Latino America

How America’s Most Dynamic Population is Poised to Transform the Politics of the Nation


By Matt Barreto

By Gary M. Segura

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Sometime in April 2014, somewhere in a hospital in California, a Latino child tipped the demographic scales as Latinos displaced non-Hispanic whites as the largest racial/ethnic group in the state. So, one-hundred-sixty-six years after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo brought the Mexican province of Alta California into the United States, Latinos once again became the largest population in the state. Surprised? Texas will make the same transition sometime before 2020.

When that happens, America’s two most populous states, carrying the largest number of Electoral College votes, will be Latino. New Mexico is already there. New York, Florida, Arizona, and Nevada are shifting rapidly. Latino populations since 2000 have doubled in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, and South Dakota. The US is undergoing a substantial and irreversible shift in its identity.

So, too, are the Latinos who make up these populations. Matt Barreto and Gary M. Segura are the country’s preeminent experts in the shape, disposition, and mood of Latino America. They show the extent to which Latinos have already transformed the US politically and socially, and how Latino Americans are the most buoyant and dynamic ethnic and racial group, often in quite counterintuitive ways. Latinos’ optimism, strength of family, belief in the constructive role of government, and resilience have the imminent potential to reshape the political and partisan landscape for a generation and drive the outcome of elections as soon as 2016.


Chapter 1


Sometime in April 2014, somewhere in a hospital in California, a Latino child was born who tipped the demographic scales of California’s new plurality. Latinos displaced non-Hispanic whites as the largest racial/ethnic group in the state. And so, 166 years after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo brought the Mexican province of Alta California into the United States, Latinos once again became the largest population in the state.

Surprised? Texas will make the same transition sometime before 2020, and Latinos have had a plurality in New Mexico for some time. Latinos are already over 17% of the population of the United States, and that number will grow toward a national plurality over the course of this century. The America that today’s infants will die in is going to look very different from the nation in which they were born. Oh, and by the way, more than half of today’s children under age five are nonwhite.

The pace of demographic change and its impact on both the racial structure of American society and the future makeup of the electorate are illustrated clearly in Table 1.1. In the 1950 census, the white share of the population reached its peak at just under 90%. And in 1980, when Ronald Reagan was elected president, nearly 80% of all Americans were white. Meanwhile, in 1970, just 4.7% of Americans identified themselves as being of Hispanic ancestry. These populations were concentrated in New York and Chicago (Puerto Rican), Miami (Cuban), and the Southwest, from Texas to California (Mexican). Since 1980, however, the share of all Americans identifying themselves, unambiguously, as white has fallen precipitously, and Latinos, at 17%, are now present in every state and are the largest minority group in more than half of them. Nationally, the Latino population includes not just Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and Cubans but also large numbers of Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Dominicans, Hondurans, Colombians, and countless others.

TABLE 1.1   Historical Trends in White Identification in the US Census

Source: US Bureau of the Census. For 1800, see US Bureau of the Census, “Table 1. United States—Race and Hispanic Origin: 1790 to 1990,” available at: For 2010, see US Census Bureau, “Overview of Race and Hispanic Origin 2010 Census Briefs,” March 2011, available at: (accessed June 1, 2011).

The ethnicity question in the census allowed us to count Hispanics separately from others answering “white” to the race question. It is ironic in the extreme that Latinos had been previously classified as “white” since that nominal status did not prevent them from being sent to segregated schools, kept off juries, being refused burial in local cemeteries, and other indignities historically reserved for the nonwhites in American society. White privilege clearly did not extend to Latinos.

The rapid growth of the Latino population will change America in profound ways. In the 1990s, Latino activists were fond of citing the 1992 report that salsa had displaced ketchup as America’s most frequently purchased condiment, but that change really just scratches the cultural surface. Latin food, music, and dance have gone fully mainstream. Lin-Manuel Miranda won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2008 for In the Heights, a story set in the largely Dominican community of Washington Heights, New York, almost exactly fifty years after West Side Story introduced Americans to Puerto Ricans living in the same city. Yet at the same time, English-language television continues to feature very few Latino lead characters. And although Latinos outnumber African Americans overall in the United States (and in more than half the states), African Americans are far more visible, both culturally and politically. Latinos may have restructured the race discussion in this country, once so powerfully dominated by the black-white dyadic relationship, but it is clear that the Latino story is very much a work in progress.

