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Latinos Fall to Footnote

With attention fixed on security, politicians are ignoring the constituency.

June 27, 2004|Gregory Rodriguez | Gregory Rodriguez, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

This month, the Census Bureau announced that the U.S. Latino population was growing four times faster than the nation at large. In May, the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials projected that the Latino electorate had grown 17% over the last four years, and that nearly 7 million would cast ballots in November. Despite these gains, however, Latinos are not receiving the kind of media and political attention they did just four years ago. Has the Latino moment come and gone?

The two major presidential candidates in 2000 stumbled over each other courting Latino voters. Newsweek anointed Latinos the new "soccer moms" of U.S. politics. Candidate George W. Bush's historic outreach to the traditionally Democratic-leaning electorate forced Democrats to pay unprecedented attention to a demographic they had long taken for granted. Both parties wound up spending more time and money targeting Latino voters than in any other presidential election in U.S. history. All the attention helped motivate Latinos -- particularly the foreign-born -- to participate in the political system.

This campaign season, however, the Latino electorate is little more than a footnote. Latino Republican operatives feel left out. Several prominent Democrats have complained of the scarcity of Latinos in the upper ranks of Sen. John F. Kerry's presidential campaign. The reasons for the sudden loss of interest are multifold.

Sept. 11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have pushed national security to the forefront of the campaign. The focus on battleground states has lowered the importance of the Latino voter. Fully 58% of Latinos live in the non-swing states of California, Texas and New York. Only an estimated one-fifth of the Latino electorate lives in heavily contested states -- Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico and Florida. As such, these voters have received most of the attention.

But the electoral map has not really changed. Activist rhetoric notwithstanding, Latinos were never as influential in the 2000 election as they were made out to be, because the majority of them live in states owned by one of the two parties.

The significance of the Latino vote was thus more symbolic, particularly for the Bush campaign.

Bush ran as a "new kind of Republican" four years ago. In asserting his "compassionate conservative" credentials, the Bush campaign frequently referred to the candidate's relative appeal among Texas' Mexican American voters in the 1998 gubernatorial election. Furthermore, in the run-up to the 2000 election, Bush garnered a remarkable amount of free media every time he uttered a word in Spanish. Also central to Bush's compassionate image was a man-bites-dog story. For the first time, Republicans had a more aggressive Latino outreach strategy than Democrats.

Bush's Latino strategy did pay dividends: He won 38% of the national Latino vote. But perhaps most important, it softened his image among suburban white moderates, particularly women, who weren't ready to vote for a fire-and-brimstone Republican. Democrats had no choice but to respond in kind. Behind closed doors, leading Latino Democrats were grateful to Bush for heightening their profiles within their party.

But this year, Bush has emphasized his strong-willed, determined, national-security side, not his compassionate self. He doesn't need Latino support to prove those credentials. Conversely, Democrats are not watching their backs. Except for the swing states, they don't need a heavy Latino turnout to win. And that may be a good thing: Kerry is not the sort of politician to inspire record turnout among nonwhites.

Not only has the political spotlight moved elsewhere; general media interest in Latinos has also diminished. The novelty has worn off. In 2000, the decennial census fueled countless stories on shifting demographics. The gradual release of the data inspired more copy. But the census is old news today, and journalists no longer seek broad theses to predict how Latinos will change American society.

"On one level, the media has gotten savvier," said Manny Gonzales, who specializes in Latino media trends. "They have begun to look at trends in smaller segments of the Latino population."

Big sweeping Latino stories do seem to have given way to shorter, narrower pieces. Latino personalities and themes are working their way into general-interest articles, which may be a good sign. A Latino musician is cited in a piece about young, hip new artists. A stellar Latina is mentioned in an article on outstanding teachers rather than in a piece on Latinas in education. As Latinos become more a part of the mainstream, there is less need to single them out by ethnicity.

Though it is healthy that yesterday's Latino media frenzy has subsided, a return to the days when Latinos were thoroughly ignored by both politicians and the media is no substitute. Throughout their history, Latinos have tended to want it both ways: to be acknowledged for their ethnic and cultural distinctiveness and to be recognized as an integral part of the mainstream. Given their perennially in-between social status -- neither white nor black, neither fully excluded nor included -- it is unclear what will ensure that Latinos further integrate into the nation's cultural and political life. They are learning, however, that integration has its own utilitarian logic. Emerging groups are acknowledged or ignored on the basis of their usefulness to the arbiters of the mainstream.

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