Mellman: The complex realities and politics of Latino identity
The phrase “identity politics” is used most often either as a term of derision or as an expression of solidarity with those facing systemic oppression.
It’s actually a description of reality. The simple fact is that most politics has always been an expression of our identities.
Thinkers from James Madison to Sigmund Freud recognized that what and how we think about politics is a function of who we are — our identities. Our partisan and ideological attachments as well as gender, race, occupation, and myriad more are all components of our identity.
I happen to be, in no particular order, a white, Jewish, male, parent, American, liberal, Democrat who was raised in Ohio.
I’m not just a partisan Democrat, I’m a professional Democrat, so that element of my identity is almost always front and center.
My identification with The Ohio State University, which I never attended, becomes central for a few days around Thanksgiving when the scarlet and gray face off against Michigan, and then a little later (in good years) when the Buckeyes play in a bowl game.
All of us have multiple identities, and the hold each exerts over our consciousness varies with time and circumstances.
Social scientists measure individuals’ attachment to groups along two key dimensions: strength of identification (how important is one’s membership in a particular group to them) and shared fate (the extent individuals believe that what happens to other members of a group affects them).
Working with our colleagues at Castillo & Associates, for Mainstream Democrat PAC last cycle, we had the opportunity to assess the role of group identity in support for Democrats among Latinos in Nevada.
The idea that group identity might play a role here first germinated with me after my firm analyzed exit polls some years ago and found that Latino voters living in heavily Latino precincts were much more likely to support Democrats than Latinos who lived in largely Anglo areas.
In 2022 we had the opportunity to ask Latinos in Nevada directly about the strength of their ethnic identification and their sense of shared fate, and then relate those beliefs to voting behavior.
With respect to shared fate, 15 percent of Hispanic voters in Nevada said, “what happens to Latino or Hispanic people in this country will have a lot to do with what happens in [their] life.”
To put that number in perspective, Pew found 44 percent of African Americans nationally feeling “what happens to Blacks in this country” has a lot to do with what happens in their lives. Thus, Nevada Latinos appear to exhibit lower levels of ethnic identity than do African Americans nationally.
Returning to Nevada, we indexed the question about shared fate with another about the importance each voter attached to being Latino or Hispanic.
The results were striking. Among the 39 percent who expressed the strongest sense of Latino/Hispanic identity, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) led her Republican opponent by some 44 points. Among the middle 25 percent she led by only 6 points, and with the 36 percent whose identity was weakest, she was behind the GOP candidate by 27 points.
The strength of Latino identity was equally important in conditioning support in the governor’s race and the congressional contests.
The strength of Latino identity varies across individuals. Those with strong identities vote Democratic; those with weaker levels of identification vote Republican.
Two lessons emerge here.
First, part of the problem Democrats face with Latino voters stems from weakening Latino identities. As this community assimilates and as ethnic identity becomes less salient to some, their support for Democrats declines precipitously. Appeals to that segment based on group identity may be less successful.
Second, whether you love identity politics or abhor it, it is a fact of life. Identities matter in politics. Uncovering and appealing to the identities that are most salient to voters is critical in capturing their support.
Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years, as president of the American Association of Political Consultants, and is president of Democratic Majority for Israel.
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