Whither Latinos?

They showed their voting power. Now how do they use it in policymaking?

Governor-elect Brian Sandoval: His plans for cuts in schools run against the grain of Latino voters.

Governor-elect Brian Sandoval: His plans for cuts in schools run against the grain of Latino voters.


A couple of days after Republican U.S. Senate candidate Sharron Angle’s loss following her use of polarizing ads that sought to demonize Latinos—ads that attracted national attention to Nevada—Washington Post columnist Esther Cepeda sat down to write her latest column.

“If you were to guess about tensions in Nevada just from scrolling through the headlines, who would blame you for coming away believing the Silver State is roiling with massive Latino discrimination and unrest? So when I got an email from a Nevada casino announcing its new bilingual blackjack tables, I did a double-take.”

The dichotomy isn’t all that difficult to understand. Merchants are into inclusiveness, politicians are into polarization.

Angle is believed to have paid a price for her misjudgment, driving Latino voters into the arms of her Democratic opponent, Harry Reid—and they turned out big. “Turnout in Nevada surpassed their turnout in the 2008 presidential election,” said University of Nevada, Las Vegas political scientist Kenneth Fernandez.

One survey commissioned by the Service Employees International Union and the National Council of La Raza showed Angle receiving just 8 percent of the Latino vote. Political scientists estimate the Latino vote at 16 percent of the state total, if they all turn out. Not all showed up at the polls, but enough that the poll found 12 percent of the Nevada vote was Latino, giving Reid a 10 percent boost in a race he won by 6 percent. Plainly, a Republican television spot that came out in mid-October urging Latinos to stay home and not vote had little impact, though it received wide news coverage.

Angle’s bad mojo with Latinos may also have spilled over on other Republican candidates. GOP candidate for governor Brian Sandoval, himself a Latino, did better among those voters than Angle, but still received only 15 percent of their votes.

The Nevada election is reminiscent of the 1994 California election, when Republican Gov. Pete Wilson was the most prominent promoter of Proposition 187, a ballot measure that denied education and social services to illegal immigrants. The measure passed but was later overturned by courts. But its more immediate impact was political—it helped Wilson get reelected, but Latinos turned out in big numbers and beat other Republicans up and down the ballot (though some Democrats, such as Dianne Feinstein, also pandered to anti-immigrant sentiment). Republicans, who for decades had been trying to cultivate Latino votes, have suffered politically ever since. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is the only Republican to win California in a race for governor, U.S. senator, or president since then, and campaign consultants believe there is a lasting residue from the dispute in other states across the nation.

Growing power

Having proven their political muscle in Nevada, Latinos are now likely to see their influence grow. Though some legislative candidates spoke favorably of an Arizona-style law to crack down on illegal immigrants during the campaign, most legislators expect such a bill to be a non-starter, if one is even introduced.

Latinos had already been growing in power in the state. The 2000 census had shown a sharp increase in their Nevada numbers, and issues that white public officials previously saw as fruitful went into decline.

For instance, “English only” measures of various types had been introduced in the Nevada Legislature during the 1970s and ’80s, such as Assembly Joint Resolution 11 of the 1987 session, which called for a state constitutional amendment declaring English to be the “official language” of Nevada. But it has become increasingly unlikely that any politically ambitious figures would want to be identified with such measures.

One exception is U.S. Rep. Dean Heller. On May 6, 2008, he introduced legislation to require “English only” ballots in the United States.

In the 2000 census, of all states, the rate of increase of Latinos as a percentage of the population was highest in Nevada. The state is number five on the list of Latinos as a percentage of state populations, surpassed only by New Mexico, Texas, California and Arizona. More than one fifth of all Nevadans are now Latino and in Clark County, which grows most state politicians these days, it was 37 percent in the 2000 census. Those numbers are expected to be higher in the 2010 census numbers. Elected Latino officials are increasing in number. The state had two Republican Latino attorneys general in a row, and one of them is now governor-elect. Sandoval’s relatively low support from Latinos is being attributed in part to his hardline position against illegals.

While Latino attitudes on public policy align fairly well with the rest of the population—surveys show that the economy, education and health care are at the top of their concerns, much like other voters—their issue positions do not necessarily always track with Democrats. Latinos generally do not put the environment as high on their list of priorities as do Democrats, for instance. And there are policy differences with the Democrats on specific issues, notably abortion. That, however, may be changing. The Pew Hispanic Center, which tracks Latino attitudes, and the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life last year reported a survey showing that 65 percent of first-generation Latinos believe abortion should be illegal, a number that drops to 43 among second-generation Latinos.


One of the biggest obstacles facing Latinos in trying to exercise their influence is that their political profile is lower and their agenda, if one exists, is not well known. “I can tell you what women and Catholics and sportsmen want on a lot of issues,” said one Nevada political leader. “I haven’t the dimmest idea of what Latinos want.” Lawmakers express similar sentiments. Legislators tend to know what Latinos are against, but are uncertain what those voters are for—which makes it difficult to address their concerns in legislation. Until recently, Dr. Fernandez said, “They tended to be more heterogeneous than the African-American group.” That is, they haven’t self-defined themselves as a group as strongly as others. But that, too, may be changing. When a group is attacked, it does wonders for its unity.

In looking for what Latinos want, Fernandez suggests, politicians should watch the surveys of a new Brookings West office in Las Vegas. A survey of Latinos in the Mountain West found that education tied with the economy as a concern. Fernandez said polls show that Latinos make much more of a linkage between education and success than do whites or other groups. “Latinos see education as a key tool to succeeding in life and uplifting their group in life,” he said. That also means, he said, “Cuts [in education] are not necessarily going to go over well with Latinos.”

Some Nevada Republicans hope the election results in other states show that immigration-related issues are not make-or-break for Latinos. That may well be true in some states, but not Nevada. In Florida, a U.S. Senate candidate who took a strong anti-illegals posture still did well among Latino voters. But Cubans are a big factor there, and immigration is less of an issue. In Nevada, though, 40 percent of Latinos are immigrants, and opinions on immigration are much more strongly felt.

In addition, Fernandez says that some polling data has shown that Latinos believe the United States has every right to control its borders and limit immigration, but oppose punitive measures like the Arizona law.

“They don’t like really punitive laws because they feel that police will abuse those laws,” Fernandez said of survey findings.