Ideología: an economic interpretation of the latino vote in the US

Latino households lost 42 percent of their wealth between 2007 and 2013, African Americans 43 percent, and white households 26 percent. This could explain, to a certain extent, their electoral behaviour. Español

Juhem Navarro-Rivera
8 July 2016

Volunteers for President Barack Obama's reelection campaign as they leave campaign headquarters. 2012, in Phoenix. AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin.

Rising American Electorate was credited with helping Barack Obama win the presidency in 2008 and his reelection in 2012. Comprised of people of color, women, and young people, this Rising Electorate represents people in constituencies that have been underserved in a political system that increasingly caters to the needs of the wealthy. That the first African-American president received a high level of support among constituencies that have been historically underrepresented may suggest that he was elected by the power of “identity politics.” This narrative ignores the important economic forces driving the voting behavior of the new electorate. An excellent example of the economic forces behind the Rising Electorate’s voting behavior comes from recent Latino history. In the case of Latinos there are major differences in their economic conditions at the time when George W. Bush became president and later in the decade when Barack Obama was elected.

In 2004 John Kerry made history when he became the first Democrat since Jimmy Carter in 1980 to get less than 60 percent of the Latino vote, according to exit polls.* Kerry’s 19-point victory over George W. Bush tied the narrowest lead ever recorded for a Democrat and suggested that Latinos were finally starting to fulfill Ronald Reagan’s vision of Latinos as a natural conservative constituency. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” was credited for expanding the Republican tent to include more Latinos in the conservative coalition and likely to end the Democrats’ lock of their support. The Party of Lincoln may have lost the African American vote, but now it was betting on the future: Latinos were in pace to become the largest ethnic minority in the country. Then, 2008 happened.

In 2008 two-thirds of Latinos voted for then- Sen. Barack Obama for President of the United States, the highest percentage for a Democratic Party candidate in more than a decade. Four years later, an even larger share of Latino voters supported his reelection. Latinos were an integral part of the Obama coalition. This coalition highlighted the importance of the Rising American electorate in deciding elections. The GOP’s messaging on immigration usually gets the blame for their diminishing fortunes with Latino voters (including from the GOP itself). This interpretation ignores the strong economic incentives many in the Rising Electorate, Latinos included, to want to change course politically.

A Pew Research Center report on Latino wealth found that the median wealth of Latino households grew steadily during the late 1990s, peaking in 2007 at $23.600. After the Great Recession, the median household wealth has been on the decline. In 2013, the last year available in the report, the median wealth of Latino households was $13,700.

Latinos were not the only victims of the recession that saw a decline in wealth for all Americans. But compared to white non-Hispanic households, Latinos (and African Americans) were hit much harder. Latino households lost 42 percent of their wealth between 2007 and 2013, African Americans 43 percent, and white households 26 percent.

Much of the wealth in America, including Latinos’, is tied to homeownership. Thus, it comes to no surprise that the decline in household wealth was accompanied by a decline in homeownership. Research by the Economic Policy Institute shows that after steady increases in homeownership among Latinos, came a drop after the great recession of 2008.

Since Latinos comprise a major share of the new working class, their economic recovery has been slow. Many have low-paying jobs or lost jobs and the ones they found now pay much less than their previous ones. They have young families with little access to affordable daycare, many lack access to health care, and access to quality schools. It should be no surprise that when their collective economic fortunes worsen, Latinos forcefully rejected messaging that considers government as an unnecessary nuisance and the social safety net as wasteful spending.

Many commentators and political observers are quick to point to the Republican Party’s handling of immigration reform as the cornerstone of an outreach strategy to diversify the party’s demographics. The immigration thesis often ignores the many economic reasons for why many Latinos and other members of the Rising Electorate have abandoned (or simply not joined) the GOP in recent years. This does not mean that immigration does not matter, but its importance is a complicated matter. And the subject of the next post.

* The measuring of the Latino vote in exit polls has been criticized by Latino political scientists and experts of Latino political behavior.


This post was previously published at Demos

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