MICHEL MARTIN, host:
This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.
Today's Wall Street Journal headline tells a part of the story. It reads, "Middle Class Slams Brakes on Spending." Later in the program, we'll try to tell you the rest of the story as part of NPR's across-the-network series called Living in the Middle. We're talking about how this country's middle class is faring in these tough times. It's a story with a lot more layers than you often hear. So we'll have our part of that conversation in just a few minutes.
But first, in the midst of the frenzy that is the final month before midterm elections, we're going to take a look at the voting behavior of this nation's largest minority group: Latinos.
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Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)
MARTIN: That's just part of an ad playing in California for governor's candidate Jerry Brown, playing up his ties with the late farm workers organizer Cesar Chavez. Both Brown and his opponent, Meg Whitman, are trying to energize Latino voters.
Nationally, Latinos make up an estimate 16 percent of the population. But a new poll has what may be surprising news to candidates who are counting on angry or disillusioned Latino voters to get out and vote for them on November 2. About half may stay home.
A Pew Hispanic Center study looks at just how fast this growing portion of the electorate could make a difference in the midterm elections. Joining us to talk about this, Mark Hugo Lopez. He's the associate director of the Pew Hispanic Center. He's here with us in our Washington, D.C., studios. And with us from Miami, Fernand Amandi, vice president of the polling firm Bendixen & Amandi. Welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us.
Mr. MARK HUGO LOPEZ (Associate Director, Pew Hispanic Center): Thank you.
Mr. FERNAND AMANDI (Vice President, Bendixen & Amandi): Pleasure to be with you, Michel.
MARTIN: Mark, let's start with you. A number of candidates are counting on and aggressively courting Latino voters in this election. According to your survey, how is the Latino vote playing out?
Mr. LOPEZ: Well, looking at Latino registered voters, we find that two-thirds say that they would support the Democratic candidate in their local congressional election if the election were held today, and just 22 percent say the same for the Republican candidate.
MARTIN: Tell me, how does that identification with the Democrats stack up to past elections?
Mr. LOPEZ: It looks very much like what we've seen in past elections. In fact, if you look at 2008, Barack Obama won two-thirds of the Latino vote. If you look in 2006, Latinos went two-thirds or almost 70 percent, I should say, for the Democrats in congressional races. And in 2004, about 58 percent of Latino voters voted for John Kerry, so pretty strong support for Democrats in many recent years.
MARTIN: But you're saying there's another side to that story. What is that?
Mr. LOPEZ: Yes, well, we also asked about the motivation that Latino voters have in terms of will they actually vote, and have they thought about the election a lot.
And when it comes to thinking about the election, what we found is that one in three Latino registered voters said that they'd given the election quite a lot of thought. That compares to half of all registered voters.
When you talk about are you absolutely certain you're going to vote, what we found is that half of Latino registered voters say yes, they're absolutely certain to vote. But among all registered voters, it's at 70 percent.
MARTIN: So that means that even though Latino voters are strongly identified with the Democrats, they just don't seem to be as motivated to vote.
Mr. LOPEZ: That's right.
MARTIN: Why do you think that is?
Mr. LOPEZ: Well, I think there's a couple of possibilities, and you can see this in some of the demographics, for example, of Latino voters. They're younger. They're more likely to be younger than all registered voters, and young people oftentimes are first-time voters, and that can actually put up some roadblocks to actually getting to vote.
In other words, you have to figure out where to go vote, you have to figure out how to register. It's the first time. So that's part of the story.
Another part of the story may be, it's where Latino registered voters live. There may not necessarily be a contested election in their congressional district, maybe in their state but not necessarily all states.
MARTIN: Fernand, what's your perspective on this? And I should mention that we're speaking to you in Florida, where there's a very hot Senate race going on and a governor's race. So tell me, what's your perspective on this?
Mr. AMANDI: Well, I think Mark is right in that the national trends seem to suggest that there is less of a motivation. Why is this important? In 2006 and 2008, many people saw the increased turnout of Hispanics and, in particular, their almost overwhelming support for Democrats, as Mark alluded to earlier.
It's one of the decisive factors why the Democrats were able to capture the Congress in '06 and why President Obama was able to win the presidency in '08. It is the fastest growing segment of the American electorate. It's expanding. It's growing now. It used to be concentrated in a handful of states. It's now really becoming a national vote with a national presence.
But I think the implications are that if there is a depressed Latino turnout or off of what it might have been in past election cycles, the political implications could be very hurtful for Democratic candidates, given the type of support that they have.
MARTIN: But the reason I think people find this interesting, as you would imagine, is that there have been a number of issues that have gotten a lot of attention that sort of have encouraged a lot of people to think that Latino voters, who are often called a sleeping giant, will awaken and want to be heard, most particularly the immigration issue, the move by the state of Arizona to impose some stringent measures aimed at curbing illegal immigration, especially pushing illegal immigrants out of the state, made a lot of people feel that Latino voters would be motivated.
But what we find - the Pew survey also indicates that Latino voters strongly identify with the Democratic Party, but the Latinos most likely to vote identify themselves as Republicans. So Fernand, again, I'd go back and ask, you know, what is that?
Mr. AMANDI: It's an interesting phenomenon. You look at what they cite as the most important issue, not unlike what the rest of the electorate is suggesting, overwhelmingly economic issues, whether it's the lack of jobs, the poor economy, even the consideration of health care, how health care as an economic issue impacts on their decision. This tends to be the number one reason.
There has been also very little specifically in the way of immigration-type action by the administration that might motivate or spur the type of turnout that you might have expected in the past.
