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Latino America’s” Matt Barreto: Politicos Are Missing The Boat

The book jacket cover for "Latino America: How America's Most Dynamic Population Is Poised to Transform The Politics of the Nation," by Matt Barreto and Gary Segura.

It can feel like "deja vu all over again" when it comes to coverage of Latinos and American politics. Latinos are either the electoral "sleeping giant" or they just are just not that into politics, and they will always vote Democratic unless their religious conservatism makes them Republicans without knowing it, like Ronald Reagan famously said.

Two leading Latino social scientists, Matt Barreto and Gary Segura, co-founders of the polling and research firm Latino Decisions, do a reality check on these assumptions in their new book "Latino America: How America's Most Dynamic Population Is Poised To Transform The Politics Of The Nation."

Through a thorough recounting of past Latino voting patterns as well as through extensive surveys, what emerges is a more nuanced, big-picture look at the country's Latino electorate and its rapid growth, which is, in the end, why it matters.

"Demographic change is happening in real time," said Barreto in an interview with NBC News. "Campaign officials don't see it coming until after it happens."

Matt Barreto, co-author of "Latino America," is a researcher and professor at the University of Washington and one of the founders of the polling firm Latino Decisions.

Political parties are missing opportunities at mobilization, especially at the local level, and also on messaging, which could be costly for a long time to come, especially for Republicans.

States across the country are seeing their Latino populations grow at a fast pace; Nevada is a clear example. "You go back to 1996 and Latinos were less than 5 percent of the population, now they're more than 20 percent. That story right now is playing in a dozen other states; we're seeing Georgia about to pass the 1 million (Latinos) mark," Barreto said. Kansas, for example, is already 10 percent Hispanic.

In the 2010 midterms, Latino voters tipped the scales in some crucial races, including the re-election of Democratic senators Harry Reid, the Senate's majority leader, and Michael Bennet in Nevada and Colorado, as well as governor's races in California and Colorado. In these four cases, Latino voters mobilized after Republican candidates took harsher stances on immigration, including negative ads perceived by many as anti-Latino. Surveys repeatedly show the majority of Latinos - regardless of nationality or party affiliation - perceive anti-immigration messages as anti-Hispanic.

And here's where the cautionary tale for the Republican party comes into play. Barreto and Segura point out that yes, Latino voters are generally progressive. They believe in government's role in ensuring a clean environment and health care. They are more conservative on issues like abortion than other groups, yet when polled they are clear they don't want to take political guidance from their church leaders.

Political parties are missing opportunities at mobilization, especially at the local level, and also on messaging, which could be costly for a long time to come, especially for Republicans.

Yet Republican candidates who have not followed the anti-immigration path have fared well among Hispanics and a considerable portion of Hispanics have voted Republican in at least one local election, say the authors. George W. Bush, who did not go down the anti-immigration rabbit hole since his days governing in Texas received almost 40 percent of the Latino vote.

By contrast, the authors point out that California's gradual descent into virtually a one-party state can be traced to 1994 and Prop 187, a measure intended to withhold public services from the state's undocumented immigrants. Before that, Latinos in the state were less Democratic every year between 1980 and 1994. Moreover, Prop 187 legislation alienated not just Hispanic but also Asian and white voters.

Looking to the next presidential elections, a Jeb Bush or "the Marco Rubio who supported the bipartisan Senate bill" could make inroads for the GOP, said Barreto. But that remains to be seen.

"I think 2016 is a critical year to see whether Republicans will pivot or whether they will crash and burn." Allowing another candidate to emerge from the primary with an anti-immigration message could create lasting damage, Barreto said.

Gary Segura, co-author of "Latino America" is a political science professor at Stanford University and one of the founders of the polling firm Latino Decisions. Rod Searcey

The fallout over immigration is far from a solely Republican problem. Weeks before the 2014 midterms, there has been disappointment and anger among advocates and voters over Obama's decision to delay executive action following congressional inaction on immigration. Apart from the fact that it is a midterm and not a national election, 2014 is looking like a very different year than 2012, which saw Latino voter enthusiasm and record Latino turnout, said Barreto.

Yet in an election in which the Senate is in play, there has been no concerted national campaign from the parties to engage Latino voters. In fact, the ones doing the extensive outreach, Barreto said, are the Latino voter registration groups, without a lot of help.

"There is a misconception that Latinos are apathetic and don't care about politics," said Barreto. "We find Latinos have a high level of interest and knowledge - but are still far less likely to be asked to vote, to receive campaign materials and to be called before the elections."

Eventually, political parties will care, if only because of numbers. With 73,000 Latinos turning 18 every month, "each day every congressional district in the United States, and nearly every census tract, becomes more Latino than the day before," write the authors.