Jose Nelson Romero has been waiting for more than a decade to cast his ballot in an American election.
Romero, originally from El Salvador, became a U.S. citizen in 2014. As he’s done in previous years, this election cycle Romero is helping organize voters on behalf of CASA In Action, the political arm of CASA, a Maryland-based organization that focuses on Latinos and immigrants. Romero is supporting Hillary Clinton, who he believes will protect immigrants in the United States, and though he answers for himself, he appears to speak for many in the Latino community, particularly when it comes to Donald Trump. “Mas si claro vamos a votar contra de Donald Trump,” Romero told me. Translated to: “Of course we’re going to vote against Donald Trump.”
The 39-year-old Fairfax, Virginia resident is one of many Latino voters in the state backing Hillary Clinton this election. The Democratic nominee is ahead in the state, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average. And yet, neither candidate has very high favorability ratings. A Washington Post / Schar School poll released this week found 60 percent of likely voters view Trump unfavorably, compared to Clinton’s 57 percent. Virginia, as Mark Rozell, the dean of the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government put it, “is still in play.”
Clinton’s support among Latinos, which make up 9 percent of the state’s population and account for about 5 percent of the state’s voters, could make the difference. Across the country, the Democratic nominee has held a commanding lead against Trump among Latino voters. An NBC / Wall Street Journal poll from October found her holding a 50-point advantage over Trump. That may not come as a surprise: Throughout the election, the Republican nominee’s inflammatory rhetoric against immigrants has alienated Latinos.
But in a divisive election, with a Republican candidate that’s largely unpopular among Latinos, is Clinton’s support genuine? In Virginia, it would seem to go both ways, with some Latino voters backing her enthusiastically and others seeing her as the lesser of two evils.
CASA In Action has rolled out efforts over the last few months to reach Latino voters in Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, and measure their support for Clinton, whom they’ve endorsed. “We’re targeting infrequent voters, first-time voters,” said Luis Aguilar, advocacy and election specialist for CASA In Action. “You have to have longer conversations with them.” Since August, the group has been canvassing several days a week.
Jennifer Romero and Anika Rahman are among the paid canvassers. I rode around Sterling, Virginia with the two on a sunny Sunday morning this month. It was an average day for Romero, 19, and Rahman, 23. They’ve been knocking on doors around northern Virginia for weeks.
Romero is soft spoken—except for when she’s distinguishing between Democrat LuAnn Bennett, who’s been endorsed by CASA In Action, from her opponent, Republican Representative Barbara Comstock. Canvassing takes on an unique meaning for Romero, who is a DACA member and can’t vote. She came to the United States when she was 4 years old and has high aspirations, principally becoming an FBI agent. But above all, Romero is unwavering in her determination to encourage voters to turn out on November 8. Rahman shares her motivation since she, too, is unable to cast a ballot as a legal resident. “I’m not allowed to vote, but I’m allowed to have an opinion,” she told me.
While their efforts are not solely focused on Latinos, in Sterling Latinos account for 35 percent of the population. Romero and Rahman moved from house-to-house, up and down streets, on Sunday, handing out flyers and diligently taking notes on their iPads as they went.
“If they take a flyer, it’s a good indication they’re voting for Clinton,” Rahman said. That was the case with 28-year-old Sterling resident Fredy Arearblo, who called Clinton “the best” candidate. “(Hillary Clinton) tiene más cosas que nos conviene a los Hispanos,” Arearblo said. Translated to: “Hillary Clinton has more things that help Hispanics.”
Aguilar noted that Trump’s remarks about Latinos this election cycle has made the choice between candidates clearer. “It’s almost common sense,” he told me. In Virginia, CASA In Action has been canvassing in Fairfax County, Prince William County, and Loudoun County. “We’ve seen more support (for Clinton) in Loudoun,” Aguilar said. Latinos make up nearly 14 percent of the population in Loudoun County, compared to 22 percent in Prince William County and 16 percent in Fairfax.