The central argument of this book is that in the twenty-first century American politics will be shaped, in large measure, by how Latinos are incorporated into the political system. The Latino electoral history of significant inter-election movement over time suggests that Latino population growth will combine with growth in the Latino electorate to present both political parties with new opportunities in their approaches to Latino voters. Such opportunities are not, of course, without precedent—the large-scale incorporation of urban immigrants in the early twentieth century played a significant role in realigning the American electorate and establishing the New Deal coalition, which dominated national politics for two generations.

If the past is prologue, the more than 53 million souls who make up this (mostly) new American community may well rewrite the political history of the United States. The demography is relentless—live births contribute more to population growth among Latinos now than immigration does, and over 93% of Latinos under age eighteen are citizens of the United States. More than 73,000 of these young people turn eighteen and become eligible to vote every month! There will be no stunning reversal of these numbers—there will be neither a sudden surge in white immigration and live births nor a Latino exodus. Each day every congressional district in the United States, and nearly every census tract, becomes more Latino than it was the day before.

If these new Americans represent political opportunity, they also represent political peril. For Republicans, the current numbers look grim. These new Americans enter the electorate two-to-one Democratic. In 2012 they voted nearly three-to-one Democratic. It wasn’t always so. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush both performed significantly better among Latinos in their reelection fights. But those days appear to be long gone, and as we discuss later in this book, it’s high time for the GOP to get to work on rebuilding its brand with the Latino electorate.

The Democrats face perils of their own. The party’s failure to provide meaningful outreach and effectively mobilize voters has led Democrats to leave millions of votes on the table, and they will continue to do so if nothing changes in their approach. Moreover, with the Democratic Party’s reliance on minority voters—most notably African American voters—and rainbow racial coalitions, it must carefully nurture policy agreement and strategic partnerships between the minority groups. Rivalry—or worse, direct conflict—could undo the Democratic demographic advantage.

The complexity of Latinos as a group makes for a politics more nuanced and less lockstep than the political behavior often described by the media and casual observers. Nevertheless, over the last several elections there can be little question that Latinos have become a political force—a force whose potential may not yet have been realized, but a force nonetheless. Latinos have been moved to political action by different issues at different times. In 2006 immigration reform and hostile GOP-sponsored legislation dominated the headlines, just as would happen again in 2010. But in 2008 immigration was all but missing from the electoral agenda while Latinos focused their attention on the economy, which was hurting them far worse than other American racial/ethnic groups, and on the Iraq War, for which Latinos were paying a terrible price. In 2012, though the economy was still important, immigration was once again the moving issue.

As the Iraq War demonstrated, Latinos are not just a one-issue constituency. In the 1990s, when Cruz Bustamante became California’s first Latino State Assembly speaker in the modern era (and later lieutenant governor), he liked to say that the “Latino agenda is the American agenda.” For most Latinos, good jobs, good schools, and safe neighborhoods are the dominant issues. More recently, health care and environmental issues have begun to play an important (and related) role in the “Latino agenda.” Latinos are among the most underinsured populations in America (although their health outcomes are not as bad as we might expect looking at average incomes), and many live in neighborhoods that present significant environmental challenges, such as particulate pollution, which increases the incidence of asthma.

Latinos, like all other Americans, have a lot of worries, a lot of goals, and strong views about the country and its government. Our hope is that this book will serve as a broad introduction to at least some aspects of modern Latino life and aspirations in the United States.


In some respects, the two of us represent several characteristics of the group we describe. One of us is Peruvian, the other Mexican, and both of us are of mixed parentage. Neither of us grew up in a Latino-intensive locale, at least not at the time of our upbringing—Matt Barreto was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, but raised from age two in Topeka, Kansas, and Gary Segura is from New Orleans, Louisiana. Like most of America, both Topeka and New Orleans have experienced rapid recent increases in the size of their Latino populations.

Both of us are the sons of veterans. The connection between the Latino community and military service is strong and long-standing, and as we discuss in Chapter 6, it played an important role in Latino opposition to the Iraq War and in the 2008 election. Matt Barreto’s dad came to the United States at age seventeen and was drafted into the Vietnam War by age nineteen, as a legal resident but not yet a US citizen. He refined his English skills in the Army and would earn both a bachelor’s and master’s degree after his military service. More than ten years later, right after Matt was born, he became a naturalized US citizen. Gary Segura’s dad was a generation older, born in the United States during the First World War. He joined the US Army Air Corps before the Second World War broke out and served as a tail-gunner in the South Pacific before being grounded and hurt. He never went to college—in fact, during the Depression he left school at thirteen to go to work in a furniture factory to help support his eight siblings. His youngest brother, Lloyd, died in the Korean War.

