Political Party Identification Among Latino Immigrants

December 15, 2014

This feature is part of an ongoing RSF blog series, Work in Progress, which highlights some of the ongoing research of our current class of Visiting Scholars.

In his time in residence at the Russell Sage Foundation, Visiting Scholar James McCann (Purdue University) is writing a book on the effects of political campaigns in fostering partisan identification among Latino immigrants. Though other research on this topic has shown immigrants to be generally estranged from party politics, McCann finds considerable “potential” partisanship among immigrants.

In October, McCann responded to a claim in the Washington Post that suggested that lighter-skinned Latinos were more likely than darker-skinned Latinos to identify as Republican. He rejected this notion, offering a breakdown of the data used to track the correlation between skin color and partisanship, and concluding, “Is there in fact such a relationship? The 2012 American National Election Study offers scant evidence of this.”

In an interview with the Foundation, McCann provided some further remarks on party identification among Latinos, and discussed his research on the political incorporation of new immigrants to the United States.

Q. Your current research examines party identification among Latino immigrants. What seems to attract immigrants to either the Republican or Democratic parties? What can we learn by studying partisanship among this group?

The political parties in this country are long-standing pillars of our institutions. The world’s oldest mass political party is the Democratic Party, and the second oldest is the Republican Party. Political parties hold a special place in research on public opinion and participation, not least because partisans get things done, and the traits we associate with ideal citizens typically correlate with partisanship. Of course, “partisan” is something of a dirty word in American politics, where it tends to signify a lack of objectivity. But I believe a strong case can be made for the virtues of political parties and partisanship in a democracy.

Therefore, partisanship is an obvious place to start if you’re interested in issues of political acculturation and incorporation for the foreign-born. There’s a claim among some social scientists that the two parties are not adequately reaching out to immigrants. I’m investigating that claim; I think it bears directly on our understanding of how incorporated immigrants are in the United States, and the potential for further incorporation. And, of course, there are some interesting and obvious political sidebar issues as well. For example, there’s a belief in some circles that Congress has failed to implement comprehensive immigration reform because Republicans are afraid that if the undocumented were naturalized, they’d all be Democrats. At the same time, other people say there’s a lot of floating potential for both parties, and that immigrants as a group do not currently belong to one party or another. My analysis of panel surveys conducted over multiple election cycles suggests that both views are partly true. There is a significant among of “partisan floating,” but with a Democratic tilt.

Q. The media tends to paint Latinos as a bloc of swing voters. Yet, you identified an increase in Democratic partisanship among Latinos (both in Indiana and nationally) in 2012. What are some factors that drove this uptick?

To expand on that last point, among the Latino immigrants I have studied, there has been some swinging between political parties—but it’s bounded. In an environment that’s not terribly politicized—say, right after an election—there are measurable declines in partisanship. But in an election season, when things heat up and the two parties are making more and more claims on the public, and information about politics is a little easier to obtain and more salient, you can find measurable increases in Democratic partisanship among Latinos.

My explanation is that we should think about partisanship as having both a positive and a negative valence. We tend to think of partisanship in “either/or” terms: if someone doesn’t like the Democrats, he or she must be a Republican. But in reality, it doesn’t quite happen that way, especially for newcomers. Another option is to be affiliated with neither party. Among Latinos, I’ve uncovered some swinging between being a Democrat and being unaffiliated. Latino immigrants seem to be pretty sure that they’re not Republicans, but they’re not chronically Democrats.

Through their actions, votes in Congress, speechmaking, and so forth, political parties stake out positions and selectively incorporate different groups into their ranks. (The textbook case of this was the strategic maneuvering on the part of both the Democrats and Republicans in the late 60s and early 70s that led to the incorporation of African Americans as a group into the Democrats.) Over the last 20 years, the Republicans have taken a strong stance on issues that are relevant to the foreign-born, such as comprehensive immigration policy reform, deportation, and policies relevant to ethnic constituencies. Especially in this age of the Tea Party, the party has increasingly moved to the right, while Democrats have remained far more heterogeneous. In other words, the Republicans have sent very clear signals to the public about whom they do not represent. We know from research in political psychology that negative information tends to outweigh positive information, especially for vulnerable populations, and during election seasons, these messages get sharpened.

Republicans trying to appeal to Latino voters have promoted values having to do with religion, family, and tradition. They’ve released political ads targeting Latinos, like the 2008 John McCain radio ad in which Frank Gamboa—the son of Mexican immigrants and McCain’s former Naval Academy roommate—endorsed McCain. This type of outreach does have some limited effect: for instance, Latinos who heard the Frank Gamboa ad reported afterwards that they liked McCain as a person. But that didn’t translate to substantial Latino support of the Republican Party. As we approach 2016, if the Republicans are serious about wanting to recruit immigrant supporters, they’ll have to do more than just get the right candidate.

Q. A number of Latino immigrants in the US suffer from political and economic marginalization, including living in poverty, working low-wage jobs, and holding limited English skills. Does this marginalization affect party identification in any way?

Yes—allow me to adapt a phrase from a well-known work in political science on participation. If you do not identify with a political party, it may be because you “cannot,” you “do not want to,” or because nobody asked. Those who “cannot” may not be citizens, they may not speak English, or they may live in rural areas where there are no approachable ethnic media outlets. Those who don’t want to identify with a party could be economic migrants (rather than asylum seekers or another group that is heavily political) who may not have politics first and foremost in their minds, or who find that the issues they care about don’t easily gel in their new environment. These factors can all contribute to low incidences of political involvement or partisanship.

But then there are the immigrants who don’t identify with a party because nobody asked. By most accounts, political parties aren’t doing a very good job of reaching out to immigrants. Parties now are most invested in getting voters to turn out, and with two-thirds of Latino immigrants not having voting rights, there’s painfully little incentive for the parties to care about attracting them. This has led some immigration scholars to conclude that the parties are not part of the equation when it comes to incorporating immigrants. My view is that the parties are doing something. Through partisan competition during political campaigns, many immigrants learn about American politics and come to identify as partisans themselves. In spite of the reluctance among political parties to reach out to individuals who are unlikely or unable to vote, they may still have some impact on the political socialization of immigrants over the long-run.

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