this book, it's high time for the GOP to get to work on rebuilding its brand with the Latino electorate.
"The Democrats face perils of their own. The party's failure to provide meaningful outreach and effectively mobilize voters has led Democrats to leave millions of votes on the table, and they will continue to do so if nothing changes their approach. Moreover, with the Democratic Party's reliance on minority voters—most notably African American voters—and rainbow racial coalitions, it must carefully nurture policy agreement and strategic partnerships between the minority groups. Rivalry—or worse, direct conflict—could undo the Democratic demographic advantage."