The Department of Government
The Department of Government

Tracking Latino Representation in American Politics

Wed, January 26, 2011

Earlier this month, the Hispanic Leadership Network held its inaugural conference. The headliner? Jeb Bush, newly appointed Republican ambassador to Latino voters. The goal? To peel Latinos away from Democrats and into the Republican camp.

Excellent time, therefore, for the release of “Latino Representation in State Houses and Congress,” the most comprehensive and systematic treatment of Latinos’ political representation to date, and the debut book from Jason Casellas, assistant professor of Government and associate director of the Irma Rangel Public Policy Institute.

With both political parties looking to woo Latino voters, Casellas breaks down exactly what “Latino interests” are. Despite variation across time and sub-ethnic group – Mexican American, Puerto Rican and Cuban American – Latinos converge on key public opinion questions. As widely reported, Latinos are generally socially conservative and economically liberal. Latinos believe in income redistribution, support taxes in return for government intervention, believe Latino immigrants need to learn English to succeed in America, and are concerned more than other groups about education, health care, economic security and crime.

But the substance of the book is how Latinos get elected to legislative office, particularly at the state level, and Casellas uncovers a variety of factors explaining Latino success. A Latino is more likely to win office as the state’s percentage of Latinos in the population rises, the more liberal a state’s electorate is, and as the number of Latino citizens residing within a given electoral district increases.

These demographic variables are only half the story. Equally important are strategic and institutional designs. For example, because Latinos are political newcomers, they benefit the less professional a legislature is. The presence of term limits, and the less prestige and salary which come with holding a seat in the state house improve the chances of disadvantaged groups winning office. The combination of a concentrated Latino legislative district in a state without a professional legislature offers Latino candidates the best chance to be elected.

Speaking to increasing levels of assimilation, however, Latinos are also winning election to seats in districts where Latinos are not the majority. This is being driven by numerous processes. At the elite level, favorable redistricting helps, but is only one factor. Local and state party elites will often run minority candidates against each other, ensuring that one wins, executives will makes appointments to vacant seats to increase minority representation, and party elites recruit and fund Latino candidates as part of their long-term electoral strategy.

At a lower level, Latino candidates have been able to win in districts without a Latino majority by having Anglo names (i.e. by being not obviously Latino), running in districts that nearly have Latino majorities, forming minority coalitions (although Latinos have tended to do better in coalition with whites than with African Americans), competing in multicandidate primaries (which lowers the threshold for winning a plurality of votes), and by campaigning as fiscally conservative Republicans.

Interestingly, although immigration is typically thought of as a Latino issue, it does not rank high on the list of important issues for Latino voters or elected officials. That is not to say the issue is not central to the story of Latinos in American politics, though. In particular, as Casellas’ analysis shows, as more Latinos become citizens, the number of Latino representatives increases, and, to date, Latino legislators tend to be more liberal than their Anglo counterparts.

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