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Election Lessons Unlearned (Still)

November 05, 2010 - Posted by Maurice Belanger



In Tuesday’s election, Republicans rode a wave of voter discontent with the economy to take control of the House of Representatives.  They failed to take control of the Senate. 


Their failure to take the Senate in part is due to the continuation of trends that have been unfolding for a long time, and are now starting to show concrete effects.


For the last several election cycles, Republican candidates for Congress have been using immigration as a polarizing wedge issue, meant to stir up those in their predominantly white base who are fearful of the demographic change the country is experiencing.


This election cycle was no different.  Take the case of Sharron Angle, the Tea Party darling who came close to beating Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.  She ran several ads that alternated images of scary Latino-looking people, portrayed as criminals and gang members, with images of white people, whose resources were being drained by the brown people. 


The ads worked to gin up the base…just not hers.


Angle’s tactics worked to drive Latinos to the Democratic camp in unprecedented numbers—and it increased their turnout from what might otherwise have been expected in a mid-term election (especially after so little has been accomplished on immigration reform in the past two years).


The neck and neck race that captivated the pundits ended with Reid winning by a 5% margin—50% to 45%.  Among Latinos, the story was dramatically different.  Reid garnered 90% of the Latino vote to Angle’s 8%.  Latinos made up 15% of the electorate (up from 12% in 2006).  The Latino contribution to Reid’s margin, according to a Latino Decisions poll, was 9.8%—more than his margin of victory.


The story was repeated in several other close races.  Among them, the Senate race in Colorado, where incumbent Democrat Michael Bennet narrowly won his re-election bid against challenger Ken Buck.  Buck was endorsed by the anti-immigrant PAC Americans for Legal Immigration PAC, and used immigration in his ads (though not as aggressively as Angle).  Bennet won by 48% to 47%, but among Latinos, his margin was 81% to 19%.  Latinos made up 12% of the electorate. 


In California, Barbara Boxer won her re-election to the Senate, and Jerry Brown will be the next Governor, both with the help of very lopsided Latino vote margins.


According to a poll conducted by Latino Decisions in eight states (AZ, CA, CO, FL, IL, NM, NV, TX), immigration was named by 37% of Latino voters as their “top concern,” second only to jobs and the economy.  In those states, 60% said that immigration was the most important or one of the most important issues motivating them to vote.  In these states, Latinos overall supported Democrats by a margin of 75% to 25%.


Not all Democrats did as well as Senator Reid, who has embraced immigration reform and heavily courted the Latino vote in the Spanish language media.  According to America’s Voice, in Florida, for example, Democrats “did not exploit their opponent’s vulnerability on the immigration issue with Spanish language advertising,” and they did not do as well.  (Florida also has the anomaly of a large population of Cubans, who tend to vote Republican.)


In the last several elections, Republican political candidates have failed to learn the lesson that using immigration as a polarizing wedge issue is driving Latinos into the Democratic camp.  Political strategists of all stripes have warned that, with Latinos being the fastest-growing segment of the electorate, Republicans run the risk, in the long term, of being a minority party for a very long time if they continue to alienate Latino voters.  Thus far, it appears that many Republican candidates have failed to learn that lesson.  It may well have cost them the Senate.


Image by Flickr user Kate O.

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