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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

The Latino Vote

Gregory Weeks, Chair, Department of Political Science & Public Administration, University of North Carolina, Charlotte
Charlotte, NC
September 5, 2012

Democratic National Convention

Dr. Weeks: Thank you very much.

The questions I’m going to be taking are on the importance of the Latino vote in this election. The Latino population has grown considerably in the United States over the past several decades, especially, and in the Southeastern part of the country, here in North Carolina in particular, that growth has really been significant.

So in a number of swing states of which North Carolina is one. It’s not swinging too much. But there are Colorado, Nevada, et cetera. There is a sizeable Latino vote that is up for grabs, so it can swing these particular states one direction or another.

Right now the Obama campaign really has the vast majority of support from the Latino population, right now polling around 65 percent or so. The Romney campaign is somewhere around 25 percent or the high 20s, depending on what poll you look at. The Romney campaign has said that its goal is to get 38 percent of the Latino vote nationally, and there’s very little chance of that but I suppose they think of that as a stretch goal.

The percentage of Latinos who have been voting for the Republican party in presidential elections has been decreasing. President George W. Bush who connected fairly well with Latino voters was more in the low 40s. At the same time even the overall number, the national number as you all know, is less important than the number in these particular states. You have a large number of Latino voters in Texas and a large number in California, but those states are pretty well sewn up. So what it means is that a relatively small number of Latino voters in specific states can really make a difference.

For the Obama administration one of the challenge is not just to gain the support of Latinos, but simply to make sure that that population does not stay home. Latino voters and African American voters were very energized by the 2008 election and the 2008 campaign, so you saw good numbers for participation, for turnout. That’s going to be more difficult for Obama this year given the economy. But rather than sheer numbers, those percentages, getting just a smaller percentage of people out in those particular states is what’s going to be really critical for the outcome of the election. But in certain states when the margins are thin, then every vote literally does count. So both campaigns, certainly we see here at the DNC, we saw at the RNC, there’s a concerted and strong effort to connect more, to show Latino voters that their concerns are being addressed and that the parties have interest in them. It’s really a critical issue for both campaigns.

With that, I will turn it over.

Question: You said the challenge is to some way address the concerns of the Latino population. One of the rockets for that was yesterday’s speech of Julian Castro. I heard that speech. It was interesting, but I couldn’t find a statement about what is one of the most important concerns which is immigration. He spoke about the dream and the future, but I didn’t find that particular issue.

So I would like to ask you, how do you see this speech and how do you think it addresses the concerns of the Latino population? It was a good [inaudible], in which points yes, in which points no?

Dr. Weeks: I think that the point of that speech was simply to connect. I say connect, it’s not necessarily on a policy level, so certainly he didn’t talk about immigration. The Democratic platform talks fairly extensively about immigration. But what I think the purpose of that speech was was to say that for the Democratic -- the Democratic party wanted to say we understand where you come from. We understand your experience. We understand the cultural background from which you come. We accept the diversity, we embrace diversity. So it was really more of a general statement of inclusiveness rather than anything that really focused specifically on policy. Because you’re right, it didn’t.

Question: There have been many waves of immigration to the United States -- the Italians, the Irish, now the Latinos. After a relatively short time they have blended. They have Irish names or Italian names, but they don’t consider themselves a special minority group.

When do you think this is going to happen with the Hispanics?

Dr. Weeks: I think that’s a difficult question to answer. In a certain sense these populations are larger and spread out much more around the country. So it’s more likely they’ll be seen as a coherent bloc. Whether or not that’s accurate is another --

Question: Hispanics?

Dr. Weeks: Yes. Hispanics will be considered a bloc. Even if it’s oftentimes not accurate because certainly not all Latinos look at the same issues in the same way.

I think that the chances of them staying that way is a bit larger. But at the same time, look around the DNC. People are assimilating in many different ways. Latinos are different racially, ethnicity, et cetera.

I think that it would take a long time, but in a certain sense it’s already happening. But for the time being they’re seen as a distinct group.

Question: [Inaudible]

Dr. Weeks: Immigration has slowed quite a bit, especially with the economy and demographic change in the United States. But you’re absolutely right. Given how close Latin America is to the United States, the length of time that this has occurred is much much longer than you saw for European immigrants a hundred years ago.

Question: Could you explain a little bit more about the main topics for Hispanics to make the decision whom they will vote? On one end there will be some topics like immigration or [inaudible],but on the other hand I think there will also be, for example, very Catholic Hispanic immigrants who are skeptical because of same sex marriage or something like that and would lean to the Republicans. Would you describe a little bit about this?

Dr. Weeks: Absolutely. I think one problem with thinking of the Latino population as a distinct bloc is the assumption that somehow that population is interested in different topics.

