Latino Voters Still Up for Grabs in Midterms

Latino Voters Still Up for Grabs in Midterms
AP Photo/John Locher
Latino Voters Still Up for Grabs in Midterms
AP Photo/John Locher
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Two years ago, President Trump’s candidacy — which centered around the promise of a physical wall on the U.S.-Mexico border — was supposed to drive waves of Latino voters to the polls for Democrats. It didn’t. Turnout actually decreased slightly from 2012 among Latinos despite an uptick in the number of those eligible to vote.

Moreover, Donald Trump isn’t proving – at least not yet – to be the toxin that Democrats assumed he’d be to Hispanics voters. And he doesn’t seem to be dragging down the party’s support among the group either.

In places with large populations of Hispanic voters, such as Texas, Republican candidates seem to be faring well. A recent Quinnipiac University poll in the Senate race there showed incumbent Ted Cruz with 45 percent of Hispanic support -- falling short of Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke’s 54 percent, but still strong. Gov. Greg Abbott led his Democratic opponent, former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez, among Latinos in the state by a margin of 49 percent to 45 percent. The RealClearPolitics average in the Senate race shows Cruz up by seven percentage points while Abbott is up by 19 in the average for that race.

In Florida, several polls taken earlier this year showed Gov. Rick Scott, who is running for the U.S. Senate, either leading or in a dead heat with incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson. Both the Cuban immigrant population, known for being more conservative, and the Puerto Rican population show high favorable numbers for Scott. One poll from Florida International University in June showed the two-term governor leading among voters of Puerto Rican heritage by a 21-point margin in the net favorable ratings – this despite 57 percent of them identifying as Democrats. RCP has the race as a tie in the average of the latest overall polls.

Both sides agree that Latino support is still up for grabs to Democrats or Republicans willing to reach out and make their case to this group, which many say has still not happened in the waning days of this cycle.

“We hear a lot of rhetoric about the importance of Latino voters,” said Arturo Vargas, CEO of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. “But [candidates] are not putting their money where their mouth is.”

His group has conducted a tracking poll in the past few weeks among Latinos, asking how likely they are to vote and if they’ve been contacted by any campaign or political party. “Every single week that number has been consistent,” said Vargas. “Nearly 60 percent of Latino registered voters — so these are folks ready to vote — are not being contacted by parties or campaigns.”

When asked why that might be, Vargas said he thinks Latinos are seen as a monolithic group and that they are only given attention in certain races. The poll does show that likely Latino voters do largely favor the Democrats, which some activists say can be attributed to Trump’s abrasive rhetoric, but other polling — including a Harvard/Harris survey over the summer — shows the president making progress among this bloc. The Harvard poll showed a 10-point jump among Latinos who support the president, reported The Hill in June.

Latino leaders say there is absolutely room for Republican candidates to gain ground with their voters. Domingo Garcia, national president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, said that past GOP leaders like George W. Bush and Mitt Romney appealed to Hispanic voters. Bush won 40 percent of that vote in 2004 while Romney took about 27 percent, according to Pew Research Center.

Many Latinos “are fiscal conservatives, [they] support the military, they’re pro-life — education — those are things Republicans could use, but those things get swept aside from the language from the White House,” said Garcia.

Trump’s language describing Mexicans who illegally cross the southern border as “rapists” and his tough policy on border security have made him — and therefore his party — less appealing. Yet, he did attract 1 percent more support than Romney did among the group, which analysts attribute to some Latinos’ strong backing of the GOP agenda.

With over 29 million Hispanics eligible to vote this year — 4 million more than in 2014, according to Pew — candidates will have to find a way to engage this group. Young Latinos are a key component, but only 16 percent of this demographic turned out in 2014. Some analysts say that this year, due to Trump, young Latino voters are particularly angry -- but that anger does not guarantee votes.

A study over the summer from Democratic groups showed that Latinos wanted a clear message tailored to them from candidates and parties, according to the liberal-leaning Latino Decisions survey released to Roll Call. Of those polled, 67 percent favored Democrats but only 44 percent said they were “certain” they’d vote Democrat, while only 53 percent said they’re certain to vote in general.

“Voters have to be convinced that there is a candidate who will stand up for them, who will address the issues they are angry about,” said Matt Barreto, co-founder of Latino Decisions. “Latino voters have been neglected by politicians for a very long time, so if candidates want to earn their vote they need to work twice as hard to convince them that they are worth voting for.”

Analysts also say candidates must expand beyond immigration issues, which conservative groups are trying to jump on.

“When all [voters] know about a candidate is immigration, then [Republicans] lose, but when the GOP connects on a full agenda set, they gain advantage,” said Daniel Garza of Libre Action, the political arm of the conservative-leaning Libre Initiative. He said that his group remains engaged with Latinos even after elections to keep them civically engaged on a range of issues. “The left has a one-dimensional conversation with Latinos and it doesn’t excite them anymore,” he asserted.

One analyst in Arizona agreed and said that Hispanics should not be dismissed as single-issue voters. “The Latino vote is not monolithic and does not vote in manner that can be described as a wave or a unison,” said Stan Barnes, a former state senator in Arizona and now a Republican consultant. He added that he’s actually heard Latinos express support for the president due primarily to the booming economy.

Despite the assumptions made about this bloc, what’s clear is that Latino voters are neither monolithic nor apathetic. As this key voting group continues to grow, they will become harder for candidates to ignore or regard as single-issue voters. In an era where polarized politics seems to dominate the landscape, it appears at least some members of this group can still be persuaded by a thoughtful argument.

Sally Persons is RealClearPolitics' White House correspondent.

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