Entering an election year, there’s always extra focus on voter representation. You hear phrases involving your voice, your vote, and your promised changes as candidates vie for your vote, but will they act in your best interest for years to come?  

This idea of representation and seeing if your pick acts on behalf of you and your community is something UNM Political Science Professor Michael Rocca is exploring

“I've always been curious as to why any politician, any elected official takes the stances that they do. Why do they choose particular positions and why do they take positions at all on issues?,” Rocca said. “How do they walk that fine line between saying the right thing and saying the wrong thing versus not saying anything at all? That strategy has always fascinated me.” 

In collaboration with UNM Director of Center for Social Policy Gabriel Sanchez and alumnus Lisa Sanchez, Rocca evaluates the cause and effect in Latino/Hispanic representatives and their Latino citizens. 

“This particular topic popped up because it was something that hadn't been revisited in about 20 years. It was a really important update because of the dramatic demographic changes that have happened in the last 20 years,” Rocca said. 

The research followed growing data that the more African American voters in districts, the greater respect and action came toward African-American-centric issues. Was the same occurring with a growing Latino population in Congress? 

“Our challenge back then was that there just weren't a lot of members of Congress who were Latino and were representing communities that had a really high Latino population yet. That said, populations were growing and some were doubling in size along the border in the Southwest,” Rocca said. “It was more about us taking the lessons that we've learned from other literature about women and African-Americans in Congress and on representation in general, and then seeing how much that we could apply from those literatures to the story of Latino politics and representation.” 


It’s an interesting mind game found in the results analyzed within the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda (NHLA) between 2013 and 2018. The way the House of Representatives swung in terms of Latino issues, with Latinos living in their district, was conditional.  

“There's been an ebb and flow to that. There have been times where the Latina and Latino population has consolidated behind particular issues. Then there's other times where they've diversified along that exact issue,” Rocca said. 

Members of Congress (MCs) were swayed on dedication based on party alignment, issues, and any demographic changes.  

“What we find is that there are a significant number of MCs that care deeply about Latino issues, because the Hispanic population are, in fact, driving their local economy,” Rocca said. “We’re actually seeing a significant number of MCs change their positions to be more aligned with Latino interests than we've seen before, and it's primarily because of those strong economic interests.” 

Perhaps the most significant factor in determining if Latino interests were reflected at the heart of Congress was how many Latino citizens resided where they represented. It’s logical, too, as Latinos/Hispanics are the second-fastest growing racial/ethnic group in the country– reaching a total of 58 million in 2016.    

Simply put, if your district or state all begin to desire the same thing, eventually, you’re going to have to listen to them.  

“In no way had the U.S. Congress even come close to catching up to the size of the population when it comes to Hispanic populations across the U.S. We felt like it was ripe for investigation.” – UNM Political Science Professor Michael Rocca 

“When the Hispanic population essentially is shifting from border states up further north into the Midwest and are providing labor in really important ways to large farming areas, these interests determine the economic well-being of these Republican and conservative areas,” Rocca said. 

Whether or not MC motivations are actually to listen or to ensure reelection is a different story. That’s especially true, Rocca and Sanchez found, for Republican MCs. 

“If Republicans are able to grab a significant portion of this growing population and if they're able to take positions that pull them in, then they've got a real shot at winning some really big, important elections,” he said.  

Follow-up research by Lisa Sanchez showed Republican MCs experienced pressure for adaptation starting when the Latino population in their area reached 30%. Although once that total hit 37%, MCs were far more likely to cave and act in their interests. 

“You start to see some leveling off; Republican Members of Congress moderate their positions on Latino issues because they know that Latino interests are not only just important to their own economic interests and therefore their electoral interests, but also they could become a really important voting bloc within their own district that they need to keep happy,” Rocca said.  

Democratic MCs, Rocca emphasizes, were already found to act in the interest of NHLA positions.  

