What if Democrats lose the Hispanic vote?

What if Democrats lose the Hispanic vote?
© Getty Images

A specter is haunting the Democratic Party — the specter of conservative Hispanic voters. Right now, Democrats and many in the national media are openly anticipating the possibility of Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump passes Pence a dangerous buck Overnight Health Care — Presented by American Health Care Association — Trump taps Pence to lead coronavirus response | Trump accuses Pelosi of trying to create panic | CDC confirms case of 'unknown' origin | Schumer wants .5 billion in emergency funds Trump nods at reputation as germaphobe during coronavirus briefing: 'I try to bail out as much as possible' after sneezes MORE (and what’s left of the Republican Party) being vanquished to the dustbin of history in 2020, and being replaced by a new “progressive” vision for America. The problem? Unless Democrats begin winning the Hispanic vote in overwhelming numbers, that dream is unlikely to ever become reality. And the dirty little secret is they are far from doing so.

This may sound odd, considering all of Donald Trump’s insulting rhetoric and harsh policies toward immigrant populations, particularly from Latin America. And it may sound even odder when considering all the efforts to portray Trump, and often those who support him, as “white supremacists.”

But that is where the unique and critical role of Hispanic-Americans comes into play. Democrats and their supporters are wagering their entire political future on a supposed emerging “non-white” majority of voters, which they believe will be a natural and possibly permanent constituency (along with liberal whites) for their increasingly progressive brand of governance, which includes promises of universal health care (including for illegal immigrants); aggressive gun control measures; and policies centered on racial, economic, and environmental “justice.”


However, the conventional wisdom that America is rapidly transforming into a “white minority” country is actually only true if Hispanic-Americans — by far the country’s fastest-growing demographic group — are all counted as “non-white.” But “Hispanic” is not a race — it’s an ethnicity. In fact, in the 2010 census 53 percent of Hispanic-Americans defined their race as “white.” If that trend continues, by 2060 the United States will still be roughly 60 percent white (along with about 13 percent non-white Hispanic; 13 percent black; and 9 percent Asian).

Even more troubling for Democrats, their assumption that the vast majority of Hispanics are inherently repelled by conservative politicians and policies is not being borne out by the evidence.

2018 was a stellar midterm election year for Democrats, and yet Hispanic-Americans voted for many Republican candidates in huge numbers, and indeed helped tip the scales in key Republican Senate and Gubernatorial wins in the increasingly diverse states of Florida, Texas, and Arizona. Yes, Hispanics overall voted strongly Democratic in 2018 — in some cases by more than 2-1. But 2018 also made it clear the Hispanic vote nationwide — even in the age of Trump — is very much up for grabs.

And that is what should be most terrifying for today’s Democrats. If well over 40 percent of Hispanics in some very important states are willing to vote for Republican candidates during the darkest days of the Trump era, imagine what might happen if and when the GOP nominates candidates more overtly welcoming to Hispanic communities.

To be sure, the Democratic Party has only itself to blame for this existential conundrum. As generations of Hispanic-American immigrants increasingly blend into the American mainstream, focusing (most effectively, I should add) on obtaining a quality education, a good job, and providing for themselves and their families, the Democratic left, with its fixation on identity politics, tends to typecast Hispanic-Americans as simply members of a “non-white minority” in need of all manner of government protection and programs.


This is by no means to suggest Hispanic-Americans do not often confront bigotry and other very real obstacles in America. And, like other Americans, Hispanic-Americans may sometimes require a helping hand from government. But they also embody one of the most successful immigrant stories in America’s long (if imperfect) history as a welcoming melting pot. This should not be all that surprising when considering the strong bonds of faith and family ­— along with a robust entrepreneurial spirit — that Hispanic immigrants have brought to this country. In other words, they are in many ways a natural constituency for traditional conservatism.

Perhaps it is not too late for Democrats to take a new and more productive approach in their appeal to Hispanic-Americans. But first they will need to wake up to the reality that — at least when it comes to the United States — demography is not destiny, and there are no iron laws regarding assimilation and voting patterns.

A useful analogy would be the millions of Italian-American immigrants who reached America’s shores from Southern Italy and Sicily in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many were dark-skinned (“non-white”), who practiced a different religion (Catholicism), and spoke a different language. And they certainly confronted their share of discrimination. Yet within a few generations Italian-Americans were fully integrated into mainstream American life, and began voting — sometimes for Democrats, sometimes for Republicans, and sometimes not at all. Most importantly, despite still facing pockets of discrimination, Italian-Americans are not defined by their hyphens, but by their common Americanism.

The greatest peril for today’s Democrats is that Hispanic-Americans will continue along this well-worn path of prior immigrant groups, leaving them increasingly estranged from the party’s embrace of left-progressive policies and racialized identity politics.

There is little doubt Hispanic-Americans will constitute a vital and growing swing vote for many generations to come. The Democrats are betting it all that they will continue to seize an ever-larger share of that vote. As of now, the smart money is on the house.

Stuart Gottlieb teaches international affairs and public policy at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. He formerly served as a foreign policy adviser and speechwriter in the United States Senate (1999-2003).