As media and pundits continue to dissect the results of November's midterm election, one clear theme has emerged: Latinos in 2010 affirmed their influential role in American politics, as voters and as candidates, and this will only be magnified in the 2012 election. And while 2010 showed that political leaders and parties that demonize or take Latino voters for granted are taking a great risk, this election also showed that effective outreach to the Hispanic electorate continues to be spotty, both in terms of actual contact and in candidates defining themselves on the issues that matter.
Let's recap. Latino voters proved pivotal in several contested races, more notably in U.S. Senate contests in Nevada, Colorado, California, and Washington. They also made their mark in gubernatorial races in California, Connecticut, Illinois, Oregon, New Mexico, and Florida, helping elect Democratic candidates in the first four, and Republicans in the last two. Once the dust settled, Latino voters emerged as the wild card that numerous polls miscalculated (see Latino Decisions and Nate Silver on this), increasing their share of the vote in several states and helping Democrats retain their majority in the Senate.
On the candidate front, Latinos also made some important gains. This cycle saw several firsts, including the historic election of the first Latina governor in the United States, New Mexico's Susana Martinez; Brian Sandoval will become the first Latino governor of Nevada; and Washington and Idaho will both have a Latino in their House Congressional Delegation for the first time. Marco Rubio will take the Florida Senate seat once occupied by Mel Martinez, and he will be joined in Congress by another five new Republican House members, increasing the GOP Latino members to eight.
This crop of Latino Republicans revealed the GOP's strategy for going after Latino votes: Nominate Hispanic candidates. While the success of these candidates marks a welcome step toward the Republican Party coming to reflect the country's make-up, simply nominating Hispanic candidates, without abandoning immigrant-bashing rhetoric, will not solve the party's challenge with Latino voters. Of the three most notable races--Martinez, Sandoval, and Rubio--only Rubio captured a majority of the Latino vote. He did so at a lower level than Senator Martinez in 2004 (55% compared with 60%) and in a state where the Hispanic electorate routinely has supported Republicans in greater numbers than Latinos elsewhere. If the hope was that Latinos would simply flock to a candidate because the candidate was Hispanic, the answer is "no."
So what does 2010 say about Latinos and their attitudes toward elections and issues? Lesson number one: Demonizing immigrants and Hispanics is a losing strategy. If several Republicans had not fumbled the immigration issue, or had abstained from demonizing immigrants and Latinos, the GOP could have captured the U.S. Senate. Similarly, if Democratic candidates had taken a strong stance against these tactics, they could have motivated more Latinos to come out to the polls. While immigration did not rise on the general electorate's list of priorities, it certainly motivated Latino electoral choices and influenced outcomes in Nevada, California, Colorado, and Washington. Sixty percent of Latino likely voters indicated that immigration was the most important or one of the most important issues in their decision to vote and for whom to vote. Fifty-three percent were influenced by existing anti-Latino, anti-immigrant sentiment. The most noted Republican bearers of this approach did not succeed: J.D. Hayworth (again), Tom Tancredo (again), and Sharron Angle. There are also examples on the Democratic side: Walt Minnick and Zack Space. Sure, there are some politicians that got a boost, such as Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, but whatever short-term gains may have been extracted by a few, their strategy was gratuitous, is a certain loser in the long term, and will be a particular challenge for the GOP, which is seen as wholesale endorsing anti-immigrant, anti-Latino measures.
Lesson number two: Issues matter, but candidates need to define their stance on the issues that matter to the Hispanic community. Jobs and the economy have traditionally topped the list of Latino priorities, and with Latinos experiencing a higher unemployment rate than the national average, this is still the top concern. However, 47% of Latino likely voters felt that public officials do not take Latino concerns into account when considering economic reforms. Immigration was the second issue priority, spurred by a lack of progress on reform and by laws such as Arizona's SB 1070, which have Latinos feeling like suspects in their own communities. More than a few politicians used the issue to stir anti-immigrant sentiment, and many others just stayed quiet. Only a rare few took a decisive stand denouncing those tactics, whether from an immigration policy or a civil rights perspective. Politicians' lack of clarity on the issues leaves Hispanic voters with less reason for making their choices between candidates--and thus less enthusiasm.
Lesson number three: Meaningful outreach is essential. Some Democrats assume that Latinos are a base constituency, or that Republican immigrant-bashing simply leaves Latinos with nowhere else to go. True, Republicans are their own worst enemy and Democrats' best friend when it comes to these voters, but the "lesser of two evils" strategy is wearing thin. Senator Reid provides a good example of the way forward. He is one of the few Democrats who has been forthright in his support for immigration solutions that Latinos--and for that matter, the majority of Americans--support, and even though his opponent was running an anti-Latino campaign, he made very strong efforts to reach the Hispanic electorate. That kind of outreach was not in place in other campaigns. Lack of outreach combined with lack of issue definition is a losing strategy, no matter how weak your opponent may be on Latino priorities.
Looking toward 2012, both parties have work to do. For Democrats, undelivered promises combined with a neglectful attitude toward Latino voters could be devastating. A small number of votes made the difference in Democrats retaining the Senate this year, and the party should heed the signs: A significant number of Latino voters stated that their vote was against the Republican and not for the Democratic candidate. Latinos are just as frustrated with the state of the economy; add to that a lack of progress on immigration and a sense that many Democrats are sitting on the sidelines while the community is being attacked, and that frustration could turn to rejection or sitting out an election. Voters need something to vote for, not just something to vote against.
While the GOP hopes to attract Latino voters by simply running Hispanic candidates, Republicans will lose out big unless the party changes course and stops demonizing immigrants and Latinos. As we have seen in the past, Latino voters are willing to support a candidate regardless of his or her party affiliation if the candidate reaches out, takes positions on issues that matter, and builds a relationship with the community. But the GOP brand has been undeniably tarnished--just look at McCain's trajectory--and in addition to the Latino facelift, a substantive redirection is needed.
2012 stands to be another record year for Hispanic voters. It's time to take these lessons to heart.