What the GOP Doesn’t Get About Latino Voters

They care more about economics than immigration.

Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio.
To win Latinos, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio must speak to the economic anxieties of working- and lower-middle-class Americans of all ethnic backgrounds.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Jim Young/Reuters and Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

On Sunday, shortly after Hillary Clinton announced that she was running for president, her would-be Republican rival Jeb Bush tweeted, in Spanish, “Merecemos mejor que Hillary. Si usted quiere detenerla, únase ahora.” Earlier in the afternoon, before Clinton’s announcement, he’d tweeted the English version: “We deserve better than Hillary. If you’re committed to stopping her, add your name now.” Both tweets led to the same “Stop Hillary” sign-up form on the website of Bush’s Right to Rise PAC. Did large numbers of Hillary-hating Spanish speakers desperate to keep Clinton out of the White House flock to the site? I have no idea, though my strong suspicion is that the answer is no.

You might think that there’s nothing intrinsically interesting about a 21st-century American politician tweeting in English and Spanish. Hillary Clinton does the same thing. But Bush isn’t just tweeting in Spanish. He is famously proud of his fluent Spanish and his bicultural identity, and he sees his deep understanding of Latino voters as central to his pitch for the presidency. The problem is that Bush doesn’t actually get what it will take to win Latino voters. One could make the case that no Republican does, at least not yet. The only one who comes close is Bush’s old protégé Marco Rubio, who has just formally launched his own campaign for the GOP presidential nomination.

What doesn’t Bush get about the Latino electorate? Basically, he seems to believe that to win Latinos the most important things Republicans can do is embrace the idea of substantially increasing immigration levels. Once they do that, Latinos will naturally flock to a conservative message built around promoting upward mobility through tax cuts, deregulation, and entitlement reform. To be clear, this isn’t just Bush’s view. It is shared by most of the GOP establishment that is lining up behind Bush, as evidenced by the Republican National Committee’s official autopsy of Mitt Romney’s 2012 defeat. It just so happens that this view is wildly off base.

Let’s set aside the inconvenient fact that as many as 84 percent of Republicans want lower immigration levels, not higher levels, and that you’d have to win over many new pro-immigration voters to replace the old anti-immigration voters you might lose by embracing open borders. Let’s also ignore the fact that not all Latinos favor Bush’s vision for immigration reform—42 percent of U.S.-born Latinos, for example, opposed President Obama’s decision to grant millions of unauthorized immigrants a temporary reprieve from deportation, a decent proxy for more conservative views on immigration policy in general. (This is important because while Latinos represent a rapidly growing share of the U.S. population, only about half of them are eligible to vote, because Latinos are relatively young and a disproportionately large percent of them are not U.S. citizens, as Brookings Institution demographer William Frey has observed.) The truth is that most Latinos, like most other Americans, vote on the basis of class interest. So far, it doesn’t seem as though Bush will offer working- and lower-middle-class Latino voters much more than bromides about free enterprise and about how cutting Social Security and Medicare will somehow guarantee all Americans a brighter future. And I say this as someone who is generally very sympathetic to these bromides.

To understand why Latinos tend to back Democrats over Republicans, keep in mind that the median household income for Latinos in 2013 was $40,963 while the median household income for non-Hispanic whites was $58,270. Many Latinos back the Democratic Party not because they are single-issue immigration voters but rather because they support the party that fights for expanding Medicaid and other means-tested programs that aim to give low-income households an economic boost. Granted, money isn’t everything. The median household income for Asian American households is even higher ($67,065) than that of non-Hispanic whites, and Asian Americans, like Latinos, lean Democratic. Nevertheless, it seems foolish to discount the fact that Democrats appeal to Latinos in large part because they back programs that materially benefit Latinos.

