The Republicans’ Fallacy About Latino Voters And What Motivates Them

Reducing Latinos to people who are not motivated by the economy or who want ‘stuff’ is dangerous, says Peter Beinart.

Nicholas Kamm / Getty Images

If you listen carefully, you can hear two, divergent, Republican responses to the new, browner, America that defeated Mitt Romney last week.

The first can be summed up in a term deployed by Charles Krauthammer, and numerous other conservative pundits, in recent days: Hispanics are “natural” Republicans. They’re culturally traditional; they run small businesses; they’d have voted for Romney in a heartbeat if only he’d not asked them to deport themselves. For right-wing Beltway pundits, many of whom were already more pro-immigration than their party’s grassroots, the answer is obvious: cut a deal that gives illegal immigrants a path to citizenship; eliminate immigration as a wedge issue and watch Hispanics embrace the GOP.

The nice thing about this view is that it’s not racist. It envisions Hispanics as Tea Partiers with visa problems. But it’s wrong.

For one thing, Hispanics aren’t all that conservative on cultural issues. According to the Pew Research Center, half of Hispanics now favor gay marriage compared with one third who oppose it. Hispanic Catholics are about as pro-gay marriage as white, non-Hispanic Catholics, and Hispanic evangelicals are less opposed than their white, non-Hispanic counterparts. And while some past polling has shown Hispanics to be more anti-abortion than other Americans, the distinction is diminishing as second- and third-generation Hispanics prove far more pro-choice than their immigrant parents and grandparents. In fact, according to ABC News, 2012 exit polls actually showed Hispanics to be more supportive of keeping abortion legal than other Americans.

If Hispanics aren’t all that culturally conservative, they’re not obsessed with immigration either. According to Pew, 60 percent of Hispanics rated the economy as their top issue (almost exactly the same as the public at large). After that came health care, the deficit, and foreign policy. A USA Today/Gallup poll this summer found that Hispanic registered voters prioritized health care, unemployment, economic growth, and the gap between rich and poor over immigration.

So what’s the real reason Hispanics aren’t voting Republican? Economics. And some conservatives know it. Over the past week, at the same time one group of right-wing pundits was cheerfully insisting that Hispanics are natural Republicans, another was warning darkly that Hispanics threaten everything conservatives hold dear.

“The white establishment is now the minority,” Bill O’Reilly declared on election night. “And the voters, many of them, feel that the economic system is stacked against them, and they want stuff. You are going to see a tremendous Hispanic vote for President Obama ... People feel that they are entitled to things.”

Sound familiar? O’Reilly was paraphrasing Mitt Romney’s infamous 47 percent comment, except with the racial and ethnic subtext laid bare.

But if you strip away the racial bias, O’Reilly’s analysis is more accurate than Krauthammer’s. Hispanics do feel that the economic system is “stacked against them” and they do “want stuff” like health care, college-tuition assistance, and other government benefits that might help them get ahead. According to Pew, while only 41 percent of Americans as a whole say they want a bigger government that provides more services, a whopping 75 percent of Hispanics do.

According to ABC, 68 percent of Latinos said Romney’s policies favored the rich, compared with only 53 percent of Americans overall. And according to this summer’s USA Today/Gallup poll, Obama led Romney by an astounding 50 points among Hispanics who cited health care as their top concern. In fact, Hispanics are a third more likely than other Americans to describe their political views as liberal.

There’s nothing sinister about this. If O’Reilly and company were more honest, they’d acknowledge that their older, white fan base has been living happily for decades at the government teat. In the real world, as opposed to the one imagined by the right, Washington redistributes money less from rich to poor than from young to old. The government bureaucracy that provides its members the most generous social-welfare benefits is the United States military. And the Americans who have benefited most dramatically from government spending since the mid-20th century are white Southerners, whose region enjoys a disproportionate share of military bases and agricultural subsidies.

It’s quite normal that Hispanics, whose average household income trails non-Hispanic whites by more than a third, would seek government assistance in bridging the gap. Right now the GOP is split between commentators who deny this core motivation behind Hispanic support for the Democrats and those who demonize it. Neither attitude is likely to change the political reality that helped doom Mitt Romney last week.