Turnout among Hispanics is low, but they are well worth wooing
TWO UNHELPFUL CLICHÉS, one of them loved by Democrats, the other by Republicans, haunt discussions of the Latino electorate and its power. Folk on the left see in present-day California a vision of how America as a whole will look by mid-century. They point to the moment in 2014 when Latinos overtook whites as the largest single group in the state. Then they note that the Hispanic boom coincided with the collapse of the once-mighty California Republican Party after its leaders promoted harshly anti-immigrant laws in the 1990s.
When politicians of the right talk about Latino voters, they almost invariably quote Ronald Reagan’s remark to Lionel Sosa, a campaign adviser, that “Latinos are Republicans, they just don’t know it yet.” By this, they mean that conservative church-going, entrepreneurial, family-loving Latinos are being tricked by Democrats.
As with most clichés, there is a smidgeon of truth to both. California Conservatives demonstrated their anger and alarm at the changing face of their state and duly discovered that it is hard to win elections in a state that you seem to dislike. Today’s Democratic Party is out of step with culturally traditional voters. But the clichés are unhelpful because, deep down, each is a claim that today’s parties have no need to change their policies since Latino voters will move in their direction anyway.
Recent elections should have taught both parties the opposite. Latino voters have told Republicans that immigration is a threshold issue. The polls are unambiguous. When candidates sound heartless about deportation or endorse what sounds like racial profiling, Hispanic voters are less willing to listen to what Republicans have to say about jobs, taxes or even abortion. Dealing with this will not be easy, because Republicans disagree among themselves about immigration, and because their hardliners make the most noise.
As for the Democrats, they cannot afford to be complacent. In 2012 the Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, got a derisory 27% of Hispanics’ votes after he proposed making life so wretched for undocumented migrants that they would “self-deport”. Yet even with partisan feelings running so high, less than half the 23m Hispanics eligible to vote bothered to turn out. An even smaller share voted in the 2014 mid-term elections, in which Democrats were defeated in states such as Colorado where the Hispanic vote had been touted as a Democratic secret weapon. In part, Hispanics tend to stay away from the polls because many adults are non-citizens, and those who are eligible to vote are mostly very young and have low incomes. These traits are associated with a low turnout among all ethnic groups.
The Latino electorate is also a work in progress, says Darren Soto, a Democratic state senator from central Florida, whose district is home to a sizeable chunk of the nearly 1m Puerto Ricans now living in the state. Puerto Ricans are a distinctive group because all of them are American citizens by birthright, whether they are “Nuyoricans” (as islanders who first settled in New York are known) or “puros” (the name for migrants from the US-governed island), and all can vote. For at least a decade after leaving Puerto Rico migrants remain more attached to island politics, he says, and even though they “lean more Democratic” in their instincts, their vote remains “up for grabs”.
Colorado was notable for a hard-fought 2014 Senate race in which the victorious Republican candidate, Cory Gardner, managed to sound vague but warm about immigration, which proved enough to take the issue off the table. Of those Colorado Hispanics who did go to the polls, 65-70% voted for the Democrats, says Rick Palacio, the party’s state chairman. But he worries “tremendously” that Democrats failed to rally two counties, Pueblo and Adams, full of blue-collar, long-established Hispanics, with conservative views on such issues as gun control. Put another way, they look more and more like working-class whites—which Democrats have been “haemorrhaging” in races all over the country, as an anxious Mr Palacio puts it.
Texas saw another Democratic disappointment. Ahead of the 2014 elections, youngsters who worked on Obama campaigns had flooded the state to register Hispanic, non-white and younger voters, trying to chip away at the state’s Republican majority. There was much bold talk about turning Texas into a swing state by 2020, when it is projected to be 42% Hispanic. Yet the Democrats flopped in Texas, and Republican candidates pulled in more than 40% of the Latino vote across the state.
The state’s Republican chairman during the 2014 election, Steve Munisteri, prepared by privately polling Texas Hispanics who had voted in 2012. They are socially conservative, he found, “solidly” opposing abortion. And they are centrists when it comes to the role of the state, wanting to see basic safety nets preserved, from Social Security for the old to Medicaid for the poor. Culture is as important as ideology in explaining why most of them are Democrats. Even when Hispanics agreed with Republican positions, “they felt our party was exclusive and was orientated to Anglos of upper income.”
Don’t mention the D-word
One word turned out to have the power to wreck relations: deportation. Mr Munisteri got pollsters to describe two immigration plans to Hispanic voters. One was pretty conservative, involving tougher border security and a guest-worker programme for migrants, offering no guarantee of citizenship. A majority of Texas Hispanic voters could live with that. A second proposal involved deporting all those who were in the country illegally and making them apply for re-entry from overseas. That proved unacceptable: most Hispanics, even of the third or fourth generation, know a recent arrival or undocumented immigrant. To Mr Munisteri’s relief, mass deportation was not the official policy of Texas Republicans in 2014.
Republican members of Congress, by contrast, have less incentive to worry about Latinos. Some 81% of the Republicans in the House of Representatives hold districts that are more white than the national average. Julián Castro, a Texas-born Democrat who is currently Housing and Urban Development Secretary in Mr Obama’s cabinet, and is seen as a potential vice-presidential running-mate for Hillary Clinton, reckons that “Republicans in Congress have very little practical interest in righting themselves with the Hispanic community.”
Yet as shrewd Democrats like Mr Castro acknowledge, some national Republicans pondering the 2016 presidential contest see every reason to pick a candidate who does not put Hispanics off. He or she would not need to win all their votes: securing just 40% of them could deny the Democrats several closely fought states.
Jeb Bush, a former governor of Florida and the brother and son of former presidents, is a master at promoting sternly conservative fiscal policies while assuring Hispanics that he values their presence. In 2014 Mr Bush, whose wife is Mexican, declared that many cross the border illegally as an “an act of love” for their families. Al Cardenas, a long-time Bush ally and Republican power-broker in Florida, says that Hispanics are “very instinctive”. Perfect agreement on policies matters less than “demeanour and tone”.
For now, Hispanics as a group lean strongly Democratic. But winning their votes will require more sophisticated messages as younger generations come of age, suggests Congressman Henry Cuellar. He is a centrist Democrat whose district includes Laredo, Texas, the most Hispanic city in America (it is 95.6% Latino). Older voters worry about preserving federal safety nets or social issues such as abortion, he says, but younger generations speak more English, are better educated and want to hear about solutions to hard social-mobility problems. “Per capita, we are behind in wealth. Better-paying jobs. These things are what resonates.” For too long, his own Democratic Party has “really taken us for granted”, Mr Cuellar charges, and he is right. As the Latino vote grows, both parties will have to work much harder for it.
Read more on The Economist’s special report on Hispanics:
- Hispanics: from minor to major
- Not our thing: Turnout among Hispanics is low
- Latinos in the United States: How to fire up America
- Dreaming in English: It takes just a generation or two
- College or bust: Why schooling is critically important
- Have faith in the melting-pot