Also, you don't have a classical antagonist, outside of what happened in the Arizona law, which recently, as many of your listeners know, was ruled unconstitutional.
I also think that this is partly a regional phenomenon. We've looked at some polling that was done out of Arizona with Hispanic voters. And over there, at least in Arizona specifically, immigration is cited as the number one issue. There is a psychological predisposition to vote in Arizona, given the kind of very tangible, tactile feelings, the hostility and the environment that has been created in that state, regard.
The question is, how is that expanding to the rest of the country and to the rest of ht electorate? One area where I believe Latino voters could very well see a potential motivation is on the issue of the health care passage, the health care law.
Health care was an issue that was of extraordinary importance to this constituency in '06, in '08. As I mentioned at the outset, it's not just an issue that revolves around health care, it's an economic issue for them.
Latinos are overwhelmingly overrepresented in the amount of people that don't have health insurance, so health care emergency becomes an economic crisis for these folks.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Fernand Amandi of Bendixen & Amandi, it's a polling firm based in Miami; and Mark Hugo Lopez of the Pew Hispanic Center, author of a new study that takes a look at Latino voters in the midterm elections. Mark?
Mr. LOPEZ: Yes. One other thing I wanted to add with regards to one thing that we found in this survey was we also asked Latino registered voters had they talked about the immigration debate in the past year with family, friends or co-workers. Again, trying to get at this sense of are those who have discussed the immigration debate perhaps more motivated.
And while we can't talk about causation here, because we're just simply taking a snapshot in time, those who did discuss the immigration policy debate are actually more motivated to vote. Those who didn't discuss the policy debate, yes, some of them are motivated but not as motivated as we see among those that have actually discussed it.
MARTIN: But what does that mean? Does it mean that you know, Fernand has the perspective that there isn't a particular piece of legislation or particular effort that is galvanizing, that focuses people's attention. Do you think that that's true?
Mr. LOPEZ: That's something I don't know. But certainly with regards to the immigration issue, one of the things that we've seen over the past year is that it's not just been Arizona. There has been a discussion about changing laws in many states.
Over 20 states have discussed enacting something similar to Arizona. So the immigration policy debate has not just been an Arizona-focused thing, but it's actually been something that's been occurring across the country.
MARTIN: Let me just ask you, Fernand, about Florida, where you are, where there's a very interesting three-way race for the Senate: Governor Charlie Crist, who is now running as an independent; Representative Kendrick Meek, who is the Democrat; and Marco Rubio, who was a Tea Party favorite who is the Republican nominee. How are they reaching out to this important constituency?
Mr. AMANDI: Well, as of now, Marco Rubio I think has a significant advantage not only because of his ethnic background as a Hispanic but also someone who speaks the language. He is right now the only candidate actually putting out paid communications on Spanish-language television. So I think that certainly gives him a leg up.
But I think it's also an interesting case study if you look at it from a political prism. The Republicans, as you saw Mark discuss earlier in the analysis of the poll, have not enjoyed tremendous support amongst Latino voters nationwide. But they've actually implemented a strategy in this election cycle.
In specific states, they are running Hispanic Republican candidates who right now are doing very well in the polls, Marco Rubio in Florida among them; also in Nevada, Brian Sandoval, the candidate for governor of Hispanic descent; and in New Mexico, Susana Martinez, another Republican Hispanic who would be the first Hispanic female governor in the history of the United States.
MARTIN: And what about California? That's where we started. We played an ad from the California race, an ad for Jerry Brown. What about there, where there's been this interesting story where Meg Whitman, the Republican nominee, is accused of by her former housekeeper of essentially being a hypocrite on illegal immigration.
Mr. AMANDI: Well, there's no question that that has really, that it's been a major negative for Meg Whitman. She had spent an unprecedented amount courting this constituency, obviously record-breaking amounts of money spent there in the first place.
But these revelations I think have hurt her. And, frankly, the biggest beneficiary obviously being Jerry Brown, particularly because there wasn't just a whole lot of enthusiasm for Jerry Brown beforehand. He wasn't someone that was really well-known or really there was those kinds of relationships with the California Hispanic electorate.
But it's of extraordinary importance because California's race is probably going to be decided by single digits. And right now, a vote that is about 18 percent of the overall statewide electorate that is breaking almost three to one for Brown could very well be the margin of victory for him.
MARTIN: A final thought, Mark, we're used to thinking of the Hispanic voters as a regional vote, kind of a nine-state vote, you know, south, southwest and Illinois and New York. Fernand says this is now a national vote.
In close elections, given all the factors, on the one hand sort of an emerging electorate, on the other hand sort of lower motivation across the country, do you think the Latino vote will be a decisive vote?
Mr. LOPEZ: It depends on what's happening in specific states, and it depends on what part of the country we're talking about. But certainly, we've seen growth in the Latino population in virtually every county of the country in the last 10 years. And we've also seen the Hispanic population and Hispanic voters becoming a larger share of all voters in virtually all states in the country.
Yet I still want to point out that two-thirds of Latino voters are concentrated in just four states: California, Texas, Florida, New York. And New Mexico's unique in the sense that New Mexico has four in 10 of its eligible voters of Hispanic origin, and that's the highest share of any state. But we are seeing more of a presence in many other places, like Georgia, like North Carolina, like Minnesota.
MARTIN: All right. Mark Hugo Lopez is the associate director of the Pew Hispanic Center. He joined us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Also with us, Fernand Amandi, vice president of the polling firm Bendixen & Amandi. And he joined us from member station WLRN in Miami. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.
Mr. AMANDI: Thank you.
Mr. LOPEZ: Thank you.