Voter Identity

Doctoral student Mara-Cecilia Ostfeld investigates Latino voter identity.
October 2012

In an effort to help predict trends among the electorate, pundits and pollsters often characterize large portions of voters as belonging to a certain demographic that by and large votes the same. One of the best examples of this during the 2012 election season is the oft-cited Latino vote. But Mara-Cecilia Ostfeld, who is completing her doctorate in Political Science, says shoehorning Latino voters into a single voting bloc may be a disservice to a richly diverse demographic.

“The assumption is often that Latinos are a monolithic political collective,” says Ostfeld, “despite the fact that we know they’re enormously diverse. Some Latinos were in the United States prior to the establishment of the country while others arrived in the U.S. just this week, and there is a huge diversity of language preferences, identity preferences and political preferences.” Ostfeld argues that the depiction of a homogeneous Latino vote results in a tension between enhancing the political power of Latinos and perpetuating generalizations that ultimately misrepresent the population and their interests.

This frequently cited notion of a unified Latino voting bloc led Ostfeld to take a closer look at how this portrayal affects actual Latino voter identity. Does the portrayal of Latinos as a unified political mass actually make them perceive themselves to be part of more politically homogeneous group? In order to better understand Latino voters’ perceived political importance, she conducted a study in which she randomly assigned a nationally representative sample of both English-dominant and Spanish-dominant Latinos to view a political ad broadcast in either English or Spanish. Afterwards, participants completed a survey on the ad’s appeal.

Ostfeld found that when English-dominant Latinos, those who are more likely to be assimilated to mainstream American cultural norms, viewed the Spanish ad, they felt more integrated into the larger U.S. political system compared to when they saw the English ad. “It actually caused them to perceive themselves to be more similar to the average Latino, and increased the sense that there was, in fact, a homogeneous Latino political view. In doing so, it caused them to believe that the Latino vote carried more weight. Hearing the ad in Spanish made them feel like they were a part of the larger American political process, as opposed to a distinct group that simply interacted with the process.” When Spanish-dominant Latinos watched the ads, however, Ostfeld says they felt more isolated in their political views, leading to a feeling of separation from the larger political process. “There was evidence of an in-group, out-group dynamic in which Spanish-dominant Latinos saw themselves as outliers.”

These indicators of perceived political importance are mirrored in Spanish-language political media, which similarly stresses their commercial importance. “This all ties back to this notion of a Latino collective. Univision and Telemundo—the two Spanish-language media giants—are major sources of this outlook,” Ostfeld says. “These stations have done a lot to perpetuate the idea of a unifed Latino collective in order to foster a cohesive audience that could be efficiently captured by advertisers.”

Ostfeld is currently working on a follow-up study that examines the impact of the effect of explicit references to the pan-ethnic Latino collective in political media. “Regardless of what language the ad is in, by including a line such as, ‘What does this mean for the Latino voter,’ it may reify the notion that there is this homogeneous Latino political collective,” Ostfeld says. “It’s important that we understand these effects and how they are not only shaping Latino political views, but how they position Latinos in the American political context.”