Ashburn, Virginia resident, Xavier Calderon, is a Republican (though he backed Obama in 2008), and is supporting Clinton this year. “I think that the Republican Party left me as a Hispanic Republican,” Calderon, 42, told me. “There’s certain morals that are important to me and one of those is being pro-life. When it comes to it, you put it on scale, I think that I just cannot vote for this gentleman.” He added: “He’s insulted illegal immigrants. I was born in the United States...but the fact that those are my people that share the same second language that I speak, I find it very racist, discriminating, and divisive.”
Republicans have struggled with Latinos in the last decade, a steep fall from 2004 when George W. Bush won over 40 percent of their votes. A Pew survey from 2014 found that “half of Latino registered voters say the Democratic Party has more concern for Latinos than the Republican Party.”
The GOP had hoped to make inroads with Latino voters after the 2012 election when Mitt Romney garnered only 27 percent of the Latino vote, compared to Obama’s 71 percent. “We are not a policy committee, but among the steps Republicans take in the Hispanic community and beyond, we must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform,” the party’s post-2012 autopsy report read. “If we do not, our Party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only.” Those efforts not only fizzled out, this year the Republican Party has nominated a candidate who has proposed a “deportation force” to remove 11 million undocumented immigrants from the United States.
Xiomara Rivas, 25, is a paid canvasser for CASA In Action, who originally backed former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, until he dropped out of the race. “I personally don’t like Hillary,” Rivas told me. “I feel like she flip flops a lot. But at this point, I see her as the lesser of two evils.” She conceded having a female president might “encourage young women.” “People will look up to her and that’s also a good thing,” she added.
The Latino population in the United States is young, which means they’re likely to make up a larger share of eligible voters in the future. According to the Pew Research Center, Millennials make up roughly a quarter of Latinos in the United States, while Latinos younger than 18 make up 32 percent. Combined, the two groups account for roughly half of the population, making it the youngest ethnic group in the United States. Latino voters also undervote relative to their proportion of the population, with higher educated and Cuban-American voters far more likely to turn out than those without a college degree. National Review’s Tim Alberta spelled out the implications of an increasingly diverse electorate on the GOP: “Several once-safe Republican states now lean Democratic in presidential-election years, when voter turnout, especially among minorities, is higher than in off-years.” That appears to be the case in 2016, as Latino voters, in particular, appear to show increased interest, according to Latino Decisions, which projects an uptick in turnout of up to 14.7 million Latinos.
In 2012, the majority of Latino voters in Virginia—and across the United States—backed Obama. But nationally, their participation has historically lagged behind black voters and white voters. That makes their role in the 2016 election uncertain.
Voting in 2016 may be principally driven by anti-Trump sentiment—at least among younger Latino voters. Sixty-four percent of Millennial Latinos say they’re backing Clinton “as more a vote against Trump than a vote for Clinton,” according to the Pew Research Center, while a majority of older Clinton supporters simply like the candidate. Even so, it’s unclear how many Latinos will turn out and vote. Sixty-nine percent of Latino registered voters said they’re “absolutely certain” they’ll vote, down from 77 percent in 2012, according to Pew.
On the night of the first presidential debate in September, there was a surge in Google searches for the term “registrarse para votar,” which translates to “register to vote” in English. The spike marked a new high for the search term in the United States. Voter groups have attempted to capitalize on this, rolling out efforts catered to Latinos to encourage turnout. Virginia is no exception.
Walter Tejada is a member of the Latinos con Hillary Virginia Steering Committee, a group that has been canvassing in the state since after the Democratic National Convention. Tejada expects to see high turnout for the Democratic nominee, but he’s hesitant to rely on polls showing Clinton leading in the state. He cited Mark Warner’s race in 2014. “Mark Warner was supposedly running way ahead in the election a couple of years ago and when the votes were counted, his margin of victory was much too uncomfortable… We do not take things for granted.” It’s frustrating then for Tejada to see little resources allocated by the Clinton camp to mobilize Latinos voters in the state. “We need to make voting part of our tradition,” Tejada said.
For his part, Romero plans on getting the necessary rest to come into Election Day fresh. “Hoy que tengo la oportunidad, no la voy a desperdiciar,” he told me. Translated to: “Now that I have the opportunity, I’m not going to waste it.”