As Democrats parse the numbers from Tuesday’s election, they’ll want to look closely at the Latino vote. Data from Latino Decisions, the leading national Latino political opinion research firm, shows that between 2000 and 2012, the number of registered Hispanic voters in Massachusetts grew by 110 percent. That should have added up to a slam-dunk for Martha Coakley.
But based on election returns in key Latino communities, Coakley failed to fully capitalize on this group’s expected support. Charlie Baker, on the other hand, fared much better than he did four years ago in places like Chelsea, Lawrence, and Holyoke, where Latinos are the dominant demographic. There’s a cautionary tale here: Candidates need to be more than simply Democrats to earn Latinos’ support.
It’s not that Coakley did poorly in these gateway cities; she won all three of them, overwhelmingly. She reached out to Latino voters, launching a barrage of Spanish-language ads. Still, she essentially got the same raw totals as Governor Deval Patrick did in 2010. In contrast, Baker improved on his 2010 performance, earning 19 percent more votes, in total, in those three cities combined.
There may be a few reasons why Coakley didn’t fully exploit a built-in advantage. She never committed to a position on immigration that could excite the Latino base. She was notoriously wishy-washy on whether to grant driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants, a policy Patrick had loudly promoted. The message she sent, intended or not, was that she was taking Latino votes for granted.
Meanwhile, Baker — who failed to show up to one major immigration forum during the campaign — succeeded in not presenting himself as a threatening anti-immigrant Republican. And he demonstrated, just enough, that he would work for the Latino vote. He ran Spanish-language ads of his own, and did outreach to Latinos and other minority voters. He tempered his 2010 language on welfare reform.
And Baker’s support for lunch-bucket economic issues, such as low taxes — and even cutting welfare fraud — may have appealed to a group that doesn’t vote strictly on identity politics. In an election-eve poll this week, Latino Decisions found that while immigration is still the top voting issue for Latinos nationwide, it is closely followed by the economy and job creation. Baker seemed to understand that fighting for votes, on the margins, can help win elections — especially with a voting bloc whose influence is only going to grow.
Marcela García is a regular contributor to the Globe opinion pages. Follow her on Twitter @marcela_elisa.