The Mythical Monolith

The Mythical Monolith

Latinos have the power to revolutionize American politics. But first they have to vote.

February 9, 2014

Ever since a wave of mass migration from Latin America began to transform the country’s demographic landscape in the 1970s, political analysts have spoken about the “sleeping giant” of the Latino vote. Every election season, like a spectator staring through binoculars on safari, someone jumps to exclaim that the beast is rousing, prompting others to claim that, yes, they spotted it, too. “The giant is awake,” Harry Pachon, then-head of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, told The Miami Herald in 1988, the same year The New York Times made much ado about the fact that both Michael Dukakis and George H.W. Bush spoke Spanish. “The symbolism,” the Times wrote, “has not been lost on members of the long-neglected but fast-growing Latino population, who feel they have finally come of age politically.” That year, 3.7 million Latinos gave Dukakis, the Democrat, 69 percent of their votes.

To judge by media accounts, the sleeping giant has had quite a time since then. In 1992, he “lapsed into a coma.” Anti-immigrant rhetoric surrounding passage of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 was said to have revived him, though it was unclear whether he “got up on the same side of the bed” as Republicans or Democrats. By 2000, not only was the beast “fully awake” but he was “making a pot of coffee,” then “tying [his] shoes, getting ready to play, preparing ... to lead this nation.” He “flexed [his] muscles at the polls” in 2004. Perhaps annoyed by all the interruptions, by 2008 he was “in a foul mood.” Then, it seems, he lost his temper.

“The sleeping Latino giant is wide awake, cranky, and it’s taking names,” Eliseo Medina, then the secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), said in November 2012 shortly after election results rolled in. By supporting “self-deportation”—basically, making life for the nearly 12 million undocumented immigrants in the country so miserable they choose to leave—Mitt Romney had embraced the anti-immigrant wing of his party. In a year characterized by the rhetoric of Republicans like Congressman Steve King of Iowa—who told Newsmax that for every child of an undocumented immigrant who became a valedictorian, there were “another 100 out there who weigh 130 pounds and have got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert”—11.2 million Latino voters responded by flocking to the polls and going heavily for Democrats, awarding President Barack Obama 71 percent of their support. That’s triple their numbers in 1988 and approximately 1.5 million more than in 2008, accounting for 8.4 percent of the electorate. 

Latinos made up 8.4 percent of the electorate in 2012, but only 11.2 of the 23.3 million eligible to vote cast ballots.

But there’s a problem with the “awakening giant” story: Most Latinos who are eligible to vote still don’t. In the last election, fewer than half—48 percent—went to the polls. That’s low compared with whites, who cast ballots at a rate of 64 percent in 2012. They also lag behind blacks, the nation’s second-largest minority group, a record 67 percent of whom went to the polls in the last election. In fact, despite the hype, Latinos were less mobilized than in 2008, when 52 percent turned out. The number registered declined by 600,000 between 2008 and 2010 before rising again. Only 59 percent of eligible Latinos are even registered.

In six of the seven states that contain the majority of the country’s Latinos, turnout in 2012 was dismal. On Election Day, eligible Latinos voted at a rate of only 39 percent in Texas, 40 percent in Arizona, 49 percent in California, 52 percent in Colorado and Nevada, and 56 percent in New Mexico. The 2012 election did feature one genuine bright spot: Florida, where Latinos turned out at a rate of 62 percent, eclipsing white turnout for the first time and boosting Obama to an easier-than-expected victory.

The Latino demographic is getting bigger, but the proportion of those who vote has hardly budged in 20 years, remaining in the 45 percent to 50 percent range. “Any growth you see in voting patterns is largely attributable to the sheer numbers of growth in the population,” says Stephen Nuño, an assistant professor of political science at Northern Arizona University who studies Latino political participation and mobilization. 

Even so, Latinos have the potential to radically remake American politics. The 2010 census counted 50.5 million Latino Americans, making up 16 percent of the U.S. population, 42 percent of whom are eligible to vote. If Latino turnout were the same as it is for black or white voters, their share of the electorate would be 16 percent—double what it is today. 

At different times, both Republicans and Democrats have hoped to cash in. Last decade, George W. Bush and his political Svengali, Karl Rove, dreamed of creating a “permanent Republican majority” bolstered by strong Latino backing. Rove helped George W. Bush capture 40 percent of Latino voters in 2004 by aggressively courting them and calling for immigration reform. But since 2006, when the immigration debate brought the xenophobes out of the GOP woodwork, the number of Latinos who identify or lean Democrat has jumped by 15 percent. Even Cuban Americans, a majority of whom were registered Republicans in 2006, are now more likely to check “Democrat” than “Republican” when they sign up to vote. These trends are apt to continue unless Republicans stop supporting racist laws in states like Arizona and Alabama, quell their anti-immigrant rhetoric, and quit blocking immigration reform before partisan alignment reaches a tipping point.

