What issues matter most for Latino voters?

Ahead of San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro’s keynote address at the Democratic convention in Charlotte on Tuesday night, there was a lot of talk about what his big moment and the prominence of Latino speakers at last week’s Republican convention say about the growing importance of Latinos — who represented 9 percent of the electorate ...

Win McNamee/Getty Images
Win McNamee/Getty Images
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Ahead of San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro's keynote address at the Democratic convention in Charlotte on Tuesday night, there was a lot of talk about what his big moment and the prominence of Latino speakers at last week's Republican convention say about the growing importance of Latinos -- who represented 9 percent of the electorate in 2008 -- in this year's contest.

Barack Obama won two-thirds of the Latino vote in the last presidential election, reversing the inroads George W. Bush had made with the community. And the president enjoys similar support now, though Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney received a modest bump among Latinos after the GOP convention.

But what issues determine that support? We often hear about the tough GOP stance on illegal immigration driving Latinos away from the party, but Latinos, like all demographic groups, aren't single-issue voters. In an impreMedia/Latino Decision poll this week, for example, 58 percent of respondents listed creating more jobs and fixing the economy as one of the most important issues facing the Latino community. Forty-two percent of respondents, meanwhile, cited immigration reform and the DREAM Act -- legislation that would provide legal status for children of illegal immigrants who want to enroll in college or the military -- as an important issue (respondents could select up to two issues). Nineteen percent chose education reform and schools, and 18 percent health care.

Ahead of San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro’s keynote address at the Democratic convention in Charlotte on Tuesday night, there was a lot of talk about what his big moment and the prominence of Latino speakers at last week’s Republican convention say about the growing importance of Latinos — who represented 9 percent of the electorate in 2008 — in this year’s contest.

Barack Obama won two-thirds of the Latino vote in the last presidential election, reversing the inroads George W. Bush had made with the community. And the president enjoys similar support now, though Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney received a modest bump among Latinos after the GOP convention.

But what issues determine that support? We often hear about the tough GOP stance on illegal immigration driving Latinos away from the party, but Latinos, like all demographic groups, aren’t single-issue voters. In an impreMedia/Latino Decision poll this week, for example, 58 percent of respondents listed creating more jobs and fixing the economy as one of the most important issues facing the Latino community. Forty-two percent of respondents, meanwhile, cited immigration reform and the DREAM Act — legislation that would provide legal status for children of illegal immigrants who want to enroll in college or the military — as an important issue (respondents could select up to two issues). Nineteen percent chose education reform and schools, and 18 percent health care.

In June, a USA Today/Gallup asked Latino respondents a slightly different question: What issue is most important to you? An equal percentage (20 percent) mentioned health care, unemployment, and immigration policies, while 17 percent selected economic growth and 11 percent chose the gap between the rich and the poor (the percentage of respondents who cited immigration policies dropped to 12 percent when only registered Latino voters were considered). The poll also found that Romney fared best among those Latinos who cited issues such as the budget deficit and economic growth as their top concerns, and that immigrants and first-generation Hispanic-Americans cared more about immigration than those whose families have lived in the United States for more time.

Latino voters, in other words, are paying a great deal of attention to the issue that is top of mind for all voters this year: the economy. And it was precisely that issue that Castro, the grandson of a Mexican immigrant and son of a civil rights activist, focused on in his keynote address tonight. Castro praised Obama’s economic vision and argued that the policies that Romney and his running mate Paul Ryan advocate would "dismantle" the middle class. "We all understand that freedom isn’t free," he explained. "What Romney and Ryan don’t understand is that neither is opportunity. We have to invest in it."

Castro devoted only four lines to immigration:

[B]ecause he knows that we don’t have an ounce of talent to waste, the president took action to lift the shadow of deportation from a generation of young, law-abiding immigrants called dreamers.

I believe in you. Barack Obama believes in you. Now it’s time for Congress to enshrine in law their right to pursue their dreams in the only place they’ve ever called home: America.

After the brief aside, he returned to talking about job growth and the future of the middle class. 

Uri Friedman is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Before joining FP, he reported for the Christian Science Monitor, worked on corporate strategy for Atlantic Media, helped launch the Atlantic Wire, and covered international affairs for the site. A proud native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he studied European history at the University of Pennsylvania and has lived in Barcelona, Spain and Geneva, Switzerland. Twitter: @UriLF

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