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Commentary: Latinos are Progressives, But They May Not Know It

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Republican presidential candidates stand at their respective podiums during the Republican Presidential Candidates Debate on February 6, 2016 at St. Anselm's College Institute of Politics in Manchester, New Hampshire. JEWEL SAMAD / AFP - Getty Images

Latinos are “progressives”, but they may not know it. Yes, even Republican Latinos.

As the campaigns go into full swing, conversations about political ideology presents an opportunity for Democrats and should give pause to Republicans who continue to tilt right on the issues.

In the debate over the direction of the country as the Latino population grows, there has been a long discussion about political ideology that often insists on the mythology that Latinos are conservatives. Indeed, a famous saying that goes all the way back to Reagan is that "Hispanics are already Republicans, they just don't know it yet".

In Saturday night's GOP debate in New Hampshire, the candidates were asked if they are real conservatives. Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio were in agreement that conservatism meant limited government, free enterprise and a strong national defense. On social issues, the Republican candidates touted their opposition to abortion and they battled over who was tougher on immigration.

Watch the Best Lines of the Republican Debate 3:36

But while Latinos indicate some differences on specific issues, studies have shown them to be slightly more liberal - but now we're using the word "progressive" - than non-Latinos, and this includes Latino Republicans.

A study by Gary Segura and Shaun Bowler showed that Latinos have a clear preference for an active federal government. In their study, they analyzed data on Latino preferences and found that over 80 percent of Latinos felt that more government action was necessary to solve problems, compared to 59 percent of whites. While 47 percent of whites said that less government was better, only 18 percent of Hispanics agreed.

When asked if the “free market” could better handle problems of importance, only 17 percent of Latinos said that it could, compared to 36 percent of non-Latino whites. Last, when Latinos were asked if they preferred taxes or cutting programs to solve the deficit, almost 60 percent of Latino Republicans said they preferred some combination of the two.

More telling is that foreign-born Latinos are more conservative than their US-Born relatives. Meaning, Latinos come to the country with more conservative views and then later generations become more liberal. This is bad news for Republicans pushing a more right-wing platform if they are counting on Latinos as a beachhead of voter recruitment.

In fact, the one Latino group the GOP could be attracting to the party based on conservative issues happens to be the one they are attacking with the rhetoric of Donald Trump and the insistence on preventing undocumented immigrants from some pathway to legalization.

Senator Rubio continues to misrepresent the facts on what Americans want on immigration. He said that the American people will not support a pathway to legalization for undocumented immigrants, yet polls have shown the opposite. A Gallup poll from just last year showed that 65 percent of Americans favor some pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

Even Latino Republicans continue to defy the Republican Party's logic on what to do with undocumented immigrants. Data shows that the much reviled executive action taken by President Obama on undocumented immigrants is strongly supported by Latinos across the board, with 76 percent of Latino Republicans in support of executive action.

Beyond immigration, Latinos are more moderate on other issues, as well. A study by Pew Research Center showed that US-born Latinos are more likely to support legalization of marijuana. Hispanics are also significantly more likely to support legislation that increases government control over gun ownership. And over half of all U.S.-born Latinos agree that abortion should be legal in all or most cases.

So what does it mean to be conservative or progressive and why does this matter to Latinos?

Last week's debate between Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders is making voters think closer about what the term “progressive” means. The country is most familiar with terms like “liberal” and “conservative” to identity politicians and to size them up according to their own belief systems. But while the term “progressive” has been a term in the American lexicon for over a hundred years, it has meant different things at different times.

Many U.S. high schoolers are taught about the “Progressive Movement” in the early 1900s. While most see this as a time of great change in the direction of the country regarding transparency in government, it was also a time of extreme anxiety over the morals of the country. The temperance movement resulted in Prohibition, and the closing of our doors to immigrants, which culminated in the 1924 Quotas Act, tried to not only cleanse government of it’s sins, but also sought to return the country to some notion of moral and racial purity.

Clearly, neither Hillary nor Bernie are using the term in those ways, but they both realize that the term “liberal” will not improve their odds of winning office. Studies from the American National Election Studies, which has been collecting data on American political attitudes on ideology since 1972, shows that Americans are increasingly more likely to describe themselves as “moderate”, while the number of Americans identifying as Extremely Liberal or Liberal has remained flat.

Indeed, Americans that identified as “Conservative” has seen the greatest growth since 1972. This suggests that the country, while growing in moderation, is also leaning more right in their self-identification.

This presents the Democrats with a sizable problem. How do you maintain your liberal laurels in the primary without isolating yourself in the general election? The answer is you use a different term.

The term "progressive" might not be as familiar to some Latinos, especially foreign-born Latinos, but while the terms “liberal” and “progressive” are not the same, they do have significant overlap.

This is important for Hispanic voters to understand when it comes to sizing up the candidates’ views on issues that matter to them and, most importantly, how the candidates view the role of government in their lives.

Perhaps this is why a moderate Republican, like Jeb Bush, may do better in battleground states among Latinos than either Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz. When asked about the two Cuban-American candidates running for office, Rosario Marin, a former Treasury Secretary and Republican, said, "Frankly, I believe, in my heart, that he [Jeb Bush] is more Latino than any of the others out there."

In short, when Hillary and Bernie jostle over which is the better progressive, they are going directly for the heart of the Latino community. When the GOP continues to push right and tout more of their strongly conservative laurels, well, they are not.

Stephen A. Nuño is an Associate Professor in the Department of Politics and International Affairs at Northern Arizona University.

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