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US Latino political power and the midterm elections

As swing voters, Latinos will be critical to disparate partisan midterm outcomes in different places across the United States

A man attends a campaign event for Republican congressional candidate Monica De La Cruz and Representative Mayra Flores.
A man attends a campaign event for Republican congressional candidate Monica De La Cruz and Representative Mayra Flores.ALLISON DINNER (AFP)

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Despite uncertainty regarding how US Latinos will vote in next week’s midterm elections, there are three undeniable truths that should shape how we understand the political power of Latinos in the United States today and going forward.

First, US Latino voters are no longer the future of American politics; we are the present.

Gone are the days of thinking about the US Latino electorate as a “sleeping giant.” As nearly 20% of the US population and the second-largest segment of the potential US electorate, regardless of how we vote, the critical role of Latino voters will be undeniable on November 9. It will be impossible to explain who won, where and why in the midterm elections without a proper, nuanced, understanding of the US Latino electorate.

Achieving that understanding will require something in short supply – a touch of patience. US Latinos – voters and non-voters alike – are a multigenerational combination of 62 million people from more than a dozen countries of origins or heritage, increasingly distributed across 50 states. We are not a monolith. Without waiting a beat to make sweeping pronouncements on Election Night two, early, non-representative data points – election results in Florida and exit polls across the country – will skew the collective understanding of the Latino vote.

The behavior of Latino voters in Florida, and particularly South Florida, tells us next to nothing about the motivations and actions of Latino voters in places like Arizona, Nevada and Colorado.

Nor are Cuban-American, Venezuelan-American, Colombian-American, and other exile or exile-adjacent voting groups living in the unique political microclimate of South Florida representative of Latinos in places such as Pennsylvania, Georgia and Wisconsin where Latino votes could determine the control of the US Senate and critical governorships.

Exit polls are also flawed instruments for real-time analysis of Latino voters spread across the country. Final demographic breakdowns in exit polls take months to emerge and often vary significantly from initial estimates on Election Night. Exit polls are also increasingly dependent on traditional polling techniques that are regularly called into question by election results. Exit polls are simply not up to the task of measuring subgroups with precision on Election Night. We shouldn’t use them to do so at this critical moment.

This is particularly true because of a second core truth about the US Latino electorate that will be more evident on November 9. Latinos are not base voters for either party – at least not in electorally determinative geographies. Our place in winning electoral coalitions depends on a range of factors and, as swing voters, Latinos will be critical to disparate partisan midterm outcomes in different places across the United States.

The consequences of long-term investment and engagement with different Latino communities will be more evident than ever before. It will be abundantly clear that engagement in the closing weeks of a campaign is inadequate, as relationships with Latino communities need to be nurtured over time. Elements of the Latino electorate need to be welcomed into a political system that for too many still feels distant. Latinos must also be incorporated in governing projects, not just electoral ones. As will be evident when midterm results are analyzed, parties and politicians who have failed to do so will feel the consequences come Election Day.

Finally, and most importantly, it is clear Latinos have arrived politically at a critical moment for the American Project. Our politics have fundamentally – and perilously – become a competition between two ideas of who we are as a country. More than 70% of Americans believe our democracy is at risk, albeit for vastly different reasons. In the coming years, the fate of that democracy and of the American idea itself will be on the ballot and there is no path to the 270 electoral votes needed to elect a president, for either party, that does not hinge on Latino voters.

In this scenario, the new starring role for Latino voters, who believe more firmly in the American Dream than do others in the United States, should be welcome news to those of us who believe in the unfinished promise of America that together we can build an inclusive republic.

As Latinos cast our ballots and pundits, parties and politicians seek to spin what it all means, they would be well served to understand the signal already clear in the crescendo of noise. Today, Latinos matter more than we ever have in American politics. And we will mean even more tomorrow.

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