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Awakening a Sleeping Giant: The Riddle of Latino Political Participation


Butterfield, Tara Lee (2001) Awakening a Sleeping Giant: The Riddle of Latino Political Participation. Dissertation (Ph.D.), California Institute of Technology. doi:10.7907/ff2n-0z23.


For some time now, the Latino voice has been gradually gaining strength in American politics, particularly in such states as California, Florida, Illinois, New York, and Texas, where large numbers of Latino immigrants have settled and large numbers of electoral votes are at stake. Yet the issues public officials in these states espouse and the laws they enact often do not coincide with the interests and preferences of Latinos. The fact that Latinos in California and elsewhere have not been able to influence the political agenda in a way that is commensurate with their numbers may reflect their failure to participate fully in the political process by first registering to vote and then consistently turning out on election day to cast their ballots.

To understand Latino voting behavior, I first examine Latino political participation in California during the ten general elections of the 1980s and 1990s, seeking to understand what percentage of the eligible Latino population registers to vote, with what political party they register, how many registered Latinos to go the polls on election day, and what factors might increase their participation in politics. To ensure that my findings are not unique to California, I also consider Latino voter registration and turnout in Texas for the five general elections of the 1990s and compare these results with my California findings.

I offer a new approach to studying Latino political participation in which I rely on county-level aggregate data, rather than on individual survey data, and employ the ecological inference method of generalized bounds. I calculate and compare Latino and white voting-age populations, registration rates, turnout rates, and party affiliation rates for California's fifty-eight counties. Then, in a secondary grouped logit analysis, I consider the factors that influence these Latino and white registration, turnout, and party affiliation rates.

I find that California Latinos register and turn out at substantially lower rates than do whites and that these rates are more volatile than those of whites. I find that Latino registration is motivated predominantly by age and education, with older and more educated Latinos being more likely to register. Motor voter legislation, which was passed to ease and simplify the registration process, has not encouraged Latino registration . I find that turnout among California's Latino voters is influenced primarily by issues, income, educational attainment, and the size of the Spanish-speaking communities in which they reside. Although language skills may be an obstacle to political participation for an individual, the number of Spanish-speaking households in a community does not encourage or discourage registration but may encourage turnout, suggesting that cultural and linguistic assimilation may not be the entire answer.

With regard to party identification, I find that Democrats can expect a steady Latino political identification rate between 50 and 60 percent, while Republicans attract 20 to 30 percent of Latino registrants. I find that education and income are the dominant factors in determining Latino political party identification, which appears to be no more volatile than that of the larger electorate.

Next, when I consider registration and turnout in Texas, I find that Latino registration rates are nearly equal to those of whites but that Texas Latino turnout rates are volatile and substantially lower than those of whites.

Low turnout rates among Latinos and the volatility of these rates may explain why Latinos in California and Texas have had little influence on the political agenda even though their numbers are large and increasing. Simply put, the voices of Latinos are little heard in the halls of government because they do not turn out consistently to cast their votes on election day.

While these findings suggest that there may not be any short-term or quick fixes to Latino participation, they also suggest that Latinos should be encouraged to participate more fully in the political process and that additional education may be one means of achieving this goal. Candidates should speak more directly to the issues that concern Latinos. Political parties should view Latinos as crossover voters rather than as potential converts. In other words, if Latinos were "a sleeping giant," they may now be a still-drowsy leviathan waiting to be wooed by either party's persuasive political messages and relevant issues.

Item Type:Thesis (Dissertation (Ph.D.))
Subject Keywords:Latinos ; political participation ; Social sciences
Degree Grantor:California Institute of Technology
Division:Humanities and Social Sciences
Major Option:Social Science
Thesis Availability:Public (worldwide access)
Research Advisor(s):
  • Alvarez, R. Michael
Thesis Committee:
  • Alvarez, R. Michael (chair)
  • Kiewiet, D. Roderick
  • Nagler, Jonathan
  • Sherman, Robert P.
Defense Date:15 May 2001
Record Number:CaltechTHESIS:03252014-082653039
Persistent URL:
Default Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
ID Code:8163
Deposited On:25 Mar 2014 16:46
Last Modified:04 Jun 2024 21:45

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