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Lessons for 2012 Elections from 2010 Nevada

As we celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month and the political parties gear up for the 2012 Presidential Election, it would be wise to use this time to study the 2010 general election and the impact made by Latino voters throughout the country.

In particular, I offer the 2010 general election in Nevada as a case study.

The morning of November 2, conventional political wisdom, as illustrated by FiveThirtyEight.com, predicted that the probability of Sharron Angle becoming the next senator of Nevada at 86.4 percent and that her margin of victory over incumbent Sen. Harry Reid would be 3 percentage points.  Election results later that day showed how wrong they all were. Angle was soundly defeated 51 percent to 45 percent.

What the experts hadn’t counted on was the reaction of Latino voters to Angle’s vilification of Latinos in her anti-immigrant and clearly xenophobic direct mail and ads. In the final two weeks of the 2010 campaign, Angle aired the immigration-themed ad, “the wave” in which she told Nevadans that immigrants come to the U.S. to join violent gangs and cause white families to live in fear.


Like all Americans, the economy and jobs were the biggest concerns for Latino voters, however, the issue of immigration served as a way to define the “good guys” from the “bad guys.” In Nevada, 55 percent of Latino voters are naturalized citizens, and 31 percent are U.S. born of immigrant parents.  That is 86 percent of the 224,000 Latino voters in Nevada who take the issue of immigration extremely personally.

The lesson here is clearly that playing on anti-immigrant fears won’t win enough xenophobic votes to make up for the lost Latino votes. And without the Latino vote in states like Nevada where the Latino population is at 26 percent and growing, elections will be nearly impossible to win.

Angle should have know she was in trouble when she visited with the students at Rancho High School.  The members of the Hispanic Student Union caused Sharron Angle to cower and attempt to backtrack on her campaign of fear and division as they challenged her for portraying Latinos as “criminals” and “illegals” in her campaign ads.    Angle infamously told the students “they were misinterpreting those commercials” and attempted to dismiss their challenges by saying, “I don’t know that all of you are Latino.  Some of you look more Asian to me.”

The race-baiting of Sharron Angle is more than a cautionary tale for extremist candidates who seek to rise to elected office on anti-immigrant campaigns of fear and division.  The headlines on the airwaves and in print the day after the election made it clear that national polling and the campaigns failed to capture the opinions of the Latino electorate and adjust their campaigns accordingly.

The 2010 general election in Nevada is a lesson for every political campaign to establish at its core a program to not only speak to the needs of Latino families with conviction and purpose, but more importantly, the need for bilingual and bicultural staff who can successfully implement such a program during the campaign and once in office.

This article would be incomplete without some electoral math. According to the most recent U.S. Census figures, there are 50.5 million Latinos in the United States, up from 35.3 million in 2000, and now represent 16.3% of the total population and growing.

Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Nevada, New Mexico, New York and Texas have the largest percentage of Latino voters and will account for 182 electoral votes in November 2012.  These numbers are too big, too influential to ignore. These are numbers that will decide national elections.

—Pablo Rodriguez

Pablo Rodríguez is the executive director of Communities for a New California (CNC), a statewide civil rights advocacy organization. Prior to working with CNC, Pablo worked as a public policy analyst and served as director of the Dolores Huerta Community Organizing Institute. Pablo is committed to achieving public policy that is socially, economically, and environmentally just for California’s families.

Blog originally published on September 22, 2011