If You Are Wondering Why Latinxs Are Still Voting Republican, You Aren’t Asking the Right Question

Why can’t Democrats get more than 65% of the Latinx vote despite Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and embrace of White nationalists?

Prior to Donald Trump winning the 2016 Presidential Election, the conventional wisdom was that Trump would get significantly less than 27% of the Latinx vote that then-Republican candidate Mitt Romney won in 2012. In the 2008 Presidential election, John McCain won 31% of the Latinx vote. Both Romney and McCain never used the bigoted anti-immigrant and anti-Mexican rhetoric that Trump used to win the White House. However, after the 2016 election, the Pew Research Center found that Trump won a higher percentage of the Latinx vote than Mitt Romney. Trump got 28% of the Latinx vote, which is also about the same amount Republicans appear to have received nationally during the 2018 Midterm elections. Before and after the midterms, journalists have been asking: How are Republicans STILL GETTING CLOSE TO 30% of the Latinx vote?

Just look at some of these headlines:

The national media narrative has asked, “why aren’t Latinxs outright rejecting Trump like the Black community?” Quite frankly, that’s an uninformed question to ask.

You should definitely listen to and read these media pieces to get a sense of the different theories on what is going on with the Latinx vote and how Democrats and Republicans are responding to the data. I should note that there are competing narratives and data regarding the Latinx vote and the impact of the investment in voter outreach. (In contrast to the Pew Center, polling firm Latino Decisions found Republicans lost 5% of Latinx vote previously won by Trump.) However, here are some key points to take away:

  1. There was a significant increase in Latinx voter turnout during the 2018 Midterms, which helped flip congressional seats in several states.
  2. However, despite the increase in voter turnout, Republicans still earned a significant amount of the Latinx vote in battleground states like Texas and Florida. Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz and Republican Gov. Gregg Abbott won 35% and 42%, respectively. (Yes, a white man received a larger percentage of Latinx votes than Ted Cruz).
  3. While the Republicans have ignored the Latinx community in their voter outreach, Democratic outreach was uneven. About a month before the November 2018 elections, 60% of Latinx registered voters reported that they had never been contacted by a political campaign in 2018.

The national media narrative has asked, “why aren’t Latinxs outright rejecting Trump like the Black community?” Quite frankly, that’s an uninformed question to ask. Why aren’t we asking why Democrats can’t get more than 65% of the Latinx vote? Shouldn’t the pressure be on Democrats to go out and get the vote?

I was curious as to what some of my friends had to say on this- I reached out and had a Facebook conversation with political campaign experts Patricia Campos-Medina, President of the Latinas United for Political Empowerment PAC and Board Member of PODER PAC, and Roberto Frugone, Northeast Regional Director of the NALEO Education Fund. Here is a transcript of our conversation, slightly edited:

Rudy: Personally, I think a lot of the recent media completely ignores what advocates have been saying- Latinxs are not monolithic and each subgroup has significantly different political histories from their country of origin to the way they immigrated here. We also don't have a sense of a united national history the way African Americans do. Political campaigns can’t target Latinxs the same way.

Patricia: Your insight is right on point. Up to President Obama and before Trump, there was a 50–55% percent split on how Latino voted nationwide. This made us a vote that both Democrats and Republicans could win, especially in states like New Mexico and Nevada. After Trump, we lean more toward Democrats, but not as close as the African American community. The reasons mentioned in this article, plus what you said about our countries of origins has a lot to do with it (i.e.. Cubans and Nicaraguans lean Republican because of the foreign policy history of their migration). But the other issue that many don’t get is that we have 11 million people (with many being young children, as well as 800,000 DACA holders, 300,000 TPS holders) that are mostly Mexicans and Central Americans, Haitians and Africans immigrants without access to citizenship rights. They don’t have any prospect of ever having the right to vote for a Republican or a Democrat. Therefore, it is easy to attack them because they will never be a liability to any political party as long as our country doesn’t legalize them. The older Latino voters (i.e. Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Cubans) are more integrated into American society so their concerns are economic. They do not just respond to attacks against immigrants. Puerto Ricans respond more to the attack against Latino culture more than just against immigrants. Doing outreach to Latinos is more nuanced than just saying “Trump doesn’t like Latinos.”

Roberto: Agreed. I would only add that too few Latino voters are engaged by candidates or political parties in the first place. Creating a culture of voting is not automatic or a passive effort.

Rudy: I think creating a culture of voting is huge. I cringe every time I hear “yo no me meto en la politica.”

Patricia: That culture develops in the US when no one asks them to vote, ever. In Latin American countries, there are high voter turn-outs up to 90%. So it is not an innate culture — Latino voting patterns are conditioned by the fact that the “power holders” in US political parties would rather not have our people voting. Therefore, it is our job to build political power for our base. “Yo no me meto en politica” is code word for “I don’t know how that is relevant to my life.”

Roberto: Also thinking long term, if people are told that one election is the most important and then they don’t see the change they were promised right away, it discourages them to continue voting. We need to be realistic and clear that the effort takes time and consistency. We also need to celebrate victories that do exist rather than dwell on one seat. For example, in 2016 we gained a Latina US senator in Nevada and a Puerto Rican congress member in Florida. Latino votes matter everywhere. They did and do make a difference.

Rudy: I was going to say that say that one political party definitely embraces voter suppression as a campaign tactic, but I think that’s really naive of me to blame just one considering election day is still happens on a workday and voting is non-compulsory. In many Latin American countries, election day happens on a Sunday and it is compulsory. None of the US political parties have changed this. Also, with 6 out of 10 Latinxs in the US being under 35, developing a culture of voting and developing knowledge capital regarding power is really important. I’m 32 and have a graduate degree- it wasn’t until the last three years that “the long term” clicked for me. I now have to mention that part to everybody when I talk about voting- it’s not a single action- it’s part of a process to get change done. A friend once told me it takes at least 20 years for significant power change in a local election.

As Roberto mentioned, creating a culture of voting for Latinx communities cannot be a passive effort. Trump and Republicans know they don’t have to do much outreach to the Latinx community because historically Democrats have not invested in building the culture of voting necessary to get more than 65% of the Latinx vote. Furthermore, as Patricia also mentioned above, outreach to Latinxs voters is more nuanced than just saying “Trump doesn’t like Latinos.” For example, Massachusetts Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley invested in a Latinx outreach strategy that paid off. She engaged with Latinx communities in her district by not only talking about abolishing ICE, but also creating a pathway to permanent residency specifically for TPS holders and providing emergency housing for Puerto Ricans affected by Hurricane Maria. If Democrats really want to get Trump out of office, they have to 1) actually make the effort to reach Latinx voters and 2) figure out how they can start talking to them as Latinx communities and not just one group. And if they are fortunate enough to get their vote in 2020, Democrats can’t walk away feeling accomplished. They have to do the hard work and actively engage the Latinx communities on national, state, and local levels in promoting civic engagement. The numbers clearly show they aren’t doing enough.