We came to know one another at the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute (TRPI) at the Claremont Colleges, where Segura joined the academic staff in 1996. He began polling there during the 1996 presidential election, working with the late Harry Pachon, Rudy de la Garza, Louis DeSipio, Jongho Lee, Adrian Pantoja, Nathan Woods, and others. Barreto came aboard as a research assistant in 1999, working with Segura and other TRPI researchers on a pre-election poll of Latinos prior to the 2000 presidential election; he subsequently began graduate studies at Claremont Graduate University in 2000. Barreto and Segura continued to collaborate on polls of Latino voters with Pachon, de la Garza, and DeSipio in 2000, 2002, and 2004. These early TRPI polls represented some of the very few political polls of Latino voters in the 1990s and early 2000s. When Segura left Claremont, Barreto transferred to the University of California at Irvine, where he earned his PhD in political science.

We continued to work together, and in 2004 we published the first piece on Latinos in the American Political Science Review in over seventy years.1 In 2005 we found ourselves together on the faculty of the University of Washington, where we again polled both the general population and Latinos—the former by founding the Washington Poll, a statewide poll of the Evergreen State, and the latter through membership in the Latino Policy Coalition alongside Fernando Guerra of Loyola Marymount University. In 2007, with Mark and Andrew Rosenkranz of Pacific Market Research, we founded the partnership now known as Latino Decisions.

This book, like Latino Decisions, is a collective enterprise. We received fine and important contributions from the rest of the Latino Decisions team and our contributing analysts, each of whom is a successful social scientist in his or her own right. We note those contributions throughout.

Everything we have to say in the coming chapters—much of which is based directly on our work over the last seven years—reflects two core commitments that both Latino Decisions and we ourselves have made to define our research approach. First, Latino interests are best served if the data collection—and thus the claims made on the basis of the data—is indisputable. Scientific rigor in the pursuit of public opinion and community engagement is of no use if data are poorly collected. Second, we never say anything as pollsters that we do not believe is true as scholars. This principle has not always won us political friends, but we believe that our commitment to it has been the right thing for Latinos and for Latino Decisions.

To ensure the accuracy of what we say in our polling, we combine the finest current social scientific techniques with cultural competency so that our bilingual interview teams can ask the right questions in a manner that our community will understand, using the right format, question design, and sampling strategy. In 2012, amid our extensive polling of Latino voters, an article in Time magazine called Latino Decisions “the gold-standard in Latino American polling,” and we were named to Politic365’s list of “The 30 Latinos & Latinas Who Made the 2012 Election.” We stand behind every result we present in this book.


We begin, in Chapter 2, by examining some of the characteristics that complicate any narrative of Latinos as an identifiable electoral and social bloc, such as differences in generation, nativity, and national origin. Those differences notwithstanding, there is a growing sense of Latino identity that bridges these differences and is becoming increasingly palpable and politically relevant.

In Chapter 3, we examine three critical aspects of the question: what do Latinos think about government? First, we demonstrate that, despite a strong commitment to norms of self-reliance, Latinos (and other racial/ethnic minority groups) repeatedly express a preference for a government that acts to improve the lives of its citizens and reduce inequality. Second, we explore Latino religiosity and its impact, if any, on the political beliefs of Latinos. We discover that religion is experienced very differently among different groups: as it turns out, Latinos are neither as socially conservative as popularly conceived nor as susceptible, through their perceived social conservatism, to the arguments of modern conservatism. Finally, we show that on matters both big and small, Latinos vote consistently as economic pragmatists—liberal pragmatists—who favor tax increases to balance spending cuts and generally prefer Democrats to steer the economy while blaming the GOP for economic ills. These views stem from the economic and social vulnerability of Latinos in the face of low-income parentage, weak educational opportunity, and bias in the mortgage market.

In Chapter 4, we introduce several people we had a chance to talk with in-depth. Rafael, David, Juanita, and Anita, all residents of metropolitan Houston, shared something in common with Catalina and Alfredo M., who lived in the Los Angeles area: none of them voted. For economic reasons among others, Latinos don’t vote as frequently as other Americans. Some don’t vote because they are not registered, while others are registered but have chosen of late not to go to the polls. Our interviewees’ answers to our questions about this voting behavior allow us in this chapter to explore the frustrations and opportunities in Latino voter turnout.

