Memo to both Democrats and Republicans: The party that forms a durable, long-term governing coalition in this country will be the party that most fully embraces, understands and speaks to the needs of Hispanic voters. And that won’t happen simply by assuming that demography is political destiny.
Much of the coverage of the 2020 Census data released last week focused on the unprecedented decline in the nation’s White population, which since 2010 fell not just as a percentage but in absolute numbers. Yet though the overall rate of growth was slower than it’s been in decades, the overall population of the nation grew by 7.4 percent. Half of that increase was due to growth in the number of Hispanic Americans.
Hispanics now account for 18.7 percent of the U.S. population. Hispanics make up 25.7 percent of the youth population, representing 1 in 4 voters of the future.
Narrowing the political focus, in Texas — long heralded as a potential swing state — the Hispanic population grew by nearly 2 million over the past decade and Whites now outnumber Hispanics by a mere handful of residents, 11,584,597 to 11,441,717. By the time the 2024 election rolls around, if current trends hold, Hispanics will hold a small plurality in a state that Republicans must win to have any chance of an electoral college majority.
All of this would seem to bode well for Democrats, who have been winning the Hispanic vote comfortably nationwide. Yet, I see clear warning signs for Democrats (which they may or may not heed), as well as potential opportunities for Republicans (which they seem determined to ignore).
President Biden beat Donald Trump among Hispanics by a comfortable margin, 59 percent to 38 percent. Yet four years earlier, Hillary Clinton won Hispanics in her contest against Trump by a landslide, 66 percent to 28 percent. Despite all his “build the wall” rhetoric against Hispanic immigrants — whom he called rapists, drug smugglers and “bad hombres” — Trump grew his share of the Hispanic vote markedly.
In part, this reflects the fact that Hispanic Americans are not a monolith. Cuban Americans, for example, have long been more likely to be Republicans than Hispanics of other national origins. In 2020, according to an analysis by the Pew Research Center, 58 percent of Cuban Americans identified with or leaned toward the GOP — while 65 percent of non-Cuban Hispanics identified with or leaned toward the Democratic Party.
This likely means that Cuban Americans prioritized Trump’s hard line stance toward the communist government in Havana over his policies regarding the U.S.-Mexico border. And while Cuban Americans are relatively small in number compared with Mexican Americans, they are a huge voting bloc in Florida — and much more likely to turn out to vote than other Hispanics.
The result: Cuban Americans helped Trump win Florida comfortably last year, and the state looked more red than purple. The lesson: Just because demographers and political analysts group Hispanics together doesn’t mean their political values are monolithic.
Biden not only has declined to revisit the punishing sanctions against the Cuban regime that Trump put in place, but also imposed tough new sanctions against Cuban officials and institutions that participated in a brutal crackdown on peaceful protests last month. If the policy impact of sanctions is debatable, Biden’s political wisdom is not: Democrats would dearly love to put Florida back in play, and Biden’s toughness may help.
The Democratic Party also sees a golden opportunity in Texas, where Mexican Americans are by far the dominant Hispanic group. But there, too, Trump outperformed expectations with Hispanics and easily won the state. Democratic strategists urgently need to figure out why, rather than waiting around on the assumption that demographic trends will do their work for them. A swing state doesn’t only have to vacillate in one direction.
According to a study by the UCLA Latino Policy and Politics Initiative, Hispanic voters helped Biden eke out his narrow wins in Arizona, Wisconsin and Georgia — without which Trump would still be president. But the report’s authors characterized Hispanics not as an in-the-bag Democratic constituency but as a “swing electorate” to whom both parties must appeal not just with words but also with deeds.
There is a clear opportunity here for the Republican Party, if it would temper its anti-immigration rhetoric and embrace the nation’s largest minority group. Instead, the GOP continues with the short-term policy of voter suppression and harshly anti-immigrant rhetoric. The restrictive new election law that Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) wants so desperately to sign seems unlikely to deter many African Americans from voting but may have that intended effect on Hispanics — for an election or two.
Demography does not determine election outcomes, but it does shape the political landscape, if not always in predictable ways. Ignoring what Hispanic voters really want is the road to obsolescence.
Eugene Robinson writes a twice-a-week column on politics and culture and hosts a weekly online chat with readers for The Washington Post.