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Myth of the Latino Vote

Hispanic Link, News Report, Alonso Yanez Posted: Oct 30, 2008

Aside from passionate political discussions, populist promises and negative campaigns that flirt with libel, presidential elections also have the peculiarity of rediscovering forgotten groups of voters every four years.

Since the number of Hispanics began to increase rapidly in the 1980s, candidates to any elected government position, as well as the news media, started to speculate about the importance of the Latino vote and paid more attention to that electorate.

The myth that the Latino vote is decisive in presidential elections was born.

"(The Latino vote) is completely irrelevant," says Rodolfo de la Garza, a political science professor at Columbia University and vice president-research with the Los Angeles-based Tomas Rivera Policy Institute. "The myth was created by Latino leaders who wanted to convince politicians nationally about how important Latinos were.

"They believed that would make themselves and the Latino more important," he adds. "It was well-intentioned. It was also self-aggrandizing."

Although the Hispanic population has increased from 14 million in 1980 to more than 46 million in 2008, and has gained more political representation at the local and state levels, the Latino vote is still far from being decisive at the national level.

For de la Garza, a low voter turnout and the concentration of Latinos in states that are not competitive, such as California, Illinois, New York or Texas, cause the Latino vote to be less crucial than expected. While 58 percent of the nation's Latinos live in those four states, the Hispanic voter turnout stayed at 47 percent in 2000 and 2004, according to the Census Bureau.

Louis DeSipio, a political science professor at the University of California-Irvine, also considers the Latino vote irrelevant because, he claims, it will not determine victory in any major state or in the Electoral College.

"It reflects ignorance on the part of the media, because it lets them make a story where there isn't one," says DeSipio. "And it's reinforced by campaigns that very tactically want to tell the story about doing well with Latinos here and there."

Both de la Garza and DeSipio remember they began to see stories in the 1980s about how crucial the Latino vote would be. They think that the process of "mythification'' was produced and reinforced by different sectors: the news media, the two dominant political parties and some Latino leaders.

Some in academia, however, don't think it's a myth to say the Latino vote is decisive in presidential elections. Matt Barreto, political science professor at the University of Washington, acknowledges that the Latino electorate in states such as California, Texas or New York will not be decisive because the political inclination is already defined there, but points out that, in that context, the white or black vote will also be irrelevant in the majority of states.

"The states that do matter -- Florida, New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada -- are on almost every list of battleground states, of the states that will cause the election to swing one way or the other, and they all have a very significant Latino population," says Barreto.

While the Latino population's increase has been significant in recent decades, Latinos are not sufficiently involved politically. The majority of them are young, less educated and have a smaller income, according to de la Garza. He says, however, there is another way of thinking about their importance:

"Latinos have changed the tone of American elections. They have created a more sophisticated electorate because they're perceived to be culturally and politically distinct, even if they're not. So it's deliberate and desirable for candidates to speak another language, for a candidate to be cognizant of another language.

"We change the context of the election, but not necessarily influence the outcome of the election," he concludes.

Alonso Yanez is a contributing columnist with Hispanic Link News Service.

Related Articles:

U.S. Latino Media Overwhelmingly Favor Obama

How the GOP Will Suppress Minority Votes on November 4Legally

Beware of Accidental Disenfranchisement

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