Support for redistribution proved particularly salient in the aftermath of the housing bust, which had a devastating effect on Latino families. Back when Latinos were climbing the property ladder in the mid-2000s, many were receptive to George W. Bush’s calls for an ownership society. This is a big part of why Bush managed to win 44 percent of the Latino vote in 2004. When housing prices plummeted, and when millions of Latinos found themselves out of work and burdened by underwater mortgages, they were more receptive to Democrats calling for debt relief, extended unemployment benefits, and other economic lifelines. Not surprisingly, Latinos voted for Barack Obama in large numbers in 2008 (67 percent) and in 2012 (71 percent). Note that John McCain, who favored Bush-style immigration reform, and Romney, who opposed it, both fared extremely poorly with Latino voters.

And there is reason to believe that Latino support for redistribution is about more than the fact that Latino families often benefit from it; it reflects a more deep-seated pessimism about the promise of the American economy. Back in 2013, the Public Religion Research Institute released its ambitious Hispanic Values Survey, which found that 77 percent of Latinos favor increasing taxes on U.S. households earning more than $250,000 per year and that 83 percent favor raising the minimum wage. A far bigger issue for a Republican like Jeb Bush is that 72 percent of Latinos believe that the U.S. economic system is rigged in favor of the wealthy and 60 percent do not believe that hard work is a guarantee of success. This skepticism about the virtues of free enterprise helps explain why 58 percent of Latinos believe that the best way to boost economic growth is to increase government spending, and to finance this increase with higher taxes on the rich. One-third of Latinos (33 percent) believe that cutting taxes and cutting government spending is the better way to go, but these Latinos are also more likely to be U.S.-born—and in turn more opposed to increasing future immigration levels.

By all accounts, Bush is a fairly conventional supply-sider when it comes to economic policy. He might hold a personal grudge against Americans for Tax Reform’s Grover Norquist, a man who made his father’s life a living hell after the elder Bush violated his “no new taxes” pledge in 1990. Yet his substantive views on taxes are not all that different from Norquist’s. Moreover, he believes that the main thing government can do to promote economic growth is to unleash the entrepreneurial spirit of Americans and to ensure that the growth of government is contained. Simply put, Bush is out of step with how Latinos see the American economy and what they think it will take to revitalize it.

To win Latinos, GOP candidates can’t just get behind immigration reform and hope for the best. They must speak to the economic anxieties of working- and lower-middle-class Americans of all ethnic backgrounds. If Republicans believe that increasing taxes and public investment are not the best strategies for building a flourishing society that lifts the economic fortunes of the poor as well as the rich, they need to actually make an affirmative case for a more conservative approach. If Bush fails to do just that, Marco Rubio has an opportunity to steal his thunder.

Rubio’s main advantage when it comes to winning over Latino voters is not that he is a second-generation Cuban American. For one thing, less than 4 percent of Latinos are of Cuban origin while almost two-thirds (64.6 percent) are of Mexican origin, and the ethnic politics of southern Florida are profoundly different from those of southern Texas or Southern California. Rather, Rubio’s advantage is that more than almost any other leading Republican, he’s dedicated himself to thinking about and talking about how conservatives can advance middle-class economic interests. Not all of Rubio’s proposals are fully baked. His signature tax reform proposal has been criticized (justifiably) on the grounds that it’s a huge revenue-loser that promises all things to all people. Yet Rubio has pushed a number of promising ideas, like higher wage subsidies for low-income workers, a new child credit to make it easier for middle-income parents to make ends meet, and modest higher education reforms designed to steer students toward high-quality, cost-effective colleges and away from diploma mills that produce more dropouts than graduates.

Even if you believe that winning Latino voters per se is not the key to winning the presidency in 2016, as Henry Olsen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center has convincingly argued, it will be all but impossible for Republicans to win without attracting more working- and lower-middle-class voters. Whether or not Rubio’s emerging domestic policy agenda is compelling enough to win these voters—I happen to think he has more work to do—he recognizes the nature of the challenge that’s ahead of him. That puts him miles ahead of Bush and every other Republican in the field.