UArizona political scientist on how the Latino vote may impact 2024

A line of people facing away are standing on concrete in front of a school. There is a white sign with an American flag that says "Vote Here"

Voters in Sparks, Nevada, line up at the polls on Election Day 2020.

Between increasing voter registration and hot-button issues like the economy and immigration policy, University of Arizona political scientist Lisa M. Sanchez said the Latino vote in the United States is gaining influence in American politics – especially in the last two presidential elections.

A woman in a red blouse with long brown hair smiles while she poses for a picture

Lisa M. Sanchez

An assistant professor in the School of Government and Public Policy, Sanchez researches ethno-racial disparities in American politics. Her recent work analyzes the adoption of beneficial immigration policies in American states, the prevalence of cross-racial ties among Americans of all racial and ethnic backgrounds and the relationship between a rising Latino population and its electoral impact on Congress.

Latino participation and its impact on elections at all levels has been a key line of inquiry for decades, Sanchez said. While Latino turnout has not reached parity with other races and ethnicities in the U.S., it has undergone some significant changes.

In this Q&A, Sanchez discussed the changes she and her colleagues have seen over the last two presidential elections, and how those changes may impact the 2024 election.

Q: In your research, how have you observed the voting patterns and political engagement of Latino communities evolve over the last two presidential elections?

A: The most lasting change is the increase in Latino eligible voters. One dramatic statistic is instructive of this point: Every 30 seconds, a Latino becomes eligible to vote in the U.S. Pew research estimates that between 2018 and the 2022 midterm elections, Latino eligible voters increased by 16%. By comparison, Black voter eligibility rose by 2% and Asian eligibility by 9%. These numbers suggest that the impact of Latinos on American politics only stands to grow in coming decades as this young population ages into the electorate. In terms of Latino voter turnout, Latinos turned out decisively for the 2020 presidential election, making up 12% of the electorate.

By just about every metric from eligibility to early voting to turnout, Latino presence in the 2020 elections grew as the result of an energized Latino electorate. In both presidential elections, 2016 and 2020, Latinos tended to favor Democratic presidential candidates over Republican ones, but Latino men surprised pundits by more strongly supporting Donald Trump in 2020 than was expected based on his 2016 showing. The lessons from the last few election cycles suggest that Latinos may continue their electoral growth in the 2024 presidential election.

Q: Could you elaborate on key factors influencing Latino voter turnout, and how these factors might impact the upcoming presidential election?

A: We have settled on a few influential factors that appear to make a significant difference for Latino turnout. I would highlight three in particular: mobilization, concern and registration. For decades, Latinos have not been adequately mobilized. More simply put, they have been less likely to be asked to vote. Research has uncovered that Latinos are often the last group to be mobilized in elections – usually just months before the election takes place. This means they are less aware, less interested and less energized to vote. It also means they are less likely to be registered to vote.

Voter registration has been an ongoing problem in the Latino community. Though registration presents a significant barrier to Latino voters, once Latinos are registered to vote they turn out to vote at high levels. This suggests that more attention ought to be paid to registration levels rather than turnout levels. Concern for Latino voters could go a long way in fueling Latino participation, including registration and voting. Survey work demonstrates that Latinos feel a lack of concern for Latino issues from both parties, but most acutely from the Republican Party. Latino political apathy in this context is understandable. Why participate in a process that only remembers you for a few months before an election and then returns to indifference once elections conclude? Concern for the Latino population could take many forms, from more consistent electoral mobilization to more attention in national policy debates. Attention to these three areas can go a long way toward more fully realizing Latino electoral participation.

Q: What strategies do you believe are effective in increasing Latino voter registration and participation, and how might these strategies be implemented?

A: I think tailored mobilization efforts in Latino communities could go a long way toward energizing the Latino electorate. Mobilization efforts appear to have dual impact: It increases knowledge and interest in the election and often reduces or eliminates barriers to registration by bringing the registration process to the voter.

We do know that mobilization efforts among communities of color are more successful when they come from within. In other words, Latinos mobilizing other Latinos is more successful than Latinos being mobilized by non-Latino white college students, for instance. Moreover, the mobilization efforts on behalf of parties and candidates have to convey genuine investment in the Latino community rather than veiled attempts to leverage the Latino community for electoral success.

Q: What role does the political climate, including issues such as immigration and social justice, play in shaping the voting decisions of Latino voters, especially in the context of the 2024 presidential election?

A: I think many Latinos are disaffected with the current political system. In the past four or even eight years, Latinos have experienced extreme hardship with little tailored response to their needs. They were more likely to experience loss of jobs, loss of loved ones than other groups during the COVID-19 pandemic, and were more likely to be classified as essential workers, albeit in largely low-wage professions. Now that many COVID-19 era programs are sunsetting, programs that Latinos were more likely to rely on, Latinos' economic position is going to become more fragile. This means Latinos' voting decisions may be heavily influenced by economic concerns.

While the economy always looms large in elections, issues related to employment equity, social safety nets and economic inequality may take center stage for Latinos. Moreover, border crises are likely to play a role in voting decisions as well, as Latinos are more likely to have in their family and friend network an individual who is undocumented or seeking refugee/asylum status. The racialization of immigration policy also tends to bring to the surface debates about inclusions, identity and belonging. They also force us to face the many stereotypes that persist about Latinos and their intersectionality with immigrant status.

Q: We know the Latino voting community is not a monolith. Taking that diversity into account, could you share insights into how different subgroups, such as Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans and Cuban Americans, approach political participation, and whether this diversity has notable implications for the upcoming presidential election?

A: My students are often surprised to learn that the pan ethnic identity which we refer to as Latino is actually made of 22 different countries of origin, or subgroups. While this number is large, it is important to remember that nearly 80% of the American Latino population can be traced to just three groups: Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans and Cuban Americans. Moreover, each subgroup tends to live in traditional enclaves and has more impact in certain areas of the country.

While Arizona Latinos are dominated by Mexican Americans, Florida politics is dominated by Cuban and Puerto Rican politics. This means that slight ideological differences between Mexican American Latinos and Cuban American Latinos are amplified in those regions in a way that they cannot be felt nationally. The biggest ideological split among Latinos tends to be the Republican lean among Cubans versus the Democratic lean among the other 21 subgroups. Cubans' conservative lean is not an extreme lean. They tend to be more moderate than the average non-Latino white Republican. There are also pockets of Latino Republicans across the U.S. from all subgroups.

Q: Based on your research and interactions with the public, what issues or concerns do you think will drive voters to the ballot box when selecting a presidential candidate?

A: This question gets into a hotly debated question in American politics: Is there a Latino agenda? It is a myth that the top issue for the majority of Latinos is immigration policy. The top issue for Latinos is usually the economy. In fact, research suggests that the Latino agenda looks a lot like the agendas of any other racial or ethnic group in the U.S. The Latino agenda consists of the same top issues like the economy, education and healthcare, but is unique in the social and demographic motivations for those agenda items and the preferred policy actions to be taken as a result. To quote the indelicate phrase from the '90s: It's the economy, stupid.

In 2024, Latinos are likely to be concerned with issues of massive inflation, stagnant wages and soaring healthcare costs – all economic in nature. Immigration is also likely to play a somewhat stronger role in 2024 with the recent surges in immigration at the southern border. However, immigration is unlikely to take the top spot in the minds of Latinos in 2024.

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