In the second part of the book, we look at Latinos at the polls by exploring in detail the 2008 presidential primary contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and the 2008, 2010, and 2012 general elections. In Chapter 5, we explore the claim made by Hillary Clinton’s Latino pollster that Latinos would not vote for black candidates. We show that, in fact, race had little to do with the Latino primary vote, and in Chapter 6 we show that this remained true in the general election. What really made the difference at the polls was Clinton’s far deeper and longer ties to the Latino community.

Latinos overwhelmingly supported Barack Obama in the 2008 election, and in Chapter 6 we provide several of the reasons why. We show clearly that neither immigration nor race was particularly important to Latinos in that contest, despite immigration’s importance in 2006 and 2010 and the general importance of race to white voters. Rather, the Iraq War and the collapse of the economy—and Senator John McCain’s lack of credibility on both issues—set the stage for a Democratic landslide among Latino voters. In examining this election, we offer several novel ways to think about the importance of Latino voters to elections.

In 2010 Democrats suffered a big setback in the congressional elections. Latino voters, however, played a critical role in preserving the Senate for the Democrats and keeping Harry Reid (D-NV) in his job. In Chapter 7, we offer a detailed account of the evolution of Latino enthusiasm across the 2010 electoral cycle and the key roles played by immigration politics, Arizona’s SB 1070, and the Dream Act.

The 2012 presidential election looked very different from the 2008 election. The incumbent administration had been very disappointing on immigration, which was now a major campaign issue, and the national economy remained weak. Nevertheless, that election would prove historic for the Latino electorate: for the first time ever, Latino votes provided the margin of victory for the winning candidate. Chapter 8 examines the role of Latinos in that election and extends our thinking from Chapter 6 about how best to estimate Latino influence.

The third and final section of the book examines key issues in the Latino community beyond the economy. We start by delving deeply into immigration politics. In Chapter 9, we look at the experience of California in the 1990s, when Proposition 187 (and later 209 and 227) played a key role in moving the state from politically competitive (and even leaning Republican in presidential and gubernatorial elections) to one of the safest Democratic strongholds in the country. California’s experience in the 1990s, we suggest, has much to show us about how the politics of the nation will evolve in the coming years. If past is prologue, we can only conclude that in continuing to allow short-term strategic calculations and the outspoken voices of xenophobia within their coalition to shape Republican policy and political actions, GOP leaders are courting politically catastrophic consequences for their party over the long term.

In Chapter 10, we look at the current environment through the same lens and identify districts where immigration politics may begin to reshape the House of Representatives, if not in the election of 2014, then in elections to come. Although a majority of Latino voters report having voted GOP at least once, the reputation of the Republican Party continues to suffer in ways that may tarnish its brand for a generation. There are certainly things the GOP could do to increase its Latino vote share, as we show in this chapter, but currently it is doing none of them.

However important the issues of the Iraq War, the economy, and immigration have been in the last few electoral cycles, a variety of other concerns also have an important impact on the lives of Latinos, and those concerns significantly influence their political orientations and voting behavior as well. In Chapter 11, we examine the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, which has so dominated the political landscape since it was passed in March 2010; Latinos have consistently favored Obamacare and opposed its repeal. In Chapter 12, we look at environmentalism. Although environmental problems are often constructed as white, middle-class issues, Latinos show themselves to be acutely aware of them, both immediate issues like local air pollution and global issues like climate change. Defying conventional wisdom, Latino registered voters demonstrate strong environmental attitudes and a considerable willingness to act politically on the basis of those views.

So here we go. As with any good story, we start at the beginning, and so we ask that most basic question: exactly who are Latinos?

Part I


Chapter 2


Coauthored with Adrian Pantoja

The rapid growth of the share of Latinos in the US population in the last decade is now widely recognized in academic and political circles.* Just over 12% of the US population in 2000, Latinos accounted for 16.3% in the 2010 census—a 33% increase in ten years. A majority of that growth came from native births rather than immigration. According to US Census Bureau projections, Latinos will make up one-quarter of the national population by 2050.

Although the Latino share of the electorate has significantly lagged the population share, it too has grown substantially. In 2008 Latinos were an estimated 9% of the national electorate, up considerably from 5.4% in 2000 and dramatically from 3.7% in 1992, when Bill Clinton was first elected president.1 Disadvantages in education and income are generally associated with lower rates of voter registration and turnout, but Latinos have nevertheless been closing the gap, largely by overperforming for their socioeconomic status. And in reported voter participation, Latinos trail non-Hispanic whites with the same levels of both education and income by a mere 4%.2

The remainder of the lag can be attributed to two factors, both of which will become less significant with time. First, Latinos in the United States are a very young population; among those who are citizens, only 57.7% are over the age of eighteen (compared with 79.1% of non-Hispanic whites), according to the American Community Survey. Second, noncitizens make up around 40% of the adult Latino population. Although many of them are undocumented residents whose future in the country is uncertain at best, in time these noncitizens will be replaced in the population with their US-born offspring.