For the GOP, courting Latinos is a matter of survival: If current trends continue, Latinos will keep Florida blue and could eventually flip Texas, putting the six largest states in the Democratic column and giving the party a lock on the presidency for at least a generation. Democrats need a strong Latino vote for another reason: As manufacturing goes abroad and union density drops off in the Midwest, the white working class has realigned with Republicans, and Democrats are counting on Latinos to replace them. For progressives, Latino population growth offers a historic opportunity to shift American politics to the left. Despite high rates of religiosity, Latinos are more likely to describe themselves as “liberal,” have more progressive views on abortion and gay marriage, support state intervention in the economy, and favor investment in education. But none of that can happen until they enter the voting booth.


In part, the story of Latino disengagement is an immigrant story—and a story about the broken immigration system. In all, about 56 percent of the country’s 53 million Latinos are ineligible to vote. Latinos are young, too, and young people are notoriously apathetic. According to calculations from the Pew Hispanic Center, Latinos’ median age is 27, compared with 33 for blacks, 36 for Asian Americans, and 40 for whites. Among Latinos born in the U.S., the median age is 18—just barely eligible. But the problem goes deeper: Young Latino voters are even more disengaged than their black and white counterparts. Only 34 percent of Latinos between the ages of 18 and 24 cast ballots in 2012, compared with 42 percent of whites and 48 percent of blacks. When young people vote, they tend to continue voting. What’s most striking is that, as opposed to any other immigrant group, Latino political participation declines from the first generation to the second. 

Courtesy of Fusion Telivision/Alicia Menendez Tonight

The author discusses Latino voters with Fusion's Alicia Menendez.

Some of this is temporary. As immigrants’ roots grow, the population will age. The citizenship problem solves itself in 25-year ratchets of the turnstile, courtesy of the 14th Amendment, which grants citizenship to those born on U.S. soil. (Unsurprisingly, Republicans in Congress have pushed, without success, to repeal it.) For Latinos, the biggest roadblock on the path to power is economic. Around 23 percent are poor, compared with 12 percent of Asians and 10 percent of whites. Fewer own homes. These economic factors provide a compelling, if intangible, reason to sit out Election Day. “They give people a sense of being stakeholders in our democracy,” says Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, which represents the country’s 6,000-plus Latino officeholders. “You feel more intertwined into the fabric of American society, which eventually leads to more participation in the political process.”

Worse, increasing levels of inequality and a porous social safety net have made climbing into the middle class harder and falling out easy. Bringing Latinos into the electoral fold will require bringing them into the economic fold—a problem that will take broad government intervention to address. 

But even if you factor out poverty, education, and age, Latino turnout is lower than it should be. Something else is amiss. If you start to look at the states with the largest Latino populations, it’s pretty easy to see why most stay home in November. Four of the five top states in terms of Latino voters—California, Texas, New York, and Illinois—go blue or red with near certainty. Only Florida, with the third-largest Latino population, is competitive, one reason turnout there is much higher. Competitive elections drive outreach. Plus, you’re more likely to feel your vote counts if you’re not stuck in a sea of blue or red. 

Click on the map to enlarge.

Having a Latino candidate or elected representative also gets voters to the polls. “Latinos are mobilized by feeling empowered, so if they’re already represented, it has a mobilizing effect,” says Melissa Michelson, a political scientist at Menlo College in California. The inverse is also true: The dearth of Latino faces among national politicians discourages participation, which further ensures Latinos remain underrepresented. If their representation in Congress matched up with their percentage of eligible voters, they would have 47 seats in the House instead of 31, and 11 instead of 4 in the Senate. According to a recent study by the Pew Hispanic Center, Latinos identify the lack of Latino national leaders as a serious problem. Asked to name “the most important Latino leader in the country today, 62 percent said there wasn’t one.

“There’s an honest perception that ‘my vote doesn’t matter,’ that it won’t make a difference,” says Jimmy Hernández of Voto Latino, a national nonpartisan group that encourages participation among millennials. “That’s something we have to consistently fight against.” It’s a view re-inforced by the politics of immigration, which Latinos consistently list among their top concerns. Despite massive demonstrations in 2006 and 2007, and continuing pressure from advocacy groups, Congress has failed to reform the 20-year-old system. The era of austerity, which disproportionately harms Latinos as it frays the social safety net, also justifies the view that their needs are being ignored in Washington and their votes are irrelevant.


