11/16/2012 05:05 pm ET Updated Jan 16, 2013

Latino Vote Grows in Complexity and Importance

This year, the Latino vote surpassed 10 percent for the first time in the history of U.S. presidential elections. If you are surprised, you haven't been paying attention or you're Mitt Romney.

From the looks of it, the Romney camp either underestimated the power of the Latino vote or doesn't believe that Republican ideals apply to the Latino community. Where the Romney campaign enlisted Latino staffers as an afterthought, National Political Director, Katherine Archuleta led all of Obama's political direction, and young, connected Latinos, like Sergio Gonzales in Colorado, coordinated Latino statewide efforts. So integrated was Latino strategy in the Obama campaign that it could not be separated from other political aim.

I listened with dismay through the campaign when I heard Romney's promise to make life so miserable for undocumented immigrants that they would "self deport." News flash -- when you make life miserable for any Latinos, the misery spreads throughout our communities, and we tend to take it personally.

Most political pundits offer the first debate as the biggest turning point in the campaign. I offer an alternate -- the June 15th decision by the Obama campaign to allow some young undocumented immigrants to continue study or work without fear of deportation. Latinos disappointed with the president's lack of action on comprehensive immigration reform went from grumbling about staying home on election day to energized about the new juxtaposition with the Romney stance.

With such a difference in policy, is it a wonder that 71 percent of Latinos voted for Obama? An America's Voice poll in October showed more Latino enthusiasm for the 2012 election compared to the previous high-water mark in 2008. In states like Colorado, Nevada, and Florida, the Latino community made up from 14-18 percent of the vote and took their purple states blue.

As the reeling Republicans and strategizing Democrats debrief about 2012 national election results, they should remember six things about the Latino community:

  1. We are not monolithic. The Florida Latino community is no longer solely comprised of conservatives with strong memories of growing up in Castro's Cuba. Puerto Ricans, Mexican Americans and Central Americans living in Florida tend to vote more progressively. A majority of Colorado and Nevada's Latinos have ancestry in Mexico. Latino politics are as complex as in any other community and a single message to the Latino community will no longer mollify.
  2. We are not confined to urban areas or the Southwest. I have 12 siblings -- yes, 12. The 13 of us live in some predictable cities and some not so predictable. Honolulu, Lansing, Las Vegas, Cleveland, Indianapolis, and Mahwah, New Jersey. Of the seven of us still living in our native Colorado, only two of us live in urban Denver. The rest live in the suburbs or smaller cities. The trend of Latinos moving out of large cities can be witnessed across the country and must be understood in order to reach Latino voters.
  3. We are not going away. The Latino community is much younger than the U.S. average and is the fastest growing ethnic population in the country. In addition, Latinos marry outside their race at rates higher than any other ethnic population except for Asians. As more Latinos come of voting age and interracial marriages accrue, Latino issues will increasingly become mainstream and influence in electoral politics can only grow.
  4. We are loyal. Market researchers know that Latinos are some of the most loyal customers for commercial products. The same is true in politics. Voting behavior already formed isn't likely to change without substantial persuasive effort. Though the Democratic Party can't take us for granted, the Republican Party needs more inclusive policy to sway Latino voters.
  5. Our natural assets are what the country needs right now. Recent studies show that bilingual high school students surpass monolingual students on standardized tests in English. As U.S. companies claw their way out of recession and compete around the world, we should view Spanish language ability as a major asset and enlist bilingual and bicultural Latinos in our competitive thrust.
  6. We don't vote for politicians that villainize our community. On election night I was asked by a seasoned Republican operative, "How far does the Latino community want to go to open our borders?" The inquiry underscored how tone-deaf Republicans have been to Latino concerns. I responded that I don't hear much talk about relaxing border security but I do hear quite a bit about jobs, the economy, health care and education just like in other communities. Instead of villainizing our community, Republicans need a bit of education so they can at least start asking the right questions.

By the way, Puerto Rico voted to pursue U.S. statehood. Their overture may very well be accepted. Did I mention the Latino community influence on U.S. politics will only grow?