2018 midterms

Democrats Have a Latino Voting Problem. It’s Not New, But It’s Urgent.

Latinos didn’t turn out in big numbers to defeat Trump in 2016, despite many appeals like this one. Photo: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

In a midterm election that is essentially a referendum on the presidency of Donald J. Trump, you might figure one demographic group would be a reliable source of strong Democratic support: Latinos. Trump’s signature political message, after all, is the demonization of Latino immigrants as presumed violent criminals preying on innocent citizens and turning our cities into hellscapes; so menacing that a physical wall must be built to defend the country against them. Aside from his general contempt for Latinos, Trump’s specific policies, particularly the separation of refugee families at the border and the deployment of ICE as an aggressive deportation squad far from the border, seem designed to repel Latino voters as much as they attract voters who fear them. With Republican resistance to anti-immigrant measures melting into insignificance, a strong Latino backlash against the GOP might be expected.

Instead, less than a month before the midterms, Democrats are fretting about the Latino vote — both the percentages they will receive, and more importantly, turnout levels — as a variable that could minimize or maximize their national gains. There is plenty of evidence that Trump’s rhetoric and policies have indeed angered a lot of Latino voters. But there is counter-evidence suggesting that a durable minority of Latinos will continue to support Trump and his party, as Leon Krauze notes this week:

While Trump was enacting his anti-immigrant agenda, Latino voters seemed to have slowly warmed up to the president. In last week’s NPR/PBS/Marist poll, 41 percent of Hispanics approved of Trump’s performance (black Americans? 12 percent). This is no outlier. Another recent poll put Trump’s approval among Latinos at 35 percent. An average of both would put Trump—again, an overtly nativist president—within about 10 points of Barack Obama’s 49 percent approval among Hispanic at roughly the same time in his presidency.

That this sort of data shocks many Democrats reflects amnesia and a misunderstanding of the complexity of Latino America. Trump himself won 29 percent of the Latino vote in 2016, according to exit polls, two points more than Mitt Romney did in 2012. Roughly a third of Latino voters self-identify as conservative, and a fourth self-identify as Republicans (with more being Republican-leaning independents). And there are pockets where Republican voting habits are stronger than average, notably in Florida with its traditionally pro-GOP Cuban population, and Texas, where Republicans have worked hard to win Mexican-American votes. The fast-growing minority of Latinos who are evangelical Protestants are, unsurprisingly, more prone to vote Republican, too. And while younger Latinos are more liberal than their elders, they are also less attached to the Democratic Party.

Having said all that, Latinos remain what they have been since at least 2008: a growing and solidly (if not monolithically) pro-Democratic demographic group. But they also participate in elections at a relatively low rate. And it’s not at all certain that anger at Trump will solve the Latino turnout problem for Democrats.

The specter of Trump himself did not frighten Latinos into turning out in big numbers in 2016: according to the Pew Hispanic Center, turnout in that demographic basically stayed the same in 2016 (47.6 percent) as in 2012 (48.0 percent). More to the point, Latino turnout in midterm elections has been miserable and steadily declining (as measured by percentages, not raw numbers; rapid population growth has guaranteed rising numbers). According to Pew, the percentage of eligible Latinos voting in midterms dropped from 38 percent in 1986 to 31 percent in 2010, and then to 27 percent in 2014. In that last midterm, turnout among whites was 46 percent, and among African-Americans was 41 percent.

Why is Latino turnout so low in midterms? There are various theories, ranging from general civic disengagement and mistrust of political institutions, to the high percentage of Latinos who are millennials — another group prone to underrepresentation in non-presidential contests. Some Latino activists blame the Democratic Party for a low level of investment in Latino turnout, contrasting that with opportunistic Republican outreach efforts, as illustrated by this snapshot from Florida:

During the month that the World Cup was broadcast on Florida’s three Telemundo TV stations this summer, one advertisement stood out. It begins with Colombian, Mexican, and Brazilian fans celebrating their national teams. Over a soaring score and a snare drum, a voice cuts in: “We in Florida celebrate because we come from all over the world, and this great state is now our home.” Then Republican Governor Rick Scott appears on camera, the sleeves of his light blue dress shirt rolled up. “I’m Rick Scott,” he says in rapid Spanish. “The time has come to enjoy the games. May the best team win!”

Scott’s $700,000 investment in the ad, which aired at least once a day throughout the World Cup, reaching hundreds of thousands of Latinos across Florida, suggests that he sees their votes as a key element in his strategy to unseat Senator Bill Nelson this fall. The 75-year-old Democratic incumbent hasn’t shown the same interest. While Nelson has taken strong stances on Latino issues, he didn’t invest in any World Cup ads of his own and, as of July, had only recently begun rolling out a Spanish-language page on his web site. (Scott had had one up for months.)

The Florida Senate race is just one event where the Latino vote could be crucial on November 6, as Al Hunt recently noted:

 Of the 10 states with the most competitive Senate races, four — Florida, Texas, Arizona and Nevada — have sizable but quite different Hispanic populations. There’s a large Cuban-American community in Florida that has tended to favor Republicans, while Democratic-leaning unions play a bigger role with Nevada’s Latino voters, who are mostly of Mexican descent.

There also are up to a dozen competitive races in those four states for seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. In a few tightly contested ones, for example in Dallas and Houston, Latino voters could provide the margin to unseat veteran Republican legislators.

In California, a half-dozen Republican House seats are under challenge. In three of these districts — in the Central Valley, San Fernando Valley and Fullerton — Latinos comprise about a quarter of the voting-age population, a concern to Republicans. Around the country there are a few other districts — such as one around Aurora, Colorado, and another in the suburbs of Chicago — where a smaller Latino vote could nonetheless be decisive. In 2016, Hillary Clinton carried all these Republican-held districts.

The “midterm dropoff” problem for Democrats among minority and youth voters is not a new thing, or a minor thing; these voting categories have been under-represented in non-presidential elections for eons, but are now large enough and central enough to the Democratic coalition that the problem can be debilitating for the Donkey Party. The much greater proclivity to vote among older and whiter voters who are increasingly aligned with the GOP was a major factor in the Republican victories in 2010 and 2014. It’s entirely possible that Trump-related Republican losses among white voters —particularly college-educated women — will be so large this year that a relatively poor showing among Latinos will be of marginal concern. But in the long run, it’s a problem Democrats need to solve, particularly if Republicans decide nativism is a net electoral plus for them.

Democrats’ Latino Voting Problem Isn’t New, But It’s Urgent.