The Obama campaign was effective in engaging Latino voters through grassroots and national efforts, said a bipartisan group of Latinos discussing the election. (Photo: Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Latino voters will drive 2013 political agenda

This may sound obvious, but it is often overlooked in many post-election talks — Latinos did not vote as a separate Latino entity, as if the nation’s Hispanics were all in a vacuum.  “The focus has been as if these were actors operating in a void and it was all about their identity, when in fact we know that in this go-around, the nature of coalition building was a critical factor,” said Robert Suro, director of the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute and a professor at the University of Southern California.

Whether it was in  response to their state’s immigration law or each party’s position on health care, Latinos were part of  a larger swath of voters who at least this year, coalesced around primarily Democratic positions, especially on immigration, the economy and social issues.  “Ideas matter,” said Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles,  Aguilar was blunt about why so few Latinos voted for his party. “We had a terrible candidate, a lousy campaign, and a terrible position on immigration,” he said.

Suro and Aguilar were part of a candid and incisive conversation on the policy implications of this year’s Latino vote. The event was sponsored by ImmigrationWorks USA, Arizona State University and the Woodrow Wilson Center.

While the Latino vote was a key factor in the re-election of President Obama, its influence differed among states, with fascinating results.  In Arizona, for example, while one-third of the state’s residents are of Hispanic background, they are currently only 15 percent of registered voters, according to Arizona State political scientist Rodolfo Espino.  Though many Latino groups have come out against Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio for his immigration-related law enforcement tactics, Arpaio was re-elected.  In the state’s senatorial race, a Latino Democrat, Richard Carmona, lost to a more well-known Republican congressman, Jeff Flake.  Rodolfo Espino noted that, especially in the case of Arpaio, the growing clout of Latino voters was evident in the much less strident ads.  “It was more warm and fuzzy biographical – I think the recall of Russell Pearce sent a signal that if you continue to scapegoat Latinos, they can vote you out of office,” he noted.

On the other hand, says Roberto Suro, “Miami Dade is the home of a really interesting, complicated, mixed-up coalition, with Cubans and non-Cubans finding common cause with LGBT, Haitians, and New York area migrants,” he said, saying it went from working-class neighborhoods to Miami Beach.  This is where everyone in the panel agreed the Obama campaign did a really good job engaging and establishing a presence in Latino communities across the country.

“Chicago (speaking of the Obama campaign) viewed Latinos as part of a governing coalition,” said Dan Restrepo, a Latino Obama spokesperson during the campaign and former White House Director of  Western Hemisphere Affairs in the National Security Council. Restrepo explained that the Obama campaign had a national campaign director in charge of the Latino vote a year before the election, and many people in the campaign were dedicated to targeting Latino voters.  Republican Alfonso Aguilar agreed, saying some in the Romney campaign only wanted to talk to Latinos about the economy.  Aguilar created a limited independent ad campaign in Nevada to try to highlight President Obama’s record number of deportations, and he said that was the only state where Romney did better than McCain.

Tamar Jacoby,  president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a Republican who advocates for the need to tackle immigration reform, asked the panel whether the Republican party has a chance with Latino voters.

“At the moment I think Latinos are hardcore Democratic voters,” said political scientist Rodolfo Espino.  “But loyalty is not rock hard – in 2010, many Latino voters chose to stay home,” he explained, saying the loss of support for Obama in 2010 was partly due to the failure to engage in immigration reform.

The Obama campaign’s Dan Restrepo said it behooves whomever wants Latinos to be a part of their electoral coalition to keep them engaged and involved in the process.  “The Republicans are fooling themselves if they think immigration solves their ‘Latino’ issue,” said Restrepo, adding the same applies for Democrats thinking the Latino vote is locked in.  Both parties will be able to put this to practice next year, as the complicated but important topic of immigration reform is increasingly expected to be part of next year’s legislative agenda.

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