Plenty of ink has been spilled so far this election cycle examining the challenge Republicans face with Hispanic voters given the party’s presumptive nominee. With 27.3 million people eligible to cast a ballot in November, Hispanics are the country’s largest racial or ethnic group of voters, and the group’s allegiance to the Democratic Party may be key to deciding the election.
In 2004, George W. Bush won a historic 44 percent of the Hispanic vote. Twelve years later, the GOP finds itself in a historically poor position with Hispanics. Our latest Adsmovil poll shows Donald Trump pulling in just 17 percent of the Latino vote. That compares to 75 percent for Hillary Clinton. (Some 8 percent opted for “other.”)
With the potential for such an abysmal showing with Hispanics—Mitt Romney by comparison won 27 percent of the Hispanic vote—states like Florida, New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado become all the more difficult for Trump.
In reality, Latinos’ exact preferences and sentiment have become harder to discern in the last decade or so. That’s because the widespread abandonment of landlines has made polling much harder in general. The good news is that geo-targeting can restore some accuracy to polling, which will make it easier to get a read on this important but hard-to-track demo.
Language and Culture
The most obvious impediment to polling Hispanics well is language. Some 30 percent of Latinos don’t speak English well. That means polling companies ought to employ Spanish speakers, but they don’t always do so.
That’s too bad, because Hispanics aren’t as monolithic a group as they’re often portrayed. In fact, they’re quite diverse. The group encompasses some 20 national origins ranging from Mexico to South America and the Caribbean. Each brings a legacy of political behavior at home that influences the way they view politics in the U.S.
For instance, Cuban-Americans who fled Fidel Castro are, of course, known to be conservative and vote Republican. The majority of Hispanics tend to lean Democratic, though, because they believe that governments should play a greater role in correcting inequities.
That’s not the whole picture, though. Second and third generations of immigrants often differ politically from their parents and grandparents. Younger generations of Cuban-Americans identify more with the Democratic Party. Well-educated immigrants with upper-class backgrounds can also buck general trends. For instance, upper-class Venezuelans have shown a penchant for the Republican Party.
Religion is another influencing factor. Though many assume that all Hispanics are Catholic, but there are also Latino Protestants, Pentecostals and Mormons. All of these beliefs can cause them to vote differently than expected and have unexpected views on issues like gun control and abortion.
Finally, there’s race. Argentines in the U.S. are considered Latinos even though they may be grandchildren of white European immigrants. Other Hispanics in the U.S. can trace their roots to Africa and the indigenous peoples of the Americas.
The Cellphone Dilemma
While those issues make polling Hispanics a complex task, polling has grown even more difficult in recent years because of an issue plaguing the industry as a whole – cellphones. Just under half of Hispanics weren’t reachable by landline in 2012, a number that has surely gone up since then.
Cellphones aren’t as rooted to a fixed place. If someone you’re calling has an 818 area code for instance, you don’t know if they’re living in the Los Angeles area or used to live there, which complicates a geographic reading of the Hispanic vote.
The combination of inexact polling and a heterogeneous group with lots of influencing variables means that politicians aren’t reading this group as well as they could. For instance, many view Latinos as solidly liberal. But a study by Univision found that only 28 percent of Hispanics identified themselves as “liberal,” while 32 percent said they were “conservative.”
In an attempt to plumb that sentiment further, many pollsters are experimenting with new techniques. Latino Decisions, for instance, uses a randomized email sampling method to reach registered voters. Respondents are then asked if they’d prefer to take the survey in English or Spanish. Latino Decisions should be applauded for taking a different approach.
Many firms rely on cellphone-call-based polling. Because of the 1991 Telephone Consumer Protection Act, though, calls to cellphones can’t be automated. To complete a 1,000-person survey, firms may have to place as many as 20,000 calls — all executed by actual humans. As The New York Times noted in a story on the topic, “for many organizations, this is a budget buster that leads to compromises in sampling and interviewing.”
As a result, call-based polls have become less reliable. Bad polling data led analysts to underestimate the GOP surge in 2014 that led to strong majorities in both houses. This isn’t just an issue in the United States: Polls in the UK and Israel underestimated the viability of the Conservative Party and Benjamin Netanyahu, respectively. More recently, polls failed to predict Trump’s strong showing among Latinos in the Nevada primary.
Geo-targeting to the Rescue
Happily, what technology removes it can also restore. It’s easy to figure out a respondent’s physical address when they have a landline, but geo-targeting with cellphones can achieve the same end. By employing data from geo-fencing and Wi-Fi hotspots, we can discern where a person is located with precision.
Many companies use this technology to serve ads, and it also works well for political campaigns and academic research. The FIU-Adsmovil poll, for example, which was conceived and supervised by Florida International University Prof. Eduardo Gamarra, uses mobile devices to track sentiment toward the presidential candidates on an ongoing basis.
Accurate polls at the local and national level will help campaigns woo Hispanic voters in a year when issues like immigration and the economy are top of mind. Pundits have been wrong so often this election year that accurate data is required to overcome outdated biases.
Alberto “Banano” Pardo is CEO of Adsmovil, a mobile advertising network serving the U.S. Hispanic and Latin America markets in Spanish and Portuguese.