The growing electoral power of green Latino voters

“I think we all deserve a healthy planet.”

By Alejandro Dávila Fragoso – – – – –

A year ago, Alexa Aispuro could care less about politics. She was 17 years old, barely into her senior year of high school, and though she knew she’d soon be able to vote, Aispuro was like, “whatever about it.”

Fast-forward to now, and the college freshman is hooked. “Finally my word can be heard, and I can actually take action,” Aispuro, who lives in Las Vegas, Nevada, told ThinkProgress.

But Aispuro isn’t just engaged in politics to vote for a presidential candidate she declined to disclose. (Her Facebook page suggests she isn’t very fond of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.) Aispuro has also been canvassing and getting young Latinos like herself registered to vote as a volunteer with the League of Conservation Voters, an environmental advocacy group.

Alexa Aispuro went from disregarding politics, to volunteering with the League of Conservation Voter’s CHISPA program, an environmental advocacy group, in a matter of months. CREDIT: Alexa Aispuro

Just a couple of weeks ago, she asked some of her professors for class time to get other students registered. That’s how serious she is about this election and the environmental issues now driving her activism.

“I’m worried… I notice so much pollution. I think we all deserve a healthy planet,” she said.

Aispuro is one of more than 27 million Latinos eligible to vote this November, and she’s not alone in prioritizing the environment. In fact, two-thirds of Latino voters consider the environment “a very important issue,” according to the Pew Research Center, which notes among the rest of voters polled, only about half of them feel the same.

In an election year, and a time when Republican candidates are hesitant to support environmental policies, this could be significant, experts told ThinkProgress. Particularly as presidential and congressional candidates are locked in close races in battleground states like Nevada. For while they may still be a minority, the Latino population in the United States has been growing at a much faster rate than other groups that have either stagnated or declined in numbers, giving Latinos more power to make or break a campaign during a close election.

There is already a precedent: The Latino vote was key to Democrats winning the White House in the past two elections. This time, they could help Democrats retain the presidency and retake the Senate in a pivotal time for enacting policies to combat human-caused global warming — both in the United States, the planet’s second largest greenhouse gas emitter, and abroad.

“Over the past eight years, there are only two issues in which we have consistently found over 80 percent of Latino voters are in agreement: these issues are comprehensive immigration reform, and combating climate change,” said Edward Vargas, senior analyst at the think tank Latino Decisions. “So [environmental policy] can be a motivating issue if the candidates emphasize it in Latino communities.”

CREDIT: NATURAL RESOURCES DEFENSE COUNCIL

The 2016 election has been nothing if not unpredictable, meaning the ultimate impact of the Latino vote on races throughout the country remains to be seen. But experts emphasize that Trump’s incendiary rhetoric — particularly in regard to Mexicans and immigrants — coupled with his climate denial, will likely do him no favors with the majority of Latino voters. That’s especially true for Millenials, who make up 44 percent of Latino eligible votersand have a demonstrated interest in the environment.

“Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, and Florida are essentially the key battleground states for Latino voters. And that’s where young Latino Millennials, if they turn out in reasonable numbers, can absolutely have an influence on the outcome,” Gabriel Sanchez, professor of Political Science at the University of New Mexico, said of the presidential election. “A lot of the data there suggest that Latino enthusiasm to vote is actually higher at this point in the election than we had it back in 2012.”

While it’s dominated headlines, the fight for the White House is only one aspect of this election. Control of the Senate is also at stake with 34 seats up for grabs — most of them held by Republicans.

Taking back the Senate would put Democrats in a better position to influence the climate change laws they tend to favor and, critically, who will fill a key vacancy on the Supreme Court. The balance of the court is particularly relevant to climate change action as the Clean Power Plan, a landmark rule calling for massive reductions in carbon emissions from the electricity sector, is expected to reach the nation’s highest court. The Clean Power Plan isn’t just important for national air pollution, it is also considered a vital tool to cut enough greenhouse gas emissions to meet the targets set in the Paris climate accord.

“The environmental agenda will benefit if the Democrats can hold the White House and gain control of the Senate,” Steve Cohen, executive director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, told ThinkProgress via email. “The regulation of greenhouse gasses under the Clean Air Act will only be upheld if the Supreme Court deadlock is broken by a new non-conservative justice.”

The Senate also has the power of the purse, and during budget negotiations, some senators slide in questionable “environmental riders” that may weaken clean air or conservation laws, said Brett Hartl, endangered species policy director at the Center for Biological Diversity. And these senators “always get a few in, because you have to compromise,” he told ThinkProgress.

CREDIT: Pew Research Center

A common claim among many Republicans is that action on climate and environmental issues would come at the expense of jobs and economic growth. But as the voting population in the U.S. becomes steadily more diverse, and Hispanics seemingly fond of the environment are popping up even in non-traditional Latino states, Republicans may have to start championing environmental causes to entice the fastest growing minority this country has seen in years.

That dynamic is evident even in longtime Republican strongholds, like the Dakotas, Tennessee, South Carolina, or Louisiana, which have been the top states for Latino population growth in recent years.

In most of these states, Latinos are still years away from becoming as determinant as they are in places like California, Florida, or Nevada, but “it’s still meaningful that you are seeing Latinos moving to states where there used to be no Latinos,” Sanchez said. “It sends a signal that you can’t just think about Latinos in the Southwest anymore in terms of the electoral impact.”

