Immediately after the polls close (it seems), the mainstream media will inevitably name one particular group of voters the "deciding factor" in the election. We've already had "soccer moms" and "NASCAR dads." Last time around it was "values voters." The question now is: will 2006 be the "year of the Latino voter?"
The discussion must begin with the admission that these media anointments are (to a debatable degree) a false construct of the media itself. Many have disclaimed the "values voters" announcement from 2004 as being an inaccurate label, or just lazy journalism. The term itself is ridiculous since 100% of voters would likely agree that they have "values" when they vote. It was used as shorthand, perhaps because "Evangelical Christian voters" didn't have the same ring (or might have been considered offensive). It's hard to divine what goes through the minds of the big media editors and producers who come up with these catchy labels.
But even admitting that the entire exercise may be closer to fantasy than reality, it's almost certain that it will be repeated this year. So pondering which group will be selected is indeed a legitimate question.
Some background on Latino voting is in order here. In the past few years, the Latino population in America has become larger than the African American population. Latinos are now the largest minority in America. However, due to historically low registration and voting rates, they are nowhere near as politically powerful as the African American community. Politicians feel free to ignore Latinos and their issues, because they don't vote.
This spring seemed to usher in an awakening within the Latino community, with millions of people attending street rallies in dozens of cities across America. "Today we march, tomorrow we vote!" their banners proudly proclaimed. But will they?
Hard data is difficult to find at this point. What indicators do exist are all over the map, making it impossible to predict results before the votes are actually counted. Some registrars are reporting an uptick in new registrations, while some counties report no more than usual for an off-year election. Many Hispanic-rights organizations have put a lot of time, energy and money into registration drives -- but some are reporting very limited success for their efforts. Latinos apparently have many excuses for not signing up; some are familiar to any American ("I'm too busy"), and some are particular to their own experiences of the powerlessness of voting in the countries they came from.
The most interesting anecdotal evidence to date is the fact that many Latino immigrants have settled in rural farm country -- traditionally a GOP stronghold. From the Associated Press:
"Of the 50 House districts nationwide with the fastest-growing immigrant communities, 45 are represented by Republicans. All but three of those lawmakers voted for a bill that would make illegal immigrants felons.
Overall, GOP districts added about 3 million immigrants from 2000 to 2005, nearly twice the number that settled in districts represented by Democrats, according to an Associated Press analysis of census data."
A surge in Latino voting in such districts may help to overcome the gerrymandering the GOP has done to create seemingly safe districts for themselves.
But Democrats shouldn't automatically assume that all new Latino voters will translate into Democratic votes. Even if Latino registration and voting rates were identical with African American voting, they would not vote as a bloc in the same way. The African American ethnic identity has a shared past of hundreds of years in America. Latino voters, on the other hand, come from many different countries (some recently, some not) and have very separate identities -- so much so that sometimes the only thing they share politically is a common language. A Puerto Rican in New York City has very little shared background with a Cuban in Miami, a Columbian in Colorado, or a Mexican in California.
It wasn't so long ago that the Republican Party was eagerly attempting to attract Latinos to their side. Latin American Catholics, the argument went, are very socially conservative on such issues as abortion, gay marriage and law-and-order concerns. Therefore, they are ripe for GOP recruitment. And George Bush got a lot of Latino votes in both presidential campaigns.
But the big thing Democrats have going for them is the seemingly irresistible temptation the GOP has for scapegoating illegal immigrants to gain short-term political points among other voters. The history of Proposition 187 in California bears this out. It passed, Pete Wilson got re-elected, but a decade later the state legislature is solidly Democratic and the state has voted reliably Democratic in recent presidential campaigns. Remember -- it wasn't that long ago that California voted for Ronald Reagan. Twice.
Immigrants of all types are different from the average American. Immigrants (for the most part) have an attention span longer than two weeks. Average Americans don't. [Think about it: no matter what horrendous news story is on TV every night (Hurricane Katrina, Mark Foley, Madonna's adopted child, whatever), after two weeks of hearing about it, don't most of us start to say, "Enough already! Let's move on to the next story!"] When immigrants are used as scapegoats to win elections, however, they remember it. When they vote -- even years later -- they are inclined to vote against the party that used such tactics.
So it remains to be seen how all of this will translate next month into actual numbers of bodies in the voting booth, or votes for one party or the other. Latinos may not vote this year any more reliably than they have in the past. They may not vote in expected patterns. But then again they may surge, and vote in such overwhelming numbers that they deserve the "deciding factor" label. There is evidence that seems to show the rise of Latino political power as a slowly-building marathon rather than a single-year sprint. Second-generation Latinos, many of whom are citizens by birth, seem much more enthusiastic about voting than their parents do. But such generational shifts in attitude take years to show up in results at the ballot box.
Democrats need to make a better case than they have to new Latino citizens, in order to gain a fast-growing section of the electorate as solid Democratic votes. For the most part, they have been content to sit on the sidelines and watch the Republicans shoot themselves in the foot (like tomorrow's signing ceremony for the 700-mile border fence law). Democrats need to strongly convince these new voters that Democrats are concerned about the same things they are in order to seal the deal.
As for this year, people should remember on election day that the "deciding factor" label isn't about the reality of the situation. It's more about the mainstream media's determination of what they think America's perception of that reality should be. It is impossible to tell whether 2006 will be labeled the year of the "Latino Voter." But even if it isn't, sooner or later Latino voters themselves will force the media to recognize their numbers.
If they actually get out and vote, that is.
[Program note for political wonks: the Washington Post now has a fun "Midterm Madness" game where you can predict the outcome of the midterm elections. Accurately pick all 468 races and win a prize! This had nothing to do with my subject this week, but I had to provide a link since it's such a cool game to play.]