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The Power and Diversity of the Latino Voting Bloc

The growing number of Latino voters were crucial to the success of President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign in Florida and President-elect Joe Biden’s bid in Arizona. In an interview given prior to this month’s election, Associate Professor of Instruction Jaime Dominguez discusses the voting bloc — its heterogeneity, political incorporation, and each party’s outreach. This interview has been edited for clarity.

Question: In 2011, you wrote that “the 2010 census revealed once again, the tremendous growth of the nation's largest minority group — Latinos.” In the same article, you noted that the growth of the Latino demographic alone could not explain the expansion of Latino political power. With 2020 being not only an election year but also a census year, what changes in Latino political power do you expect?

Jaime Dominguez: This election is going to be the first time in our nation's history where Latinos are the largest non-white voting bloc in the election. The Latino community is sometimes misunderstood  – in terms of it being monolithic – or the only thing that bonds them is the Spanish language. But as we've seen with this election, and I would say maybe over the last four presidential elections, it's actually a group that's very heterogeneous and diverse. Latino political power is also regionally based. This has had an impact on the election in terms of how the parties, and particularly the candidates, are positioning themselves along the policy spectrum – how to appeal to, say, Cuban American voters in Florida. But even within Cuban American voters, for example, there is stratification within that group. 

While the certain messaging may work for older voters – and for [Cuban Americans], a big one is having an aggressive, strong stance towards the island and keeping the embargo and making life miserable for the Cuban government – that [sentiment] might resonate with those older voters in getting them out to vote. It's the reason why Trump has been big on promoting that [talking point]. George W. Bush was also big on it. If you try to pitch that [foreign policy stance] to younger, up and coming voters who are Cuban Americans, it doesn't resonate so much. I think for young Latino voters it is more about what most young people in America are experiencing – Black, white, Latino, it doesn't matter. [To younger voters, the important issues include] economic opportunities, education opportunities, and healthcare. 

The issue of immigration cuts across different Latino groups is also important to younger voters. For example, immigration policy with respect to the politics of Florida is a lot different than what's happening in California, because of the proximity of the border. And more importantly, immigration policy affects Mexican Americans or Mexicans more than any other Latino group. So I think numbers are important and what we're going to see with this growth in Latino citizens is the opportunity for some states to gain or maintain congressional seats. For example – I believe it was in 2000 – the city of Chicago was losing population precipitously and it was the growth of the Latino population that actually prevented the state of Illinois from losing a congressional seat: that is the significance of the 2020 Census as it pertains to representation, but also as it pertains to electoral politics.

Q: Shifting our focus to a more local level, in 2016 you wrote about how important it is to have strong immigrant-oriented social services at the county and state levels. Could you elaborate on what immigrant-oriented social services can do in the Chicago area to politically integrate immigrants?

JD: From a macro perspective, when we talk about immigration and immigration politics, yes, that topic falls under the domain of the federal government, particularly the executive branch, in executing the laws. But the actual implementation of immigration policy happens locally – it happens on the ground. So that's why it's important when we look at immigration politics and that we look at it at the local level. Each state handles that phenomenon very differently. When locales are able to give agency to their immigrant populations, they obviously can contribute economically, socially, culturally – as we see in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Miami – governments who work with advocacy organizations, nonprofits. So there's a lot of important players in [local implementation of immigration policy]. 

When you have strong organizations like the Latino Policy Forum, the Illinois Coalition for Refugee and Immigrant Rights, it makes a difference because they provide agency, leadership, funding, and resources. For example, when Obama issued his executive order on DACA, Chicago was one of the first urban locales in the nation that really put together a strong, robust drive to get the message out to those communities. Not everybody agreed with it. I'm not going to get into the nuances of what they did that was bad, but just the fact that people had the choice to take the next step if they wanted to. The city worked with their local leaders, congressional leaders, and nonprofits in the neighborhoods to actually get the message up and sign people up.

Q: You mentioned Florida earlier – in October Mike Bloomberg announced that he'll be spending up to 100 million dollars there and that "communities with Hispanic voters" will be a key part of his effort. How effective might digital and TV advertisements be in engaging the Hispanic population in Florida? And might Democrats directly targeting this voting bloc – even though, as we discussed, they're not monolithic – be too late in the election?

JD: I wouldn't say just the Democrats – that's a good point. I think it's a phenomenon which afflicts both parties. As I've always said, you know, particularly when it comes around election time – particularly national elections – you have this large or influential Latino voting bloc that can decide the election in a state, they begin to hear about, "Oh, this is an important electorate, we need to reach out" – but they always tend to come 45 days before the election. It's not something that is done over time consistently. 

The Democrats have done a better job of that [outreach], just because historically, they have tended to support more of the initiatives that Latinos tend to support, whether it's protecting voting rights, immigration policy, providing educational opportunities for Latinos. So again, I just want to be clear that it is both parties. 

But the Bloomberg infusion of funds could help their outreach to get out the vote and mobilize Latino voters, particularly young voters, because – and I believe it was the Pew Research Survey – it showed most of the growth in the Latino electorate has come from young people ages 18 to 34, which is a huge opportunity for both parties. Just being able to get out the vote to use new technology, working through various media platforms, it's also very, very important to work with people on the ground to get the message out, to get as close as you can to the actual voter.

 Interview by James Pollard (WCAS '22)