In My Words: ‘Sleeping giant’ shapes American politics

Kenneth Fernandez, director of the Elon University Poll, looks ahead to future elections and the role Latino voters will play in deciding outcomes.

Assistant Professor Kenneth Fernandez, director of the Elon University Poll


The following column appeared recently in the (Greensboro, N.C.) News & Record, the Fayetteville Observer, the Winston-Salem Journal and the (Burlington, N.C.) Times-News via the Elon University Writers Syndicate.


A ‘sleeping giant’ shapes American politics
By Kenneth E. Fernandez –

For as long as I can remember the Latino community has been referred to as the “sleeping giant,” a label that represents its size and growth as well as the way its political participation and electoral success have lagged behind other groups, notably whites and African-Americans.

The results from this past election suggest the sleeping giant is not only awake but is getting out of bed and going to the polls.

Just days after President Barack Obama was reelected, the Pew Hispanic Center released a report showing that Latinos comprised 10 percent of the number of people who cast ballots this fall. If current demographic trends continue, within a generation, today’s Latino voters will be “the leading edge of an ascendant ethnic voting bloc … likely to double in size.”

The presidential election is usually decided by a few key states. In Nevada and Colorado, Latinos just gave Obama a comfortable margin of victory, and the growth of their populations in both places calls into question exactly how long they’ll be dubbed “battlegrounds.”

Likewise, Latinos played a critical role in making Florida competitive. Once a monolithic group loyal to the Republican Party, Latinos in the Sunshine State today form a very diverse group that diverge notably by region, generation, national origins and citizenship status.

Latino turnout and enthusiasm have reached historic levels. In addition, the group’s diversity has helped increase its relevance: Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans and Cuban-Americans, just to name a few, each hold different political experiences and attachments. Increasingly these groups have dispersed across the country, creating significant populations in counties in the South and Midwest, bringing them into contact with different political environments.

Given the diversity of the Latino population, some strategists in the Republican Party believe the Hispanic vote is still in play because of relatively strong conservative views on issues such as gay marriage, abortion, taxes and small business regulations.

Both parties recruited prominent Latino political leaders to speak at their recent conventions. Democrats picked San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro to be the first Hispanic keynote speaker in DNC history and the RNC invited Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez, Texas senatorial candidate Ted Cruz and Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuño to speak in Tampa.

These officials represent the current and future leadership of both parties and potentially a future presidential candidate. However, both parties must go beyond symbolic gestures and speeches, and back legislation important to the Latino community, specifically immigration reform, if they hope to bring Hispanics into their fold.

To maintain their advantage with Latino voters, Democrats must follow through on their promises. Democrats have failed to pass immigration reform even when they controlled both houses of Congress and faced a sympathetic president, first with George W. Bush in 2007 and then Obama in 2008.

Republican policies on family values and lower taxes may be attractive, but they’re eclipsed by the GOP’s stance on “self-deportation,” associated by many Latinos with opposition to the Dream Act, which allows children brought to the U.S. by their parents a path to citizenship instead of deportation.

And self-deportation is seen as a change in direction from the policies supported by George W. Bush, his father George H.W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan, all of whom supported immigration reform that allowed a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who have strong ties to their community and the economy.

If the GOP is going to be competitive in battleground states such as Nevada and Colorado it will have to take a close look at its policy agenda. States not traditionally viewed as electoral battlegrounds might soon become such because of Hispanic voters.

Look no further than North Carolina. Latinos make up almost 9 percent of the Tar Heel population. Their impact to date on local, state and federal elections may be modest, but even this is changing as the number of Latinos registered to vote more than doubled in the past four years.

If that pattern continues, Latinos will begin to play a more prominent role in electoral politics here. The 2012 presidential race was closer in North Carolina than in many battleground states, including Nevada, Colorado, Iowa, Wisconsin, New Hampshire and Virginia.

North Carolina will undoubtedly see even greater attention from the men and women seeking the White House in 2016. I suspect the attention will come, in part, from far more television and radio ads in Spanish.

Kenneth E. Fernandez is an assistant professor of political science and director of the Elon University Poll.


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Viewpoints shared by this syndicate are those of the author and not of Elon University.