Last week’s presidential election has people asking: Do Latinos really vote as a bloc? Or is that just a myth intended to make America’s largest minority, and one of the country’s fastest-growing groups of voters, seem more important than it really is?
The answer is complicated.
It is true that – unlike African Americans, about 90 percent of whom tend to vote for the Democratic candidate on the ballot – Latinos usually show less unity and cohesion. In fact, in 2012, they were labeled “swing” voters by Time magazine – as unpredictable a demographic as suburban moms.
While more than 60 percent of Latino voters identify as Democrats or Democratic-leaning, many of them are willing to put aside party labels and support moderate Republicans. See: former President George W. Bush, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
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Also, because Latinos divide into smaller categories based on country of origin, there really is no “Latino vote” per se. It’s more accurate to say that there is a Mexican American vote, a Cuban American vote, a Colombian American vote, a Puerto Rican vote, etc. The biggest slice of the pie belongs to those who can trace their ancestry to Mexico. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, those folks account for about 64 percent of the U.S. Latino population.
This sort of thing matters. Many voters of Mexican descent have different views than, say, Cuban Americans, on an issue like immigration or whether to open relations with Havana.
And there is even more splintering between U.S.-born Mexican Americans and foreign-born Mexicans who are naturalized U.S. citizens.
Also, Latino voters will sometimes forsake party loyalty, go rogue and support someone based on personality, celebrity or the allure of their ideas.
Which brings us to what happened this year. According to CNN exit polls, 29 percent of Latinos voted for someone who has, for the last year and a half, been their persecutor – Donald Trump. The New York Times puts the figure at 27 percent.
The billionaire enjoyed even greater support from Cuban Americans who, according to CNN, gave him as much as 54 percent of their votes in Florida.
Of course, not everyone agrees with those percentages. The polling firm Latino Decisions was an outlier. It put Trump’s Latino support at a mere 18 percent.
This much is clear: For the most part, Latinos are independent voters who follow their conscience as opposed to simply following the herd.
Yet that doesn’t stop the media, the parties and political strategists from lumping Latinos together as often as they can. Sometimes, the idea is to discern voting patterns or evaluate what kinds of marketing efforts bring out the vote. They do the same thing with other voters.
For instance, we’re told that Trump earned the support of 72 percent of working-class white men who didn’t attend college and 62 percent of their female counterparts. That doesn’t mean that those groups voted as a bloc. But it does mean that Trump was the kind of candidate, with the kind of message, that appealed to this demographic subset.
Think of it in terms of buying practices and consumer goods. The nation’s cereal companies employ strategies and develop messaging to convince parents to choose their brand of cereal. But this doesn’t mean that all moms and dads think alike or that they buy cereal as a “bloc.” What it means is that they can be addressed, and even manipulated, as a group to produce a preferred outcome.
Likewise, with Latino voters, as divided as we can be because of our diverse backgrounds or differences of opinion, we have also demonstrated over the years a tendency to come together against a common enemy.
I remember what happened in 1994. In California, 78 percent of Latinos put aside their differences and came together to oppose Proposition 187, a mean-spirited and ultimately unconstitutional GOP-sponsored ballot initiative that denied education, social services and non-emergency medical care to undocumented immigrants and their U.S.-born children.
Latinos punished the Republican Party for the next two decades, and now California is dark blue.
The lesson: When the air is peaceful, Latinos will often divide up and vote our own narrow interests. But when we’re attacked or provoked, we will just as often come together and show strength in numbers.
Do Latinos vote as a bloc? Well, to a large degree, that’s up to you – and how you treat us.
Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a Washington Post Writers Group columnist. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.