The number one issue for Hispanics, the same as everybody else, is the economy. That’s a major point for everybody. However, what immigration does and even going to the general frame of the speech last night, is that the Republican party is perceived as not being friendly toward Latinos, not being friendly toward immigrants, and that makes it more difficult for Republicans to get their economic message across, or to get the Hispanic population to vote for them based on the economy. Whereas what Democrats are trying to do is to say we are a more inclusive party, so listen to us. But it’s absolutely true that a sizeable percentage, somewhere around 25-30 percent of Latinos, will vote Republican in this presidential election and it is because overall the Hispanic population tends to be more culturally conservative so they are interested in the more conservative message that the Republican party offers.

But overall I think that Latino voters are going to be looking at the economy as the number one issue. Really the challenge for Obama is to say if you’re interested in our message then please come out and vote. It’s going to be tempting to say that the Democratic party has not solved the economy. The Republican party is perceived as anti-immigrant. So why should I vote for anybody?

Question: Could you address North Carolina specifically. Will President Obama win here? And in that case, will it be thanks to Latino voters?

Dr. Weeks: As a political scientist, I know I should never make predictions. We analyze things, we don’t try to predict them. But I think that it’s going to be difficult for President Obama to win North Carolina. Right now I’d say the odds are definitely in Romney’s favor. In North Carolina specifically the percentage of registered voters who are Hispanic is very very low. It’s less than two percent. The last I checked it’s about 1.5 percent. So there are very few registered voters in North Carolina that are Latino that Obama can bring on board.

If it’s very narrow, then every vote counts. But what President Obama is going to need in North Carolina is he’s going to need the African American vote which came out in very large numbers in 2008, was very energized, and in 2012 is noticeable less energized. It was really a pretty amazing victory for Barack Obama in 2008 in North Carolina, but it’s going to be really, really hard for him to replicate that this time. So North Carolinians are feeling the effects of unemployment and are wondering am I better off now than I was four year ago? And for many North Carolinians, the answer is no.

That doesn’t necessarily mean they vote Republican, but it does mean that they decide to stay at home and not vote.

Question: From what I understand, the Latino vote is largely Catholic. And for Latino women, how important is the topic of abortion? Is it important in the sense of keeping them from the Democratic party and pushing them to the Republican? Or is it not really relevant?

Dr. Weeks: I think that on balance it is relevant only for a minority. So there are people who are really, of all races and ethnicities, who feel that cultural conservatism issues like abortion or homosexual marriage or things like that are very very important. But when you look at polls you see that Latinos rank cultural issues below other issues, especially the economy, health care, immigration. So I think that abortion is not likely to sway very many Latino voters one direction or another. They’re looking at several other issues that are of higher priority to them.

Question: Thanks for doing this.

Do you think if the Republicans lose this election that will force them to change their positions towards the issues that concern the Latino population, namely immigration, for instance?

Dr. Weeks: I think the answer is yes. Right now the Republican party is absolutely split. Oftentimes people ask what does the Republican party believe about immigration? Well, that depends on who you ask.

The Republican platform right now is very restrictionist. It’s one of the more extreme platforms for immigration that you’re likely to see. However there are many many very prominent Republican leaders who are saying that we are going to become extinct if we do not appeal to people who are not simply older white voters. In an election -- So one reason I would say yes is that given how bad the economy is doing Republicans should really win this election. The fact that they are not far, far ahead right now shows that there are splits in their party that are preventing them from moving forward. I think they will try to figure out what went wrong. Part of what went wrong is that their base is shrinking.

Question: One of the questions that came up yesterday had to do with the perception of President Obama if he’s not reelected to another term, and the question is, would it be perceived as having lost, being out of the game for minorities? In other words, he’s an African American. This was his chance. He lost that chance. Is there some kind of vote of confidence actually in this for minorities in the United States?

Dr. Weeks: My feeling is no. What we’re seeing in the convention is a real push by the Democratic party to advance people, not only African Americans but also Latinos. I think the Democratic party understands demographically that this is a group of people that needs to remain in the party. Does that mean if Obama loses will the next nominee necessarily be a minority? Not necessarily. But I think now that’s just fundamentally a part of the party and won’t likely change.

Question: There was a story today, I don’t remember whose newspaper, saying the Latinos are very different and there is really, they are nearly [faced] against each other. Not so much, but very different. The Mexicans and the Cubans, because they have different origins, different immigration. Do you really think it’s really so strong between the Mexicans and the Cubans as two very opposed groups?

Dr. Weeks: What I would say is the two groups are not opposed to each other. But it’s an excellent question, because if you look at the “Latino vote in Florida”, that’s a constituency that is interested primarily in Cuba and U.S. policy toward Cuba, and increasingly now U.S. policy toward Venezuela. As a result, their interests are very distinct from the interest of say Mexican Americans who live in Texas or California.

So I don’t think they’re opposed to each other. They have many common characteristics. But as a candidate, you have to explain very differently what your policies are going to be and that’s really why the Cuban American vote in Florida has typically gone more Republican, because Republicans typically are more hardline against Fidel Castro. So they have very different perspectives. But it’s a very good example of how the Latino vote is not one big bloc.

Moderator: Dr. Weeks, thank you so much for coming here today. We really appreciate it. Dr. Weeks has agreed to do one-on-ones after this session.

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