Assistant Professor of Political Science Angela X. Ocampo studies how and why people talk to a neighbor about an election, cast a ballot, or even run for office. A feeling of belonging is one of the most important indicators of participation in politics, Ocampo says. When people belong, they are more likely to engage. Ocampo investigates the political participation of the Latinx population across the country and in Michigan—complex, nuanced work, because the population is both very diverse and very under-researched. Ocampo talked with LSA about her research on how the Latinx population may participate in the 2020 presidential election, the most vital issues for Latinx U-M students who are first-time voters, and why belonging matters.
Ocampo first brought her work to LSA as a Collegiate Fellow in 2018, joining the National Center for Institutional Diversity (NCID) program that seeks to recruit and retain faculty who are experts in their fields and have an academic interest and commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.
LSA: What does "belonging" mean in the context of political participation?
Angela Ocampo: Belonging is about perceptions. Perceptions that people feel about membership and inclusion within a larger group, as well as the perception that their membership and belonging is recognized and valued by others outside of their group. Within the greater U.S. continent, Latinx people tell more stories of when they felt they did not belong than about belonging. And colorism plays a role here too: People with darker skin tones within the Latinx population report lower perceptions of belonging and report experiencing more microaggressions than lighter-skinned Latinx people.
And this is all super consequential because of the link my research finds between whether or not people feel they belong and whether or not, or to what extent, people participate politically. Belonging matters. And what’s really interesting is that perceptions of belonging can shift and change. Seeing one’s experience reflected, for example, in having Latinx representation in political office or having a Latinx teacher in school, is might sometimes be enough to move that perception of belonging and could affect political participation. So, I’m very interested in what’s happening in the Latinx community psychologically.
LSA: Can you describe the ways that Latinx people participate in the political system here in Michigan, and the significance of Latinx voters in the upcoming presidential election?
AO: The Latinx community is very diverse, and pundits and academics focus a lot of time on what factors lead to Latinx participation in politics. They keep reverting to the idea that threat is a mobilizer, which is true to a point. The Latinx community has been under attack these last four years, and it’s true that they participated in the 2018 midterms at high levels. I’d argue that the issue is more nuanced. While threat may be a mobilizer, there are other factors that mobilize the Latinx community, and there’s a certain point at which threat might stop mobilizing, and might lead to withdrawal instead. What I’m seeing as more significant is the factor of perceived belonging.
In many places where the vote is going to be close, like Texas, for example, the Latinx vote, as the largest minority block, is poised to have a huge impact on the outcome. Texas could very well turn blue this year or very soon, and that’s due to the Latinx vote. Think about El Paso, which was hit by racist violence last year. They have mobilized not simply because of threat, but because of the strength of the Latinx community there and the desire to show that we are part of the country, that we belong, and that this is our home.
The Latinx community in Michigan is very much understudied and taken for granted. It’s not as sizable as the communities in California or New York or Texas, and so it has been, for the most part, ignored. However, the Latinx community is very significant. In the 2016 presidential election, for example, the Latinx turnout in Michigan was about thirty-six percent. But if it had been at least forty-four percent, and everything else was constant, Clinton would have won the state of Michigan. Eighty-eight percent of Michigan Latinx voters are U.S. citizens by birth—a bigger share than those who are naturalized citizens. This is different than Florida and California for example, where so many more voters are naturalized citizens. There’s also this misconception that the big issue for Latinx voters is immigration, when really there are so many other issues that matter to Latinx voters, like healthcare, the economy, and jobs, all of which are impacted by the current administration’s response to COVID, which affects Latinx people disproportionately. Twenty-five percent of Latinx people nationwide know someone who has contracted COVID, and this is galvanizing them to vote. Parties and national organizations have not paid a lot of attention. It’s really been up to universities to reach out to the Latinx community.
LSA: Let’s talk about Latinx students at U-M and what their political engagement in this election looks like. You recently worked with La Casa, a U-M Latinx student group, to create the La Casa Student Voter Initiative to mobilize youth voters and inform students about the 2020 presidential election. What issues matter most now, and what might Latinx student voter turnout be like?
AO: Youth voting is, on average, abysmal. So abysmal, in fact, that it surprises students when I talk to them about it. It’s hard to tell, but I do remain hopeful that Latinx students will turn out to vote in force. One of the biggest barriers is lack of access to information. Students need to know how to register, how to vote from outside of their home state, and, of course, how to vote safely in a pandemic. Being a student in a pandemic is already very difficult. So we’ve got to make it as easy as possible. La Casa’s Student Voter Initiative, which I participated in as a consultant, focused on getting this information out to students and talking about what’s at stake by providing information about voter registration, emphasizing the polling place at UMMA as a convenient spot on campus to drop off ballots, and debunking misinformation about mail-in voting and the voting process. Students are also researching and writing articles on the issues in an email newsletter called the Latinx Pulse, which also goes out on La Casa social media.
For many Latinx students, this is their first election. They’ve been experiencing the assault on their community for the last four years, they’ve been organizing on campus and becoming politicized at a time of great immediacy. They’re becoming voters at a moment when everything—even wearing a mask in response to a pandemic—is politicized.
So, on one hand, youth turnout was lower in the 2020 primary than in the 2016 primary. But this year, the primaries happened as the pandemic broke, and our students were scrambling. Right now, I’m seeing young Latinx voters getting energized about issues that have long been ignored: college costs, racial injustice, the climate crisis. There’s a lot at stake here, including the stability of our democracy. Issues of representation and the election are at the forefront of their minds. When students feel like they belong on campus, that their heritages and their cultures are celebrated and recognized, they are more likely to engage in this work. Now, more than ever, Latinx students are feeling that they are part of a community at U-M, as well as part of a sizable Latinx community at U-M. That’s something to be hopeful about.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
This story is part of a series highlighting the research of LSA Collegiate Fellows, a program of the National Center for Institutional Diversity (NCID) at the University of Michigan. The LSA Collegiate Fellows is one of the most unique and innovative programs in higher education, recruiting and retaining faculty who are experts in their fields and have demonstrated commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion through their scholarship, teaching and/or engagement.