10/29/2010 05:33 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"Latinos Divided on Immigration." Headline-grabbing? Yes. Accurate? Hardly.

In the battle to categorize Latinos, something always gets lost in translation. Some want to see this community as a monolith that's either aligned on every issue or focused solely on immigration. Others insist that Latinos are like the rest of the electorate and that there is no set of common interests that speak to it as a group. Both sides can find data that, if used in isolation, could support their side, but either conclusion, in addition to being simplistic and wrong, often leads to lackluster or less-than-strategic outreach to this community. The National Council of La Raza (NCLR) lays out some of these complexities in its recent report Latino Voters and the 2010 Election: Numbers, Parties, and Issues.

Much has been made about Latino enthusiasm around voting on Tuesday, suggesting that low enthusiasm means "not voting." Well, here's the thing: I am voting on Tuesday, but I would hardly describe my mood as "enthusiastic." All to say that there are different factors vying for Latino attention--some could dampen participation, some could energize it--and the way that candidates define themselves on the issues makes a difference to those energy levels. "Defining" is not, however, what the candidates have always been doing.

Where party affiliation is concerned, Latinos register as Democrats by significant margins--traditionally two to one. But there is evidence that candidates can garner this community's support, regardless of party affiliation, if they follow some simple steps: (1) conduct meaningful outreach, (2) take positions on the issues that matter to Latinos, and (3) build a relationship with the community. While many politicians are engaging in tactics that alienate or demonize Hispanics, others are not really working for the community's vote or clearly defining their positions on issues that matter to Latinos. This leaves Hispanic voters with little to work with, and it's one of the reasons why NCLR says that voting for respect may be the clearest incentive that Hispanics have for voting.

On the issues, Latinos are concerned about bread-and-butter matters such as jobs and education. In poll after poll--regardless of whether they lean left, lean right, or are nonpartisan--these two issues have consistently topped the list of Latino priorities for years. The economy is especially significant, and both in 2008 and 2010, the same has held true for the rest of the American electorate. But details count, and just because someone is talking about a top issue doesn't mean that they are talking about the aspect of it that matters most to the Hispanic community. For example, in 2004, there was a lot of campaign talk about health care, but most of the discussion focused on prescription drugs while the top concern for Latinos was the quality of and basic access to medical care. So this discussion did not have the effect of really engaging or motivating most Latinos.

Since immigration does not traditionally top the priority list (although it has reached number one in several polls this year), some pundits say that Latinos do not care about immigration. Wrong again. Immigration--when it's part of the political debate--serves as a litmus test by which Latinos assess how candidates or parties look at their community. And let's face it: It escapes no one that the toxicity of the immigration debate has put a bull's-eye on the backs of Latinos. Many Hispanics, regardless of immigration status, are feeling like suspects in their own communities, or, worse, becoming victims of hate crimes. In such an environment, is it any surprise that immigration can act as a force behind participation? Or that, contrary to the headline of a recent report but much in line with its actual findings, Latinos overwhelmingly agree on the solution? (Interestingly, so does the majority of their fellow Americans, by the way).

So what does this all mean? The Latino electorate will continue to grow, will matter on Tuesday, and will be hotly sought after in 2012. But while Republicans have a lot of ground to recover, Democrats have not sealed the deal. One could even say that when it comes to Latinos, Republicans are their own worst enemy and Democrats' best friend. This Tuesday, the Latino vote will be a message about whether candidates have managed to connect with these voters in a meaningful and substantive way. Both parties still have a lot of work to do.

* In addition, on Wednesday, November 3, NCLR will discuss results from an election-eve poll of likely Latino voters. This discussion will add greater dimension to how and why Latinos voted (the poll, by Latino Decisions, is conducted in collaboration with America's Voice and the Service Employees International Union).