The Democrats Have a Latino Problem

Hispanic voters were supposed to be the party’s future. It’s not working out that way.

A group from Mi Familia Vota registering people to vote in a driveway.
Soraya Marquez, the state coordinator for Mi Familia Vota, and her crew hit a Puerto Rican neighborhood in July 2015 trying to get Latinos to register to vote in the 2016 presidential election. Charles Ommanney/The Washington Post via Getty Images

If the Democratic Party is to regain control of Congress or win back the White House, it will need the support of women and minorities. Almost 7 out of 10 women who are registered to vote disapprove of Donald Trump’s performance in office. The black vote will surely favor the Democratic Party as well. Only 10 percent of black voters support Trump. Then, there is the Hispanic vote. It would seem reasonable to assume that after three uninterrupted years of demonizing, ostracizing, and persecuting the country’s Hispanic immigrants, Trump and his nativist enablers would have hell to pay with Latinos at the ballot box, come November and beyond. Trouble is, they might not. Hispanic voters have become a maddening puzzle for the Democratic Party.

2016 was supposed to be the year America’s great demographic “sleeping giant” would finally awake, shaken out of its slumber by Trump’s rhetoric. Some predicted a massive “We have arrived” moment that would include a surge in voter registration and a dramatic increase in turnout at the polls. A “Latino wave,” an overoptimistic colleague told me, would come ashore and prove that Hispanic voters truly held the key to the White House.

On Election Day, the wave was merely a splash. There were certainly stories of accomplishment, like the Latino vote in Colorado and Nevada, but Hispanics did not reject Trump in the resounding, almost absolute way that, say, black Americans did. According to exit polls, Trump won 29 percent of the Hispanic vote, outperforming Mitt Romney’s tally by 2 points.

Two things have happened since then. First, Trump’s attacks on Hispanics immigrants have reached an astounding degree of cruelty. He has used the individual cases of gang members to demonize the wider population of hardworking immigrants who lead peaceful, unassuming lives in this country. He has turned the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency into a fearsome deportation machine. He has ended protection for Dreamers and separated immigrant families at the border. He has given men like Stephen Miller and Jeff Sessions free rein to execute their punitive fantasies.

Latinos have not responded in kind. While Trump was enacting his anti-immigrant agenda, Latino voters seemed to have slowly warmed up to the president. In last week’s NPR/PBS/Marist poll, 41 percent of Hispanics approved of Trump’s performance (black Americans? 12 percent).  This is no outlier. Another recent poll put Trump’s approval among Latinos at 35 percent. An average of both would put Trump—again, an overtly nativist president—within about 10 points of Barack Obama’s 49 percent approval among Hispanic at roughly the same time in his presidency.

This does not mean Donald Trump is a popular president among Hispanics. He is not. But he is not repudiated, either, not by a mile. In a recent interview with Vox, University of Southern California professor Roberto Suro explained that while Latino voters “hold negative views toward Trump,” they do so “by a much smaller margin than Democrats overall.” Suro suggests that Latinos more closely resemble independent voters rather than “a steadfast Democratic constituency.” The polls, says Suro, also dispute “the presumption that Trump’s immigration policies have alienated large numbers of Latinos.”

The fact that Donald Trump is viewed in a relatively favorable light by as many as 1 in 4 Hispanic voters should be alarming for Democrats, but it’s not even their biggest problem. That would be turnout.

Latino voters make up about 12 percent of the American electorate, with more than 27 million eligible voters. Those numbers will continue to grow in the coming years. The question is whether Hispanic turnout will increase as well. So far, it doesn’t look promising. In California, the state with the country’s largest Latino population, Hispanic turnout in this year’s early summer primaries improved in numbers that might, at first, seem significant. A study led by Hispanic vote expert Matt Barreto found double digit increases in some areas of Southern California, impressive if not for the original variable: Latino turnout during the 2014 midterms in California sat at a dismal 12 percent. At a national level, Hispanics have consistently registered lower turnouts that white, black, or Asian voters. As a matter of fact, more eligible Hispanic voters have decided to stay home rather than vote in every election since 1996. To make matters potentially worse, more than 40 percent of potential Hispanic voters are millennials, another dispirited demographic.

Hispanic apathy toward voting is no laughing matter for the Democrats, but it should be even less so for the Latino community itself. I have heard many explanations for it over the years. Perhaps, some say, Hispanics simply shun civic engagement or lack political education. Others say Latinos have deep misgivings about the democratic process after having seen it fail in their countries of origin. None of the explanations satisfy me. Most of them, frankly, anger me. Whatever the reason for its depressing lethargy may be, the Hispanic electorate must unshackle itself, even if, in extremis, it means favoring a man whose sole project has been to question the right of millions of immigrants to belong in the United States.

Whatever their preference, Latinos must vote, now. The place of our entire community within the fabric of American life depends on it.