Plus, the Latino demographic is known for establishing its electoral sphere of influence fairly quickly. “Twenty years ago we didn’t [think] about Latinos in Nevada as being highly influential,” Sanchez said. Now, with Catherine Cortez Masto running neck in neck with Joe Heck, Nevada may become one of two states (Rep. Loretta Sanchez is running against state Attorney General Kamala Harris in California) — to ever elect a Latina for the Senate.

A puzzling question remains though: What’s driving Latinos’ heightened environmental concern? Vargas, the analyst with Latino Decisions, said one factor may be strong family connections. “Latinos have families across Latin America, and know the effects of climate change on communities in Mexico, Central and South America,” he said.

However, the bigger influencing factor may lie closer to home. “Latinos often live in communities here in the U.S. that are plagued by pollution in major cities like Houston, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and more,” Vargas said.

More than 60 percent of Latinos live in California, Texas, Florida, and New York — states that are among the most vulnerable to severe heat, air pollution, and flooding, according to a Natural Resources Defense Council report published this month. They are also 21 percent more likely than non-Hispanic whites to live in the hottest parts of cities, and 51 percent more likely to live in counties with unhealthy levels of ozone. To top that off, Latinos are three times more likely to die from asthma, a disease strongly linked to air pollution, when compared to other ethnic groups.

“This is an issue that does not get enough attention — but Latinos are really, very, very strong environmentalists, perhaps the strongest of any demographic group in the U.S.,” Vargas said.

There is a caveat to all the support Latinos give to green issues in national polls. When asked in an open-ended question about the most important issue Congress and the president should address, only 4 percent of Hispanics name environmental topics like global warming and climate change, Sanchez, the University of New Mexico professor, said.

This puts Latinos in line with the rest of the nation in prioritizing things like the economy, jobs, immigration, public safety, or health care before the environment, when topics are not suggested to them.

However, if you take the same open question to a congressional district in central California, where crippling drought is hurting farms that jobs depend on, Sanchez said, the number one concern for voters revolves around the environment, global warming, and water.

This suggests that while the environment and climate change may not be a top issue for most, it can be once the effects of global warming or environmental pollution become insurmountable. This is not unique to Latinos; people largely tend to address only the most immediate problems. As studies suggest, when short term needs seem particularly pressing, the long-term is forgone.

Meanwhile, for many voters, and particularly conservatives, the environment or climate change is a non-issue at best; at worst, it is a convoluted lie that involves corrupt or alarmist scientists and special interests. One can find skeptics even among conservative Hispanics.

“I don’t think [climate change] is happening,” Faustina Franco, 57, said in Spanish in an interview with ThinkProgress. Franco, a Trump supporter from Las Vegas, does care about water conservation, and admitted she hasn’t researched global warming much; but still, the environment is not her top concern.

Franco is more worried about Obamacare, which she strongly opposes because the program raised her health care costs, she said. Franco, a kitchen manager in a school district, also opposes Clinton because of her email scandal, and the way she responded to the attack on an American diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya.

“I trust Trump more than Hillary. I think Trump is not going to betray the country,” said Franco. “Hillary is just going to continue Obama’s agenda.”

Indeed, many conservative voters like Franco say the country is moving in the wrong direction at an accelerated pace. They’re worried about jobs, security, and a perceived influx of immigrants.

At the same time, many conservative voters still see changes in climate as part of a natural cycle, not the result of a more serious, irreversible trend. According to an August study, 26 percent of Republicans are more unsure about the evidence of global warming as they were a year ago — twice as many as the percentage of Democrats who said the same.

So reluctance to accept the scientific consensus regarding climate change continues, despite study after study that shows human-caused greenhouse gas emissions are driving global warming, and that climate change is taking itstoll across the country already.

In Florida, sea level rise attributed to climate change is threatening Miami and other nearby cities. The same is happening on the coast of Washington state. Just in August, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists linked the Louisiana rains and historic flooding that killed 13 people and displaced 30,000 to climate change.

And in the Southwest, where most Latinos live, global warming is exacerbating droughts that make wildfires worse, and driving up summer temperatures to unprecedented levels. That comes as a string of record-breaking temperature months have continued in the country and 2016 is on track to be the hottest year ever recorded.

But since every part of the country experiences the impacts of climate change differently, voters feel differently about how urgent the problem may be — or whether it’s even a problem at all — experts say. And on the national political scene, the environment and climate change is largely ignored, to the point that global warming did not get a single question in any debates for the second presidential election in a row.

That lack of attention towards the environment is bound to change in swing states like Nevada, and elsewhere, as the effects of climate change intensify, said David F. Damore, professor of political science at the University of Nevada. In fact, there are already indications that climate change is becoming an unavoidable issue, as some Republicans are shifting from the notion that climate change doesn’t exist, to instead questioning whether it is indeed caused by human activity.

“At some point, everybody will have to become an environmental voter to the degree that climate change keeps affecting [us],” Damore said. “It will be one of those things… once you start getting other people participating more [in] the reality of what the potential climate disasters that are facing us, it will become a broader issue that politicians will no longer be able to ignore. The question is: Will it then be too late?”

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