Latino Divisions and Decisions: Where Do Latinos Stand in 2016?

by Jaime Sánchez

Latinos have taken a collective and consistent stance against the shared threat of the Republican Party and Donald Trump, but deciphering where Latino voters actually stand in the race for 2016 is a lot more complicated than agreeing on a shared enemy. Recently, a group of 24 Latino celebrities co-signed an open letter to the Latino community condemning the anti-immigrant and anti-Latino rhetoric of the Republican presidential candidates — particularly Trump, Bush, and Rubio. There is no doubt that this is a bold statement of opposition for such prominent public figures, but the consensus against the current conservative threat is definitely not unexpected. In fact, Latino politics has always operated along the lines of this kind of pro-immigrant anti-conservative rallying cry for the past several decades. The key case study to keep in mind here is the “Prop 187 Effect,” a report from Latino Decisions, which demonstrates that the Republican Party’s anti-immigrant agenda has been a consistent and highly effective point of agreement and political unity for Latinos since the 1990s — politics that is mainly reactionary.[1]

Though reactionary politics provides Latinos a shared opposition to GOP candidates for the most part, the real question is this: Do Latinos agree on which Democrat should be president in 2016? The most recent polls of Latino voters do not take into account the dramatically changing political landscape after Sanders’ unforeseen growth in the early primaries. While there is no comprehensive data on where Latino voters currently stand, each of the campaigns’ relationships with national Latino figureheads and leading activists can give us a glimpse into understanding where Latinos might stand in the early primaries. In a race between two candidates with arguably similar stances on key issues who each see themselves as left-wing progressives, the difference of appealing to the political establishment and non-establishment is even more critical for Latino decision-making.

As the long-time Democratic establishment favorite, Hillary Clinton has amassed dozens of high-level endorsements, many of which are from Latino Democrats. Of the 26-member Congressional Hispanic Caucus, 16 members — including the CHC Chair Rep. Linda Sánchez — have endorsed Clinton.[2] Other notable endorsements have come from the current and former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development for the Obama Administration, Julian Castro and Thomas Perez, who have both been early supporters of the Clinton campaign since October of 2015. Adding to Clinton’s appeal is the widespread rumor that Castro could be the top choice to become her Vice Presidential running mate — adding to the historic nature of her candidacy as not only the first a woman president but also the first Latino VP. An idea that especially resonated with the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, which in an interesting turn-of-events endorsed Castro for Vice President, but not necessarily anyone for President.

Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, appears to have a more progressive grassroots pool of Latino endorsements coming from nationally rising champions of Latino political community activism. The only member from the CHC that has endorsed Sanders is Congressman Raul Grijalva of Arizona, who was actually Sanders’ first congressional endorsement and Co-Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Another notable supporter of Sanders is Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, who challenged Democratic incumbent Rahm Emanuel for mayor of Chicago in an unprecedented grassroots campaign last year. Garcia has since gained national prominence, and though he fell short of victory at 44% of the vote; he is now vigorously campaigning for Sanders in battleground states with Latino voters. In the pivotal state of Nevada, congressional candidate Lucy Flores — whose campaign has been gaining national attention among Latinos — has also endorsed Sanders and is actively working in the state to increase Sanders’ appeal to the critical Latino electorate before the Nevada Caucus. In fact, Flores just starred in a commercial from progressive group Democracy for America, endorsing Sanders through her life story.[3]

In addition to these endorsements, both the Clinton and Sanders campaigns have made very direct efforts to elevate Latinos to key positions in their outreach operations. Clinton was swift to recruitAmanda Renteria, the first Latina Chief of Staff in the U.S. Senate and congressional candidate from California’s Central Valley, as her campaign’s political director. As for Sanders, his headline campaign appointment was is Erika Andiola, a nationally recognized immigration activist at the forefront of progressive Latino activism and immigrant rights. In fact, both campaigns have tapped into the mobilizing expertise of Latino immigrant activists and brought them into central campaign roles, but more so on the Sanders side.[4]

Despite these various political moves in terms of endorsements and staffing, there is still a great deal of uncertainty as to where Latino voters are at this point. On the one hand, the Latino political establishment (i.e. the CHC, mayors cabinet members, mayors, etc.) has largely sided with the Democratic establishment’s choice of Hillary Clinton. However, the extent to which these elected officials speak to the political preferences of everyday Latino voters is not a sure bet. Thinking about Clinton’s rhetoric of her presidency continuing the Obama legacy, we can imagine this to be a red flag for many progressive Latinos who are both unsatisfied with the Obama administration’s complicated relationship with mass deportations, and want to see a bolder progressive voice in the White House. This is a weakness that works in favor of Sanders, who frames Hillary as an establishment politician against his independent record. As for Sanders, the largest hurdle for his campaign is increasing his name recognition and personal connection with Latino communities. Compared to Clinton’s soaring fame among Latinos, and establishment endorsements, and famous Latino endorsements, Sanders will have to prove that he can make a meaningful and lasting connection with Latino voters families.

With so much at stake, we will have a clearer understanding of Latino support from the results in Nevada on Saturday, with the largest Latino population of the early primaries thus far. Trying to compete with Sanders’ connection to grassroots activists, Clinton is currently vying for support from Dreamers in the Silver State. In an effort to increase his visibility among Latinos, Sanders boosts his platform in Nevada with a rally where local leader Lucy Flores and Congressman Grijalva introduce him.[5] Both candidates have their strengths and weaknesses when it comes to courting Latino voters. But in my opinion, the implications of where Latinos stand during the Democratic primary are farther reaching.

The Democratic Party is changing fast. The Clinton-Sanders divide represents an ideological rift between centrist stability and grassroots progressivism — a division in the Party that will last longer than this election. And for Latinos, there is a decisive statement to be made on this very issue. Latinos will have to choose to play along party lines with Hillary, or, defy the will of the Latino political establishment with Bernie. There is so much on the line in the next few months and communities across the country will try to create consensus, rallying around the person with their best interests and ideals in mind. Not just choosing a candidate, but also potentially redefining the expectations of who speaks for the “Latino vote.”

[1] Damore and Pantoja, “Anti-Immigrant Politics and Lessons for the GOP from California, Latino Decisions.

[2] The CHC Hillary supporters are Representatives Aguilar, Becerra, Cardenas, Castro, Cuellar, Gallego, Gutierrez, Hinojosa, Lujan-Grisham, Napolitano, Roybal-Allard, Linda and Loretta Sanchez, Serrano, Vela, and Velazquez.