The growing Latino electorate has already significantly reshaped politics in the Southwest and California and is beginning to do so in Texas, Florida, and even Georgia and North Carolina. As the Latino population and electorate continue to grow, so will the impact of Latino public opinion on the national conversation—and on political outcomes in particular.


Much of the discourse on Latino politics in the United States is filled with myths and misperceptions based on anecdotal accounts gathered by news reporters or self-designated experts. Moreover, many observers assume that what is true for the Mexican-origin population is also true for Puerto Ricans or for other Latin American ancestry groups. But considering that over twenty countries in Latin America and the Iberian Peninsula are represented in Latino ancestries, generalizing from the experiences of one nationality group overlooks important differences between them. Differences between Latino immigrants and those who are non-immigrants or who have been living in the country for many generations are also significant but often ignored. And the political differences between Latinos who are Democrats and those who are Republicans are often significant. In this book, we address many of the myths surrounding Latino politics and identify many of the similarities as well as the differences across varying types of Latinos.

Before we delve into the diverse and dynamic world of Latino America, it is important to establish some baseline demographic information on the 53 million Latinos presently living in the United States. Longtime observers of Latino politics can recall a time when Latinos flew under the political radar because they were considered demographically and politically insignificant. The rapid growth of the Latino population in the late twentieth century, however (see Figure 2.1), coupled with a political awakening in the mid-1990s, propelled them into the national spotlight.

FIGURE 2.1   The Latino Population in the United States (in Millions)

Although Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans, the two largest Latino groups, were active in the 1960s civil rights struggles, by and large Latinos were not significant nationwide political actors in the 1970s and 1980s. But by the 2000 census, Latinos had grown to over 35 million (or 12.5% of the US population; see Figure 2.2) and were on the verge of becoming the nation’s largest minority. In the last decade, their size and growing political clout have come to the notice of political pundits and politicians, many of whom proclaim that the “sleeping giant” has finally “awakened.” No doubt, Latinos’ political strength will only continue to surge in the coming decades, given the population growth forecasts shown in Figures 2.1 and 2.2.

Immigration is a critical factor behind Latino growth rates and a pivotal policy issue for Latinos, as we will see in this book. The foreign-born Latino segment has more than doubled in the last forty years, from 20% in 1970 to 40% by the 2000 census, to an estimated 43% today (see Figure 2.3).

FIGURE 2.2   The Latino Population as a Percentage of the Total US Population

The doubling of the number of foreign-born Latinos can be directly attributed to changes in US immigration law, beginning with the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. Essentially, the 1965 act eliminated the preference categories for Northern and Western Europeans in favor of a preference system that emphasized family reunification. The 1965 act facilitated immigration not only from Latin America but also from Asia and other parts of the globe, leading to a so-called fourth wave of mass immigration. In fact, immigration patterns from Latin America closely follow changes in US immigration laws and migration patterns from other parts of the world. In contrast to previous immigration waves, however, Latin Americans constitute the largest segment of contemporary immigrants, at 53%.3


  • "Those seeking a smart, data-driven analysis of the politics of Latino America will want to grab a copy of Barreto and Segura's contribution.”—Washington Post

    "Pulling together demographic data, survey data, and in-depth interviews, Barreto (Univ. of Washington) and Segura (Stanford Univ.) weave a complex, detailed picture of the multifaceted nature of Latino public opinion and political behavior."—CHOICE

    "Few demographic changes have exercised the American political mind as much as the inexorable rise of Latino America, and Barreto and Segura's masterful work of social science is a clear and sober-minded analyses of this complex subject."—Publishers Weekly

    “A pertinent, useful study of significant trends in the American political landscape.”—Kirkus Reviews

On Sale
Sep 30, 2014
Page Count
304 pages

Matt Barreto

About the Author

Dr. Matt Barreto and Dr. Gary M. Segura are widely published scholars, researchers, and professors at the University of Washington and Stanford University, respectively. They are the founders of Latino Decisions, a leading public opinion and research firm that specializes in issues pertinent to the Latino electorate. Their work is regularly cited by Univision, the New York Times, ABC News, National Public Radio, impreMedia, NBC News, the Wall Street Journal, CNN, and many others.

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