A New Measure of Group Influence in Presidential Elections: Assessing Latino Influence in 2008

By Barreto, Matt A.; Collingwood, Loren et al. | Political Research Quarterly, December 2010 | Go to article overview

A New Measure of Group Influence in Presidential Elections: Assessing Latino Influence in 2008


Barreto, Matt A., Collingwood, Loren, Manzano, Sylvia, Political Research Quarterly


Abstract

The importance of the Latino electorate has been the subject of both academic inquiry and media discourses. The question of Latino influence is frequently limited by an approach that focuses on single variable considerations (e.g., voter turnout or ethnic-targeted campaign spending) that are often contest-specific idiosyncrasies. Relying on theoretically appropriate concepts, the authors measure Latino political influence as a function of three factors: in-group population traits, electoral volatility, and mobilization. Using the 2008 presidential election, the authors demonstrate the utility of incorporating a multifaceted measure that accounts for the contemporary complexity within the electoral environment. Because this framework is rooted in theoretical concepts, as opposed to discrete group or contest characteristics, it may be applied to any "influence group" in different electoral settings. Data are culled from several publicly available outlets, making it possible for scholars to replicate these measures and further investigate questions associated with group influence in American politics.

Keywords

2008 election, Latino politics, political influence

In presidential elections it is difficult, if not impossible, for any single group of voters to claim undue influence in deciding the outcome. Despite this difficulty, interest groups, advocates, the media, and scholars alike spend considerable time debating whether one group or another influenced the outcomes. In 2000 it was argued at length that Nader voters "cost" Gore the election and soccer moms influenced a Bush victory (Burden 2006; Kaufmann 2006). In 2004 it was repeatedly said that gains among Hispanics influenced Bush's reelection and that evangelical "values" voters turned out in great numbers to secure Bush's second term (Leal et al. 2005; Guth et al. 2006). During the 2008 presidential contest, the Latino vote received more hype than ever; their strong preference for Hillary Clinton during the Democratic primary fed speculation that Latinos had the potential to make or break the election. The Associated Press reported and others agreed that low Latino support for Obama could doom him in key states, whereas large gains in the Latino vote could lead to a Democratic victory in Republicanleaning states such as Florida, Nevada, and Colorado.

Despite constituting the largest minority group in the United States, when it comes to presidential politics Latinos typically receive only superficial attention from candidates and media. The peculiarities of the Electoral College, a state-level winner-take-all system, has led Latino politics research to focus on explanations for the group's negligible influence on the outcomes of presidential elections. The political climate changed in 2008 when mainstream media outlets and campaigns, not just advocacy groups, repeatedly described Latinos as the single most important voting bloc in presidential elections. For example, Arturo Vargas, head of the prominent National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, proclaimed colorfully in a 2007 op-ed, "Latino voters will decide the 2008 election. The Latino vote is positioned as the power punch that may deliver the knockout blow in 2008." On the other hand, noted Latino politics expert, Professor Rodolfo de la Garza of Columbia University, vehemently countered this narrative and related media hype by arguing, "The Latino vote is completely irrelevant. The myth was created by Latino leaders who wanted to convince politicians nationally about how important Latinos were" (Yanez 2008). Latinos voters are heavily concentrated in uncompetitive states such as California, Texas, and New York and are too small in number to matter in contested states (de la Garza and DeSipio 1992, 1996, 1999, 2005). The diametrically opposed interpretations from recognized experts leave observers and scholars in an unsatisfying predicament. On one hand, it is true that the Latino electorate cannot meet the empirical threshold necessary to claim they singlehandedly determined the Obama victory. …

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