Debating The Impact Of Latino Voters

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There weren't many bright spots for Democrats in Tuesday's midterm election, but in those races where they were successful some suggest Latino voters provided the key boost leading to a win. Host Michel Martin talks with Matthew Barreto, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Washington and a pollster at the polling firm Latino Decisions, about the impact of the Latino vote in the 2010 midterm elections.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And back to U.S. politics for a few more minutes. It's no secret and we're probably not the first to mention it, but if you are a Democrat, Tuesday night wasn't your night. Even President Obama had to admit that his party got a shellacking.

Now, some Democrats did manage to eke out high profile and significant wins like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in Nevada, Governor Jerry Brown and Senator Barbara Boxer in California, or rather, Governor-elect Jerry Brown.

Now, many analysts are saying that the Latino vote had a key role in those races. We wanted to talk more about that, so we've called Matt Barreto. He's the director of the Washington Institute for the Study of Ethnicity and Race. And he's also a pollster at Latino Decisions, a polling firm. Welcome back. Thanks for joining us.

Mr. MATT BARRETO (Director, Washington Institute for the Study of Ethnicity and Race): Sure thing. It's my pleasure to be back, Michel.

MARTIN: So, Matt, let's start out west in Nevada. This is a race that both Democrats and Republicans dearly wanted. Of course, Harry Reid was contested by Republican challenger Sharron Angle. And the race, as we talked about earlier, focused a lot on issues of immigration, particularly in the final days. I just want to play an ad that Sharron Angle ran in the final weeks of the campaign. Let's listen.

(Soundbite of political ad)

Ms. SHARRON ANGLE (Republican, Former U.S. Senate Candidate): I'm Sharron Angle and I approved this message.

Unidentified Man: Waves of illegal aliens streaming across our border, joining violent gangs, forcing families to live in fear. And what's Harry Reid doing about it? Voting to give illegal aliens Social Security benefits, tax breaks and college tuition. Voting against declaring English our national language twice. And even siding with Obama and the president of Mexico to block Arizona's tough new immigration law. Harry Reid, it's clear whose side he's on, and it's not yours.

MARTIN: It's not yours. So, Matt, we know now that Harry Reid squeaked out a win. Now, before election night, your polling was showing that Latino support for - broke down that 90 percent of Latino voters going for Reid. Only 8 percent for Angle. But afterwards, some analysts are now saying that actually her Latino support was what's called normal for Republican, in the 30 percent range. What do you say?

Mr. BARRETO: Well, I think any of the analysts who are saying that are not analysts who have ever studied or analyzed Latino voting data. Those numbers are absolutely ludicrous and it borders on irresponsible journalism to be reporting them because people are not getting in and looking at the data and understanding it.

In 2008, John McCain won a reported 22 percent of the Latino vote in Nevada. And these numbers would have us believe that Sharron Angle, who ran the most racist and offensive anti-Latino campaign, actually improved upon the numbers of John McCain, who refused to say anything bad about Latinos.

MARTIN: Well, not only that, he was a very high profile advocate of immigration, sort of, policy that would lead to normalization - lead to citizenship, a path to citizenship, is what is being said.

Mr. BARRETO: That's right. John McCain was one of the few voices in the Republican Party that actually said to his party, we're not going to use this rhetoric about immigrants. He did change his policy a little bit on immigration reform and how we should push forward. But he always continued to maintain the line that we would not use that sort of hateful language.

And so it makes absolutely no sense that she would have gotten an 8 percent improvement. And if anything, she would've gotten an 8 percent reduction or more if you were on the ground in Nevada and just saw just how the Latino community there was taking these ads. We also had previously talked about that ad that said, don't go and vote.

MARTIN: Sure. We talked about that. So, just - at the end of the day, what effect do you think that Latino voters had on the Reid race? Could he have won without those voters?

Mr. BARRETO: Absolutely not. It was absolutely critical. If you look at the pre-election polls, they estimated that she would win. But because of the strong support, the 90 percent vote that he did get among Latinos, that's the exact margin that he won by, was because of that strong support from Latinos. There's no question that without that support he would not have been reelected.

MARTIN: And what about turnout? Because of course we talked about before the election that there was not as much enthusiasm among Latino voters as there -for the Democratic ticket to sort of generically as there was in the presidential election, that's not always uncommon in off-year elections. A lot of groups aren't as motivated to vote, but did turnout - where was turnout for Latino voters in Nevada?

Mr. BARRETO: Well, it's absolutely the case that enthusiasm and interest was low out before the election. However, we did see that turning in our Latino Decisions tracking poll - that we did we did 10 weeks of weekly tracking. About two weeks before - two to three weeks from the Election Day, we saw a big increase in enthusiasm, reported interest in the election and intention to vote. And I think that followed all the way through to Election Day.

We're going to have to wait until all of the ballots are counted, get the precinct by precinct data in different neighborhoods to see what the actual turnout rate was. But the data is all pointing to a very enthusiastic and engaged electorate in places like Nevada, California and also Colorado.

MARTIN: All right, talk to me about California. We only have about two minutes left and there's so much to cover and I'm sorry about the lack of time. But California?

Mr. BARRETO: California is another case where without that strong vote from the Latino electorate, neither Jerry Brown nor Barbara Boxer would have been elected to office in 2010. Over 80 percent of Latino voters came around and eventually voted for Jerry Brown and Barbara Boxer. And that was something that was in question earlier. But as immigration, again, became a wedge issue in California, and the way that it was discussed, really, really pushed Latinos away from the Republican Party. And that's not new to California.

I think it's surprising to some people that it happened again, that some of the Republicans there hadn't learned their lessons on immigration and how you do outreach and talk to Latinos.

MARTIN: Okay. And, finally, there were a number of - two - a couple of high profile Republican Latino candidates in New Mexico: Susana Martinez, which is, I think, the largest percentage of Latino voters in the electorate, and of course in Florida, Marco Rubio. What was the effect of the Latino vote there? Did they break - did it break along ethnic lines or more on party lines -traditional party preference lines? Very briefly.

Mr. BARRETO: Well, it did a little bit of both. And so Susana Martinez did do the best of anyone we saw getting 38 percent of the Latino vote. She did far, far better than any other Republican. And in Florida, Marco Rubio was able to get elected through extremely strong support from Cuban-American Latinos. Almost 80 percent of Cuban Latinos did vote for Rubio and that seemed to be the difference in his winning the Latino vote in Florida.

So there does tend to be a little bit of ethnic solidarity there. But also notice that neither of those two Republicans used the harsh rhetoric even when talking about their conservative immigration policies. They used a much softer language and were able to do some effective outreach to the Hispanic and Latino community.

MARTIN: That was an interesting race, right? It was an interesting year.

Mr. BARRETO: Yes. Absolutely.

MARTIN: Right. All right. Matt Barreto is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Washington. He's the director of the Washington Institute for the Study of Ethnicity and Race. And he's also a pollster at Latino Decisions, a polling firm - and he joined us from his home office in Washington. Thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. BARRETO: Sure thing, Michel.

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