Researching Hispanics
Four social scientists create the Latino National Political Survey to study and determine the public
policy preferences of Hispanics in the U.S.

by F. Chris Garcia



Photo of F. Chris Garcia by Michael Mouchette.

 Given the major hoopla produced in election year 2000 about Hispanics and their partisan and policy preferences, it might surprise many to learn that until the early 1990s almost nothing was known about the public policy preferences of Hispanics at the national level other than that Hispanics were the fastest-growing distinctive ethnic group in the United States and would become the largest group early in the twenty-first century. During the Presidential election, politicians, policy makers and the media were caught up in a frenzy of speculation about the attitudes and beliefs of this newly-significant group, even talking about the "Latinization" or the "browning" of America. Journalists, politicians, marketers, academics, educators-all engaged in much discussion, but with a small basis of factual data upon which to characterize Hispanics nationally.

To address this void, four social scientists-Professors Rudy de la Garza (University of Texas, Austin), Angelo Falcon (Institute for Puerto Rican Policy), John A. Garcia (University of Arizona), and myself-approached major survey research organizations, both commercial and academic. We requested and even pleaded with them to add a few pertinent questions to their ongoing surveys so that the attitudes and preferences of Latinos might be identified and acknowledged. To our dismay we found that the major opinion survey organizations either thought that Hispanics were not "significant" enough to include as a component of their surveys, or that they would include a larger sample of Latinos and some special questions for them, but at a very high price.

We then proceeded to contact several potential funding sources. Our first hope was to obtain a grant sufficient enough to pay a large national pollster to include some specific attitudinal questions for a larger sample of Hispanics. However, we discovered that the cost was so great that for little more expense, we could design a sample survey ourselves that would be dedicated completely to the attitudes and beliefs of a national sample of Hispanic Americans.

With a preliminary grant of $200,000 we were able to peruse all the related work previously done on the subject and hold several focus groups in Hispanic-populated large cities around the country. The research made possible by the planning grant allowed us to submit full proposals to several major philanthropic foundations. We were able to gain the financial support of the Ford, Spencer and Rockefeller foundations. Thus, the Latino National Political Survey, the LNPS, was born. By the time this major investigation was completed, we had obtained and expended more than $2 million over a five-year period. For the first time we had a national baseline of reliable, valid data on Hispanics' attitudes, beliefs, values and public policy preferences. The survey fieldwork of the LNPS was conducted in late-1989 and early-1990, and remains the best single source of extant data on the policy preferences of Hispanics at the national level. The samples of the three largest Latino national origin groups-Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans and Cuban-Americans-were drawn to represent 90 percent of the members of those three ethnic populations residing in the United States at that time.

Much of the knowledge that is currently being bandied about by journalists and politicians with regard to Latino issue positions and policy preferences has its basis in the findings of the LNPS. The Republicans claim that Latinos are natural-born conservatives but just have not yet realized it, and the Democrats say that Latinos favor the more liberal policies that activist governments have pursued since the New Deal. Of course, it depends upon what is meant by liberal or conservative ideology. The LNPS provided definitive answers as to how these three Latino groups identified themselves as liberals or conservatives. We discovered that Mexican-Americans categorized themselves ideologically about the same way as non-Hispanic whites or "Anglos." The ideological patterns of Puerto Ricans and the Cuban-Americans were distinctively different from those of Mexican-Americans. In fact, this is one of the major contributions of the LNPS-to exercise caution when generalizing about Latinos or Hispanics. We ascertained that Hispanics are an extremely diverse group along many lines, not the least of which is differences in national origin, but which also include the period of immigration into the United States; native-born or foreign-born; levels of education, income and occupation; religion; region of the country in which they reside; and many other characteristics.

Along with these demographic differences there are also variations in public policy preferences. When today's pundits, using what the LNPS discovered, say that Latinos tend to be economically liberal and socially conservative, that is generally accurate, but there are many exceptions and variations on those themes. For example, Cuban-Americans tend to be the most conservative among Hispanics on many public policy measures, such as affirmative action, but much more liberal on such items as bilingual education and civil liberties, such as freedom of speech or toleration of "disliked" groups. Puerto Ricans tend to be the most in favor of an active government providing social services for its citizens. Mexican-Americans, a very diverse group, are very much like non-Mexican-American, non-Hispanics in most respects. However, they do tend to be more liberal and supportive of such issues as bilingual education and the protection and promotion of the Hispanic culture than are non-Mexican whites.

Surprisingly to some, especially in light of pronouncements made by leaders of Latino organizations and academics, issues such as affirmative action and immigration do not rest on a consensus policy preference among Latinos, or even among Mexican-Americans. There is substantially more variation among Mexican-Americans on these issues depending upon their socioeconomic class, and their generation of immigration, as well as the region of the country in which they reside, than pundits and "spokespersons" would have us believe.

In any case, due to the fortuitous circumstances that brought about the LNPS, at a time when the nation was just beginning to realize it was undergoing a Latinization, politicians and public policy-makers are now more cognizant of this significant group of people. They are also more aware that their policy preferences need to be known and can be known.

All Americans need to be able to make their public policy preferences known to decision-makers, so that their needs, interests and wants are included in the process of politics and policy-making, which gives us the rules and public policies under which we all live. The information from the LNPS awakened many previously unconcerned or unaware leaders and decision-makers to the needs and policy preferences of a rapidly increasing and significant group of Americans. This recognition points out that no group of Americans ought to be "invisible."


F. Chris Garcia is a native New Mexican. He is the author or editor of numerous articles, chapters and books on Hispanic politics, New Mexico politics and political participation. He teaches courses in public opinion, voting behavior, campaigns and elections, and Hispanic politics. He has also served as Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and Provost/Vice President for Academic Affairs at UNM.