As the percentage of the voting-age population that is Latino rises, politicians and pundits are paying closer attention to how this demographic feels about the issues. But new research calls into question whether they are getting good information.
Specifically, it finds the stated opinions of Latinos vary considerably depending upon the language used by the pollster.
"This pattern is not isolated to attitudes that directly or indirectly involve Latinos (such as immigration policy)," political scientists Taeku Lee of the University of California-Berkeley and Efren Perez of Vanderbilt University write in the journal Political Behavior. "Indeed, it emerges even in the reporting of political facts."
"English interviewees appear much less willing to abide by inequalities in life chances and much more patriotic toward the U.S. Spanish interviewees appear much more trusting of government officials, and more supportive of an active government role in solving problems."
What's more, they add, it holds true "even after statistically controlling for, among other things, individual differences in education, national original, citizenship status, and generational status."
The researchers examined data from two major datasets: the 1989-90 Latino National Political Survey, and the 2006 Latino National Survey. "We examined a large and diverse number of opinion items and found reliable language-of-interview gaps in most of them," they report.
"The most striking variations by interview language arise in perceptions of discrimination against different U.S. groups," the researchers report. "Spanish interviewees are overwhelmingly more likely to view all (ethnic and racial) groups as facing little discrimination."
"English interviewees appear much less willing to abide by inequalities in life chances and much more patriotic toward the U.S. Spanish interviewees appear much more trusting of government officials, and more supportive of an active government role in solving problems," they add.
While they offer no definitive reasons for their findings, the researchers note that survey responses may "vary by interview language because the particular social dynamic that unfolds during an interview differs between languages."
They point out that "respondents may try to anticipate what an interviewer wants to hear rather than report their true attitude. The motivation here is to avoid offending an interviewer by being agreeable."
So any claims regarding the political leanings of Latinos—or any other bilingual ethnic group—should be viewed with caution. We all know that the way a question is framed can influence the answer; it's now clear that truism also applies to the language in which the question is posed.