For Hispanic voters, the pivotal issues this presidential election year are clear: Education and economic advancement. And with estimates of as many as 7 million Hispanics heading to the polls this November – perhaps 25 percent more than in 2000 – how well both political parties succeed in addressing these concerns may be crucial to the outcome.
While key issues for Hispanics generally continue to dovetail with concerns noted by the general electorate, consistent results in three recent public opinion polls suggest the emergence of a subtle but distinct divergence. In the separate, independent surveys, Hispanic voters were much more likely to cite education as the single most important issue driving their vote, followed closely by the economy and jobs. In contrast, while non-Hispanics ranked education highly, they were more likely to name the war on terrorism as an even higher priority.
The Washington Post-Univision-Tomás Rivera Policy Institute poll of Hispanics in 11 key states found 33 percent listed the economy as the top issue, followed by education at 18 percent. That compared with national data from The Washington Post that found while the economy remained tops, the war on Iraq was the second most-cited issue of importance; education ranked fourth overall. A Pew Hispanic Center poll surveyed a broader swath of Hispanic voters and non-registered Hispanics and non-citizens and found that among Hispanic registered voters, about 94 percent said education will be "extremely" or "very" important in their presidential vote, followed by the economy and jobs (93 percent). Finally, a Zogby International poll commissioned by the National Council of La Raza surveyed a nationally representative sample of Hispanics about their priorities and found more than a third (34 percent) cited education as their top priority, followed by the economy and jobs (22 percent). (See chart on next page.)
"We're issue voters, and the issues we care about most have to do with our domestic well being," says Rodolfo de la Garza, research director at the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute and a political science professor at Columbia University. "For many Latinos, education and the economy are linked."
Or as F. Chris Garcia, a political science professor at the University of New Mexico, notes: "When you are economically secure and have an opportunity for a good education, then you turn your attention to other matters."
"We're issue voters, and the issues we care about most have to do with our domestic well being," says Rodolfo de la Garza, research director at the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute.
The survey results suggest a growing focus on economic advancement amid rising national prominence and attention to the Hispanic economy and a rising consensus vision in a long-complex sector of the electorate. Still, analysts say making generalizations about a unified "Hispanic vote" – as in determining any voter patterns – is complex. Hispanic voting patterns, for example, vary widely with age, national origin, and whether voters are foreign- or U.S.-born.
Still, the poll findings give clear voice to data that illustrate the necessity of education for strengthened economic advancement. HispanTelligence, the research division of Hispanic Business Inc., cites data noting that less than 10 percent of Hispanic men without a high school degree choose entrepreneurial pursuits; among those with a master's degree, however, the figure more than doubles to more than 20 percent.
The issue will be key for both major political parties this November, because slight shifts in voting patterns in "swing" states with large Hispanic populations such as New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, and Florida could tip the Electoral College.
While some analysts note that many voters' final decisions are made in the final months before an election, an early snapshot of Hispanic voting preferences in the Tomas Rivera poll found 60 percent said they would vote for Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry. About 30 percent said they would vote for Republican President George W. Bush, while 2 percent said they would back Reform Party candidate Ralph Nader. Eight percent remained undecided.
"In a presidential election, the people have to decide whether to hire or fire the incumbent," says Andy Hernández, a political science professor at St. Mary's University in San Antonio. "The data suggest to me that the Latino community would fire him."
But Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, says the results do not necessarily reflect a dramatic shift in the preferences of Hispanic voters. Historically, Democrats have had a 2-to-1 advantage in party affiliation among Hispanics. And in presidential elections, 60 percent to 65 percent of Hispanics generally vote Democratic; about 30 percent to 35 percent vote Republican.
For Republicans, capturing a larger share of voters among the growing Hispanic population is expected to be crucial. Republican pollster Matthew Dowd has said that if President Bush wins the same percentage of the vote among every minority group that he received in 2000 – including the 32 percent to 35 percent of the Hispanic vote he garnered – he will lose the election by 3 million votes.
Both campaigns have set in motion local organizations to help mobilize Hispanic voters. Kerry's plan will be to use top Hispanic political leaders, including Bill Richardson, governor of New Mexico, to appeal to voters.
For its part, the Bush-Cheney '04 campaign has a local activist network in place. "We know if we get the same numbers as the last time around, it's not looking good," says Bush-Cheney '04 spokeswoman Sharon Castillo. "That's why we're being aggressive in reaching out across the spectrum."
|THE TOP ISSUES|
Pew Hispanic Center/Kaiser Family Foundation Poll
2. The economy and jobs
3. Health care and Medicare
4. U.S. campaign against terrorism
5. The war in Iraq
7. Social Security
(Nationwide survey of 2,288 Hispanic adults April through June.)
|Zogby International Poll
4. Civil rights
5. Health care
6. War on terrorism
7. National security
(Survey of 1,000 Hispanic adults conducted May 25-27.)
|Washington Post/Univision/Tomás Rivera Policy Institute Poll
1. Economy and jobs
3. U.S. campaign against terrorism
4. War in Iraq
5. Health care
6. Other/no opinion
(Survey conducted July 6-16 of 1,605 Hispanics registered to vote in 11 states with the largest Hispanic electorates.)
Jonathan Higuera is a business writer for The Arizona Republic.