In 2016, the Latino backlash to Donald Trump was the other shoe that never dropped.
After Mitt Romney’s defeat in 2012, many Republicans (including a certain reality-television personality) had concluded that their party’s indulgence of nativism was politically unsustainable: In a country with a rapidly expanding Latino population, a major party simply could not compete on the national stage while pledging to imiserate “illegals” into “self-deportation.” The Republican National Committee implored their party to embrace a pathway to legalization for the undocumented, and Sean Hannity echoed their call. The GOP donor class began dividing its affections between two pro-immigration Floridians — one a handsome young Latino senator, the other a former governor with a Mexican-American wife and children.
And then Donald Trump announced that Mexicans were “rapists,” that the “illegals” had to be deported, and that the wall would be built — and the GOP base named him their standard-bearer.
As the Republican nominee stumbled toward the general election, defaming Latino federal judges and beauty queens along the way, operatives on both sides of the aisle prepared for a spike in both Hispanic turnout, and in the demographic support for the Democratic Party — only to find, on November 9, that both were nearly unchanged since 2012 (and that, if anything, Trump had actually done slightly better with Latinos than his more subtly xenophobic predecessor).
Twenty-one months into the presidency of a man who calls immigrants “animals,” developing countries “shitholes,” and neo-Nazis, “very fine people,” the story remained the same: Polls of the 2018 midterms registered no great spike in Latino voting enthusiasm, or support for Team Blue. In fact, in the Florida governor’s race, the Republican candidate counted the state’s Puerto Rican community (whom the Republican president had viciously disrespected in the immediate aftermath of a mass casualty hurricane) as a source of strength.
But now — less than two weeks before the midterm ballots are tallied — there are growing signs that the GOP might finally pay a price for its Faustian bargain with Trumpian bigotry.
On the eve of the 2014 midterms, just 35 percent of Latino voters told Pew Research that they were paying “quite a lot” of attention to the upcoming elections; the latest Pew poll puts that figure at 52 percent. Meanwhile, 55 percent of Hispanic voters say they are “more enthusiastic” about voting in this year’s midterm than they have been in previous years.
And only a small minority of those voters are excited to cast a ballot for the party of Trump. According to Pew’s data, two-thirds of Latino adults say the Trump administration’s policies have been harmful to Hispanics; half have serious concerns about their “place in American society” now that Trump is president (up from 41 percent in 2017); 55 percent say they are worried that either they, a family member, or friend could be deported; 69 percent disapprove of Donald Trump; and 63 percent of registered Latino voters prefer Democratic congressional candidates to Republican ones, up from 57 percent in 2014.
Many of this year’s most competitive House races are in districts with sizable Latino populations. This fact — combined with the steady growth in the Latino voting-eligible population over the past two years — means that, if Pew’s findings are accurate, Democrats are all-but guaranteed to win a House majority with seats to spare (and have a good shot at winning tight Senate races in Nevada and Arizona).
And recent district-level polling lends credence to Pew’s report. The last batch of polls from the New York Times and Siena College shows Democrats gaining ground in a number of Latino-heavy congressional districts in California, Florida, and Texas.
This apparent spike in Latino voters’ enthusiasm and support for Democrats could still prove illusory. But it isn’t all that hard to tell a plausible story about why we might be seeing a Latino backlash to Trumpism now, despite its previous failures to materialize. A significant number of voters only tune into politics in the closing weeks of election campaigns. Over the past month, white, non-college educated voters’ enthusiasm about the elections has ticked up, and now Latino enthusiasm is following suit.
As for why Latino voters might take an even dimmer view of the GOP now than they did in 2016: During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump focused the bulk of his nativist appeals on the (supposed) scourge of illegal immigration. But once in office, many of his administration’s most consequential policies have hurt immigrants who had been legally residing in the United States. Between his cancellation of the Deferred Action for Early Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, and revocation of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) from Central American and Haitian immigrants who had been living in the U.S. for decades, President Trump has attempted to take the legal right to reside in America away from 1 million of our country’s longtime residents.
The Republican Party’s best hope for retaining both the loyalty of its reactionary white base — and a competitive coalition in national elections — in the coming decade is that Hispanic-Americans will assimilate into whiteness (and thus, turn rightward), like Irish, German, and Italian immigrants did before them. The great fear of GOP operatives after 2012 was that their party’s recalcitrant nativism would arrest that process by reinforcing Latinos’ sense of belonging to a minority group in a country dominated by a Caucasian majority that does not see people like them as fully American. Donald Trump has done just about everything in his power to confirm that impression. According to Pew, Latino voters got the message — and, on November 6, they intend to send one of their own.