“After you account for partisanship, all those differences go away, meaning that Hispanic interests are, for the most part, aligned with what the Democratic Party wants. Democrats are already representing Latino interests and Latino preferences on particular policies. it made this study even more interesting because of that,” he said.   

What’s particularly important about this growth is that it includes a district’s noncitizen Latino population. That means even though they may be ineligible to vote, they still reflect a viable change in the district and the issues at hand. The response of MCs, however, depends on what population has the majority. 

“We're seeing all across the U.S. as the demographic shifts, it threatens the traditional white populations of these middle America types of districts and states. They're typically the ones who are talking about restricting immigration,” Rocca said. “They're sensing this population shift as a threat to their own well-being, so members of Congress then respond in kind. As those numbers increase, we'll see the members of Congress then therefore become more extreme.” 

One may recall that one of the key NHLA issues at hand from 2013 to 2018 directly struck the Latino community. In addition to voting rights and healthcare reform, divisions over immigration reached a boiling point.  

“The fact that we had two very different types of presidents and two majorities during this time period adds to how robust the findings are because it's generalizable. The fact is that during the 2016 presidential election, Latino interest and Latino policies were absolutely top of mind. They were on the national agenda,” Rocca said. 

Despite Republican MCs who may have been vocal for or against ‘the wall,’ the fact is they still knew if noncitizens resided in their district. With an estimated 34.4% of the immigrants living in the U.S. during Rocca’s analysis, foreign-born Latinos are not simply a talking point in debates.  

”I will say that what was driving a lot of our paper was immigration because our paper was based on votes taken in the U.S. Congress during this time period. Without a doubt more votes were taken on immigration than any other issue of Latino interests, but when it comes to those moderate Republicans I was talking about who represent farming interests, the thing that was driving that position was all immigration,” he said. 

This study is not to say that underrepresented groups will continue to be underrepresented until there are enough of them to put politicians’ positions in jeopardy. Many representatives try to work in the interests of their citizens despite what that area looks like.   

“Latino members of Congress were much more responsive to those changes in Hispanic population than non-Latino members of Congress. That's a really important difference. For a long time, research was not finding much difference between Latino and non-Latinos when it came to voting records in the U.S. Congress.” –UNM Political Science Professor Michael Rocca 

“We found a clear difference between the two is that Latino members of Congress, their positions on Latino interests were significantly different than non-Latinos were. When it comes to how responsive they were to changes in the population and for us, that's just another argument for how important descriptive representation is,” Rocca said. 

Previous studies–some conducted by UNM professors–have shown a highly beneficial mental impact on political representation. People of color are more likely to trust the government when represented, and both people of color and women are more likely to be active in politics. With the 118th Congress being the most diverse yet, that’s good news for the ideal, equal democracy the U.S. is built upon.  

“This is the most diverse generation that we've ever seen, and it's only going to become more diverse. America is dramatically changing. We're going to look back at this time period and we're going to realize that the Republican Party and Democratic parties were going through some serious growing pains in their growing pains that were driven by their coalitions,” Rocca said.  

This is also critical to analyze at the local and state levels, especially in New Mexico.  

“That's not just where Hispanic populations are growing, but also where their descriptive representation has been improving. The only way you get to your interest in U.S. Congress is if they start filtering their way up to there, so the best way for Latino interests to be represented is not only for your populations to increase, but if you elect Latinos and Latinos into elected office and you start at the local level. Then it goes to the state level, then it goes eventually to the congressional level, which is exactly what's been happening,” Rocca said. 

While no concrete cause-and-effect relationship exists between Latino issues and their MC counterparts, Rocca and the UNM Political Science Department are holding representatives accountable to ensure their representation. 

“I love talking about representation in general. I love being able to try to figure out the extent to which any institution–a legislature, a president, a court system, whatever it might be– matches the preferences and the opinions of the people that it's meant to represent,” Rocca said. “The nature and the concept of representation fascinates me, and what we're talking about here is called descriptive representation. I'm trying to figure out all the thousand different ways that all the changing demographic patterns in the U.S. matter.”