It is a truth almost universally unacknowledged: There is no “sleeping giant” of the Latino vote. At least not nationally. It’s true that, by dint of their numbers, Latinos will exert increasing influence on national elections. But there’s no monolith, partly because their ethnic composition—and political concerns—varies from region to region and state to state. Democrats are hoping that broad-based attacks on immigrants from Republicans will lead the many nationalities with roots in Latin America to see their political fates as intertwined; the idea is that anti-immigration politics will forge a sense of pan-ethnic identity and cause Latinos to vote together in the same way that African Americans do. But immigration has neither the sticking power nor the mobilizing effect that slavery, Jim Crow, and persistent discrimination have had for African Americans. Even if immigration did have the same unifying effect, Latinos would need strong civic groups to mobilize them. “Latinos don’t yet have that great equalizer like the black church to harness that power politically,” Northern Arizona University’s Nuño says. “I don’t expect to see any noticeable growth in the rate of participation until we see a rise of these civic institutions.” 

The effect of Latinos’ voting power will likely be realized only in certain places. For Democrats, the dream is California. Ronald Reagan carried the state in 1984 with 37 percent support from Latinos, who then made up a mere 16 percent of the electorate. But as the number of immigrants from Mexico surged, California Republicans embarked on an anti-immigrant agenda that permanently realigned partisan loyalties. In 1994, Governor Pete Wilson championed Proposition 187, which forbade undocumented immigrants from receiving social services like health care and barred their children from public schools. The law was ruled unconstitutional, but it enraged Latinos—and a strong labor movement was in place to turn that anger into participation. Voter-registration rates jumped from 53 percent to 60 percent; Latinos registered as Democratic over Republican by a 6-to-1 margin. Turnout in 1996 was only 47 percent, but by the force of their numbers and their emphatic rejection of Republicans, Latinos turned the state blue. 

But anti-immigrant initiatives don’t always create a cohesive voting bloc. In Arizona, the unholy alliance of Governor Jan Brewer, a right-wing legislature, and Sheriff Joe Arpaio has laid siege to newly arrived Mexican immigrants. Latino advocacy and Democratic groups predicted these attacks would lead to an uprising at the polls, but it hasn’t panned out. In the first presidential election after SB 1070—the “papers, please” law—passed in 2010, only 40 percent of the state’s 824,000 eligible Latino voters cast ballots. One key reason: Unlike California, Arizona, a “right to work” state, does not have the labor infrastructure to capitalize on anger against Republicans. 

Where civic and labor groups provide no vehicle for engaging Latinos, it’s up to the political parties to do the outreach—and that happens only in swing states. In solid-red Texas, for instance, Latino voting rates have long been abysmal. One reason: In 2012, only 25 percent of Texas Latinos reported being asked for their votes, the lowest in the nation. By contrast, Nevada was a battleground in 2012; there, more than half of Latinos reported hearing from the Romney or Obama campaign, and 53 percent turned out. “One of the challenges we have is that campaigns and candidates identify likely voters,” says Arturo Vargas. “They don’t spend money on reaching unlikely voters, which means Latinos often get ignored by the candidates and campaigns.” 

Geography also affects turnout. In Nevada, for instance, it’s easier to mobilize because Latinos are concentrated around just two cities, Las Vegas and Reno. By contrast, the huge growth of the Latino population in Illinois—a state rarely mentioned in this context—has come in rural areas, where the factory and farm jobs are, and turnout is dismal. The more diffuse their distribution, the harder Latinos are to mobilize. There is a counter to that, though, if parties and campaigns choose to use it: Advertising on television, in print, and online—which studies reveal no longer influences most American voters—has a dramatic effect on Latinos when it’s delivered through Spanish-language media. “What happens with most mass-media ads, Latinos think, ‘Yeah, yeah, I hear what they’re saying but they really mean white people,’” Melissa Michelson says. “But if you’re going on Picolino in the Morning—a show on a station that rich white people don’t listen to—it says, ‘This is really about you guys.’”

As Latinos become more fully assimilated over the coming decades, the likelihood of building a national Democratic voting bloc will grow more remote. Those who study the Latino population point to one additional reason, a well-known demographic quirk in the data. From the first to the second generation, Latin American immigrants follow a predictable pattern: They become wealthier and more educated. But in the third generation, something strange happens. College-graduation and high-school-completion rates drop and poverty and incarceration rates rise—factors that drive down political participation. It’s called the “third-generation slump.” The most prominent theory about why this occurs is that, as these immigrants become more affluent and intermarry, they stop identifying as Latino. It’s one final factor that demonstrates just how precarious the idea of a “Latino vote” is. In the short run, that vote will only exist to the extent it is created by Democratic outreach and Republican intransigence. In the long run, there will simply be no Latino vote as we currently, and sometimes fancifully, imagine it.