Hispanics, long under-represented as voters, are becoming political kingmakers
January 8, 2010

THE choice of John Pérez to take over as the new speaker of California’s state assembly later this month has been hailed as something of a breakthrough—but only because Mr Pérez is openly gay. That he is also Latino is not considered newsworthy.

Written by Staff , The Economist

THE choice of John Pérez to take over as the new speaker of California’s state assembly later this month has been hailed as something of a breakthrough—but only because Mr Pérez is openly gay. That he is also Latino is not considered newsworthy. Kevin de León, who competed with Mr Pérez for the post, is also Latino, as are several of Mr Pérez’s predecessors, including his cousin, Antonio Villaraigosa, who is now the mayor of Los Angeles. The weight of Latinos in the politics of states like California and Texas (where the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus claims 44 of the 150 members of the state House of Representatives) is already understood to be not only large but normal.

This year, after the decennial census that will confirm the huge growth of America’s Hispanic population, this influence will become both evident and normal in even more parts of the country. Arturo Vargas, the executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO), reckons that during the last census about 1m Latinos were left out of the statistics because “if you live in a garage or on somebody’s couch”, as many Latinos do, it is easy not to be counted. This time there is a concerted effort to change that. And if the Census Bureau’s estimates are corroborated, almost 16% of America’s population will be shown to be Hispanic (since the label refers to ethnicity rather than race, anybody who considers himself Hispanic is deemed to be so). That will compare with 13.4% for blacks, according to the estimate.

Along with the ageing of the baby-boomers, this Latinisation is the most important demographic change in America, at least according to William Frey at the Brookings Institution, a think-tank in Washington, dc. Hispanics have accounted for half of America’s total population growth since 2000, he notes. To see the America of the future, he says, look to its youth and its cities. White children are already a minority in 31 of America’s 100 largest metropolitan areas. For America as a whole, whites will become a minority in preschools by 2021 and in the general population by 2042.

One result is more Latino officials and politicians. Mr Vargas counts more than 6,000 in the country, mostly, it is true, on the boards of school and utility districts and other branches of local government that are “the first rung on the political ladder”. But there are also two Latino cabinet members, 26 Latino representatives and a Latino senator. The governor of New Mexico is a Hispanic. Since Sonia Sotomayor became a justice on the Supreme Court, says Mr Vargas with a wink, “there is only one office that has eluded us”, and it is oval. In the fictional world of “West Wing” (see above), Matt Santos has already made that dream true.

And yet, Latinos have so far punched below their weight in American politics, in contrast to blacks, who have punched above theirs, says Paul Taylor, the director of the Pew Hispanic Centre. Many are undocumented immigrants, many more are too young to vote, and others yet have simply not bothered. Moreover, Latinos are “notorious for not getting organised,” says Mr Frey, since many consider themselves to be Mexican, Guatemalan, Salvadorean or Puerto Rican, say, rather than Hispanic. As a result Latinos have been less strong as a block than the Irish were after the immigration wave of the 19th century, or than blacks have been recently, he says. That may partly explain why Texas has never had a Latino governor, and California has had only one, back in the 1830s.

But this is changing. “Latinos respond to anger and fear,” says Mr Vargas. In California during the 1990s, Latinos read the anti-immigrant rhetoric of Pete Wilson, a Republican governor, as racist and were outraged when voters passed a ballot measure (later ruled unconstitutional) to bar undocumented immigrants from non-emergency public health care, welfare and education. Californian Latinos decided to fight at the ballot box and registered in huge numbers, recalls Monica Lozano, a third-generation Mexican and the publisher of La Opinión, the largest Spanish-language newspaper in America. A similar, and national, surge has been ongoing since the anti-immigrant media frenzy of 2006.

The presidential election of 2008 was the first one in which Latinos played a large, and perhaps decisive, role. They voted for Barack Obama over John McCain by a margin of more than two-to-one—not as large as Mr Obama’s margin among blacks, but of greater importance in states with lots of Latinos, which happen to include swing states. Latinos helped Mr Obama to carry Florida (where they had favoured George Bush in 2004), New Jersey, Nevada and New Mexico, in particular.

In future elections, Latinos will be “the centrepiece of the election, the kingmakers,” says Samuel Rodriguez, a pastor and the president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, an evangelical association. They will be able to tilt the electoral balance and turn many red—or, conceivably, blue—states purple. That is because Latinos are the quintessential independents, he says.

Latinos tend to place faith and family at the centre of their lives, and are thus naturally conservative on many social issues, from gay marriage to abortion, says Mr Rodriguez. But the same values also incline them, in contrast to, say, white evangelicals, to communitarian economic policies usually considered liberal (by the American definition of that word). In California, say, they tend, as renters rather than homeowners, to be against Proposition 13, a law that caps property taxes, and instead to favour taxes that pay for better education. They consider themselves the future, says Ms Lozano, and want to invest in it.

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