President Donald Trump has done almost everything he can to anger Latino voters. And yet, his support among this crucial portion of the electorate remains surprisingly consistent. After the 2016 election, exit polls analyzed by the Pew Research Center showed that 28 percent of Latino voters supported Trump; today, 30 percent support him.
This percentage may not seem high. But consider what the number means for the Democrats: Displeasure with the president over the past three years has not led to an increase in support for the opposing party.
Democrats lost the 2016 election with about 66 percent of the Latino vote. Today 65 percent of registered Latino voters who are Democrats have a positive view of the party’s presidential candidates. Based on exit polling from the past three election cycles, I estimate that Democrats need about 70 percent of this vote to take back the White House.
Having worked at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus during the Obama administration, I am firmly aware of the power of the Latino vote, and so I have been watching these numbers with alarm. When Democrats reach out to Latino voters, they are too focused on immigration, and say too little about other issues these voters prioritize. If they want to win over enough Latino votes to retake the White House, Democrats must continue to fight for the immigrant community, but they must also offer a positive, aspirational narrative that embraces Latinos as a vibrant part of America.
In an election that will likely come down to the smallest margins of victory, the consistent support for Trump from a small, but vocal, subset of Latino voters is a real threat to Democrats. If unchanged, this dynamic could have devastating repercussions for Latinos, and for the country as a whole.
The president’s treatment of immigrants at the border is inhumane and wildly unpopular with Latinos. And yet, his support among this voting bloc is not cratering. In fact, he enjoys more support from this electorate than Mitt Romney did in 2012, and about the same level that John McCain did in 2008.
Being able to provide for one’s family is one of the main reasons many people—from any country—immigrate to the United States, so the fact that Trump’s rhetoric on a growing economy has found an audience is not surprising. In Florida, for example, a poll by Equis Research showed that 57 percent of Latinos supported the way the president handled the economy. If you look at only Cuban voters from the state, that number jumps to 71 percent.
Another important point: Latinos are not one monolithic voting bloc. I was born in El Paso, Texas, and grew up in Tucson, Arizona, a son of Mexican American parents. My family’s political priorities are different from those of, say, Cuban American voters in Florida or Puerto Rican voters in New York.
Yet the ideological differences are even more stark across generations. As a third-generation Mexican American, I am right on the cusp of an intergenerational rift. Though I firmly identify with both my immigrant and American heritage, I am more American than Mexican. Identity is complicated, though. I have childhood friends who are Mexican American, whose families have lived in the U.S. for generations, who no longer identify with their Mexican heritage.
According to a Pew Research Center report, “The closer they are to their immigrant roots, the more likely Americans with Hispanic ancestry are to identify as Hispanic.” Complicating matters further, the report notes, “a long-standing high intermarriage rate and a decade of declining Latin American immigration … are distancing some Americans with Hispanic ancestry from the life experiences of earlier generations, reducing the likelihood they call themselves Latino.”
First- and second-generation American Latinos have strong ties to their immigrant heritage. However, the third generation only self-identifies as Latino 77 percent of the time. By the fourth generation or after, only half of U.S. adults with Latino ancestry say they are Latino.
These voters no longer align their cultural identity with immigrants, and immigration as an issue is less important to them. The vitriol the White House directs at immigrants does not move those who support Trump.
The majority of Latinos, however, do support the Democrats. The party has not only done an excellent job of highlighting the atrocious immigration record of the Trump administration; it also offers a strong platform and record on the economy, health care, and education, the issues about which these voters care most. However, Democrats don’t do enough to speak directly to Latino voters about these issues, even though the Latino unemployment rate declined more than 7 percent under the previous administration and the Affordable Care Act has tremendously benefited the community.
Reaching Latino voters requires a prioritization of time and money. Fernand Amandi, the lead polling consultant on messaging and media for the Latino vote on the 2012 Obama campaign, told me: “After the 2010 midterms, Barack Obama realized that he was not going to win his reelection with a higher share of white voters than he did in 2008. He also realized he had reached his ceiling of support with black voters. In 2011 he spent a year doing research on what would resonate with Latino voters. Early in 2012, he went up on Spanish-language media, defining himself to this community.”
To reach Latino voters, campaigns have to pitch their candidates using English- and Spanish-language television, radio, and digital advertisements.
Out of the current slate of Democratic candidates, for example, only Pete Buttigieg and Joe Biden have gone on both Al Punto with Jorge Ramos and Noticias Telemundo with José Díaz Balart. Furthermore, while all of the top contenders have Spanish-language websites, not all of them took the time to make sure the translations were correct.
Democrats must invest more deeply in turning out Latino voters, and work with national and local grassroots organizations that are already doing amazing work in these communities. If they hone their message, Democrats might be able to sway enough Latino voters to win.
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