AS/COA Online - Pew Hispanic Center's Susan Minushkin on the Latino Vote

"It is a continuation of a trend that’s been happening over the past few elections and will continue to be a factor going forward, as Hispanics become a growing share of the electorate in the United States."

Deputy Director Susan Minushkin of the Pew Hispanic Center spoke with AS/COA Online Managing Editor Carin Zissis about the buzz over the Latino electorate’s role in this year’s presidential election. Minushkin emphasized that the number of Latino voters has and will continue to grow as immigrants become naturalized and the large pool of young Hispanics reaches voting age. The immigration debate may have played a role in the abatement of Latino voters identifying with the Republican Party, she says.

Minushkin, who worked previously as a professor at the Centro de Investigaciones y Docencia Economicas (CIDE) in Mexico City, also talked about President Felipe Calderon’s upcoming visit to the United States—his first official visit since taking office—and the high level of Mexican interest in U.S. elections: “Mexicans see that whatever happens in the U.S. elections as having a direct affect on the future of their country.”

AS/COA: The issue of the Latino vote has been a big one this election year. What’s different this time around compared to previous years in terms of the Hispanic electorate?

Minushkin: Well, it’s not so different this year. It is a continuation of a trend that’s been happening over the past few elections and will continue to be a factor going forward, as Hispanics become a growing share of the electorate in the United States. Of all eligible voters in 1996, Hispanics were 6 percent of eligible voters. In 2000 they were 7.4 percent, in 2004 they were 8.2 percent, and in 2007 they became 8.9 percent. That’s not their share in term of population; they’re 15 percent of the population. But they only make up 9 percent of eligible voters because so many Hispanic citizens are under 18.

So we have two things going on. There’s been a lot of immigration, and some of those immigrants have naturalized and are starting to vote. But we also have Hispanics, both immigrants and native-born, having children and having more children than other sectors of the population. Those children over time are going to become part of the eligible voter population.

The other reason why we see Hispanics getting so much attention, particularly in the primaries on February 5, is because eligible Hispanic voters tend to be concentrated in certain states. By chance those states have primaries on Super Tuesday. We have California where Hispanics are, I believe, 23 percent of the electorate and, based on exit poll results, 29 percent of voter in the primary identified as Hispanic.

AS/COA: Do you think that were any surprises on Super Tuesday, in terms on the Latino electorate?

Minushkin: Hispanics by and large favor [Senator] Hillary Clinton, and by significant margins in some instances. On Super Tuesday, in some cases she earned double the share that went to [Senator] Barack Obama, but in some cases it was less. Arizona is one of the states in which the share was not as great. Based on exit polls, Hillary Clinton received 55 percent of the Hispanic vote versus 41 percent that Barack Obama received. To pull out another state with a large share of Hispanics, in Illinois, where the Hispanics went for Obama—not surprising given that Barack Obama is from Illinois—there Obama got 50 percent of the Hispanic vote versus 49 percent for Clinton.

Compare that to California: In California Clinton received 69 percent of the Hispanic vote while Obama only received 29 percent. If we look at New York we see that 73 percent of Hispanics went for Hillary Clinton versus 26 percent for Barack Obama. Pulling out one more state that had a significant Hispanic vote, New Mexico is the state where Hispanics form the largest share of eligible voters. The demographics of New Mexico’s Hispanic population are a bit different than other states as it has a larger native-born population than other large Hispanic states. There 56 percent went for Clinton versus 36 percent for Obama.

AS/COA: To move on to another topic, and something that I know that the Pew Hispanic Center has looked at in surveys as well, immigration has been a divisive issue during this campaign cycle. Is there a sign of how Hispanic voters are responding as a result?

Minushkin: We don’t have any specific information so far from the exit polls on that. What I can tell is that in our 2007 National Survey of Latinos, we asked which the most important specific issues are for Latinos. We also asked this question just to registered voters, and immigration comes in fifth—after education, healthcare, the economy, and crime.

Yet 79 percent of Hispanics rate immigration as an extremely important or very important issue. What’s interesting about this is that even though it is fifth, the percent that see it as very important or extremely important has risen significantly since 2004. In 2004 only 63 percent of Hispanic registered voters called immigration an extremely or very important issue, placing it at last in importance among the 10 issues we stated on the survey.

We also found from our 2007 National Survey of Latinos that the movement of Hispanics towards the Republican Party seems to have abated. In 1999, 58 percent of Hispanics said that they’re Democrats while 25 percent identified themselves as Republicans. That margin declined and in July 2006 it was just 21-point difference. But in 2007, we noticed the gap opening up again to a 34-point difference. So we’re perhaps seeing a movement of Hispanics back towards the Democratic Party.

AS/COA: I know that you have done a lot of work on Mexican public opinion in relation to foreign policy. Can you talk a little bit about of the Mexican reaction to the U.S presidential elections?

Minushkin: I lived in Mexico for 11 years as a university professor and every election cycle—whether it would be mid-term, congressional, or presidential elections—the number of seminars, panels, radio shows, television reports on what’s happening in the U.S. election is incredible given that it is a different country. The day before, the day of, and the day after the election you can hear the Mexican media covering everything that you would hear in the United States. Mexicans see that whatever happens in the U.S. elections as having a direct affect on the future of their country.

This year I think they’re particularly intrigued because you have Hillary Clinton, the wife of [former President] Bill Clinton who is very popular in Mexico and in much of Latin America; you have an African American candidate who has done very well in the primaries and has a real shot at the democratic nomination; and you also had, until he dropped out, Bill Richardson, the first Hispanic candidate.

AS/COA: Interestingly enough, President Felipe Calderon will be making his first official visit to the United States since he became president over a year ago. He is coming on February 10 and he is not visiting Washington and won’t meet with President Bush. Can you talk a little bit about what some of the goals of his trip might be and how they might be related to what’s going on in the election here?

Minushkin: Well, I think that the Mexican government is very careful not to get involved in the elections. That said, there are a lot issues that the U.S government and the Mexican government are dealing with. Number one, from the Mexican point of view, is the war that the government is fighting against organized drug syndicates where the Mexican military has been involved. That action against drug traffickers in Mexico is something that the U.S. has been asking for for a long time and the Merida Initiative will be part of those efforts. So one big point of the agenda for Calderon is the fight against drug traffickers and one of the corollaries of that is the movement of weapons from the U.S. into Mexico.

But another issue of great concern doesn’t have to do with elections. It has to do with the actions of different state legislatures. The Mexican government is very concerned about state and local initiatives that target undocumented immigrants in the United States. Those initiatives occur in the states and are not the responsibility of the federal government. But I am sure that’s on the agenda of Felipe Calderon’s meetings.