The looming battle over Latino voters

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Will the Latino vote be critical to this year’s presidential election outcome? In a close election, all demographics matter, of course. But whether close or not, this year will be the first time that Latinos are the largest non-white ethnic voting bloc in a U.S. presidential election.  

Although the advantage with Latino voters right now belongs to the Democratic Party, there is enough evidence of Republican growth within some segments of the Latino community to suggest a looming battle for the future votes of Latino Americans.   

Latinos are the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population, comprising more than one-half the national growth. The Latino population has grown more than 50 percent since 2000, compared to 1 percent growth in the white population. In 2008, there were 19.5 million adult Latinos who were eligible to vote. In 2020, there are about 32.0 million eligible.   

Although Latino population growth is very strong, actual political participation lags far behind. Only about 60 percent of eligible Latinos are registered to vote, compared to 70 percent of Blacks and 74 percent of whites. Latinos comprise about 18 percent of the U.S. populationyet they make up merely 13.3 percent of the electorate. In the latest presidential election cycle (2016), Latinos comprised 11.9 percent of the U.S. electorate.  

The fact that political participation by Latinos lags substantially behind their percentage of the population is explained by several factors.  

First, the Latino population is relatively young, with about one-third less than 30 years of age. Thus, in the next generation, there will likely be an explosion of Latino political participation.  

Second, many immigrants have not attained citizenship. For many others who have achieved citizenship, the custom of political participation does not immediately take hold with all. Today, about 70 percent of native-born citizens in the U.S. are registered to vote, whereas for naturalized citizens it is 54 percent.  

Third, many Latinos comprise a substantial portion of the economic underclass, the group least likely to participate politically, regardless of race and ethnicity. 

Right now, the vastly growing Latino population is potentially a serious problem for the Republican Party, which is perceived by many as the anti-immigrant party. President Trump has adopted harsh positions on immigration — positions that play well with his overwhelmingly white conservative voter base, but strongly undermines his voter appeal among Latinos.   

Nonetheless, it is not a given that Latinos vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. With skilled outreach and an appealing message, some Republicans have fared very well with Latino voters. Former president George W. Bush, for example, promoted a “path to citizenship” and rejected the harshly pro-deportation stand of many conservatives. Bush won 44 percent of the Latino vote in his 2004 reelection. By contrast, 2008 GOP nominee John McCain, who had earlier supported a path to citizenship before he moved strongly to the right on the issue in his nomination campaign, won only 31 percent of the Latino vote. Mitt Romney in 2012 fared even worse, with 27 percent of the Latino vote. In 2016, despite predictions of a major “Latino surge” in voting against GOP nominee Donald Trump, Latino turnout declined from 2012 numbers, and Trump took 28 percent of Latino voters, slightly better than Romney. 

Importantly this year, two-thirds of Latino eligible voters in the U.S. live in just five states – Arizona, California, Florida, New York and Texas – thus somewhat minimizing the Latino impact on the Electoral College outcome nationally. Yet very meaningful is the Latino component of the voting population in the three competitive states — Arizona (24 percent), Florida (20 percent) and Texas (38 percent).  

Is there any hope for the GOP with Latino voters? Should President Trump lose, the party has the opportunity to reset. But it is not clear that that will happen in a post-Trump era, as Trump may not, as he has flippantly promised, disappear from the scene but rather continue to hold his constituency to influence the future direction of the GOP. Nonetheless, the fact that in 2000 George W. Bush more than doubled the GOP share of the Latino vote attained by its previous presidential nominee, Sen. Robert Dole in 1996, shows that partisan shifts in Latino voting can happen rapidly.   

Further, Latinos may, like some other waves of immigrants to the U.S., shift somewhat to the GOP over time with increased educational opportunities and economic achievement. Latinos too are socially more conservative than whites — more religious, more likely to oppose abortion and gay rights. Latino immigrants are heavily Catholic, although the fastest-growing religious identity among them today is represented by the conservative evangelical churches. Republican positions on social/moral issues appeal more to many Latinos than do the Democratic Party’s views.   

Whether the presidential race this year is close or not, it will be powered like never before by the growth in Latino voting — a trend that will profoundly change the nature of two-party competition in the country’s future. 

Mark J. Rozell is dean of the Schar school of Policy and Government at George Mason University and co-author of the book “Federalism: A Very Short Introduction” (Oxford University Press, 2019).

Tags 2020 presidential campaign Donald Trump George W Bush Hispanic and Latino conservatism in the United States John McCain Latino vote Mitt Romney Voting in the United States

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