The Guardian: Democrats overlook the elusive Latino vote at their peril

November 1, 2018
By: Amanda Holpuch & Tom Dart

Each election cycle, Democratic pundits and politicians fantasize about the elusive Latino vote – but time and again, the party fails to get the estimated 27 million Latino voters to substantially turn elections in their favor.

Heading into the 2018 midterms, the Democrat’s Latino problem appears to persist, even against a Republican party led by Donald Trump – who routinely insults Latinos and implements harsh anti-immigration policies.

This is because anger is one thing; and actual votes, another.

Stella Rouse, who has written books on Latino and millennial political power, said in general, Latino voters are more likely to vote Democrat and consider immigration an important issue – but that doesn’t automatically send people to voting booths.

“The biggest misconception is that Latinos are monolithic and that they are single-issue voters and that if a big deal is made about immigration on either side, that’s what’s going to matter to Latinos,” said Rouse, an associate professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland.

Add to that low turnout rates for Latinos and the picture gets more complicated. Since 1996, the number of eligible Latino voters who didn’t vote in presidential elections has eclipsed how many did, according to Pew Research Center.

What does matter, Rouse said, is mobilization efforts. Latinos respond to direct calls to vote but they don’t seem to be getting them from the Democrats, who need them to vote, or the Republicans, who would probably benefit from a low Latino turnout.

Seven weeks before the midterm elections, six out of 10 Latinos surveyed nationally said they had not been contacted by a candidate or political party to register to vote, according to the polling firm Latino Decisions. “They are not just going to come out because they are angry,” said Rouse.

On a couple of small streets in a majority-Latino neighbourhood in Houston, more than a dozen “Beto” signs were visible on neatly-kept front lawns. Texas Democrats are hoping that the high profile and energetic Senate campaign of Beto O’Rourke, a Spanish-speaking congressman from the border city of El Paso, will galvanise turnout.

But signs don’t equal votes either. One elderly man sat on his front porch, a Beto sign a few yards away in the grass. “A stranger put it there,” he said through a translator. He is not able to vote but thinks his daughter might. “I haven’t really talked to my daughter about it, I don’t know who she’ll vote for,” he said.

Nearby, a middle-aged man who gave his name as Rolando declined to reveal who he will vote for, but said he and his family are especially motivated this year. “We need some changes,” he said. Asked if he is noticing a greater focus locally on this election than in previous cycles, he agreed: “I think they’re trying to use the rights they have.”

Cristina Tzintzun, the program director of Jolt, a group that aims to enhance the political impact of Latino Texans, said polling in Texas also showed many Latinos had not been contacted. “Those signs are troubling given that Latinos are such an important part of the electorate and the best way that’s proven to get Latinos out to vote is by talking to them on their doorsteps and having real conversations with them,” she said.

According to a Pew study, 10.4 million Hispanic people lived in Texas in 2016 – 19% of the US total and second only to California. It found that 39% of Texas residents are Hispanic – but only 28% of eligible voters are Hispanic because less than half of Hispanic Texans are eligible to cast ballots, compared with 79% for the state’s white population.

Jolt is one of many groups in Texas pushing get out the vote efforts ahead of the midterms and she said personal contact is crucial. “Jolt has knocked on the doors of 40,000 Latino voters already this election and most people said that we were the first people ever to reach out to them,” she said.

The Houston headquarters of Mi Familia Vota is a bricks-and-mortar testament to the growth of Texas’s Latino population. Tucked in a corner of a giant indoor building next to a department store called Latino City, Spanish-language muzak drifted into an office festooned with colourful posters urging citizens to head to the ballot box.

The mall opened in the 1960s to cater to a largely white clientele, but as demographics changed it rebranded in 2010 as PlazAmericas to appeal to Hispanic customers.

Originally from Mexico, Carlos Duarte, 46, is the Texas state director for Mi Familia Vota, a not-for-profit group which seeks to boost civic engagement among Latino people. He said that by the time the polls close, the group’s canvassers aim to have knocked on 15,000 doors in Houston.

Will it be enough? Latino interest in the 2018 midterms is slightly higher, according to Pew research published last week. There was a 14% increase in Latino registered voter interest in the 2018 midterms compared with the 2014 midterms, Pew reported.

And this year, there are more Latinos running for office than ever before.

Rouse said: “The projection is that it’s going to get better as we have second, third, fourth generation Latinos who are born here and are exposed to some of these things much more so than immigrant families or first generation Latinos have been.”