The Cataclysm that the Latino Vote Couldn’t Stop

By Eric Hershberg


Presidential candidate preference, by race or ethnicity / Pew Research Center

In unprecedented numbers, Latino voters flexed their muscles in the bitter and destructive U.S. presidential campaign, but that wasn’t enough to elect a competent but mistrusted centrist and block an erratic TV showman espousing policies anathema to their interests.  Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lost in the electoral college, which in the American system is what actually matters, but she won the popular vote by a slim margin – little consolation to Latinos.  Donald Trump and the forces that will accompany him into the Executive branch have pledged to begin efforts to deport millions of undocumented immigrants, build walls to keep Latin Americans out of the country, and reverse decades of policies meant to strengthen ties among the Americas.  The election highlighted deep cleavages in U.S. democracy:

  • An inclusive coalition of the well-educated, urban dwellers, youth, and racial and ethnic minorities lost to a bloc of angry white working-class, rural, and small-town voters rallied by a man whose behavior and rhetoric were called repugnant by leaders of even his own party. The outcome testifies to the degree to which vast segments of the American population feel ignored and denigrated by political and cultural elites and alienated by profound social changes that accelerated during the Obama administration, including shifts regarding such issues as gender and sexual identity and, particularly, racial diversity and empowerment.
  • The Trump-led “whitelash” has been largely rhetorical up to this point, but it will soon be manifested in public policies with life-changing consequences for immigrants, minority populations, and impoverished citizens. There’s a possibility that, once charged with running the country, the Trump faction will moderate on some issues, but it’s frightening to recall that no fewer than 37 percent of German voters mobilized behind an analogous cocktail of racial resentment and violent impulses in 1932.  In 2016, nearly half of the American electorate did just that, with profound implications for civil discourse, tolerance, and respect for sometimes marginalized sectors of the country’s population. If Trump’s exclusionary rhetoric becomes translated into concrete policies that diminish the country’s diversity, the U.S. will lose its status as among the most dynamic and creative places in the world.

The Latino vote was expected to be among the decisive factors that would sweep Clinton into the White House and swing the Senate back to Democratic control, albeit by the slimmest of margins.  But while it was influential, diminishing Trump’s margin of victory in reliable Republican strongholds such as Arizona and Texas, and enabling the Democrats to eke out victories in states such as Nevada, New Mexico, and Colorado, the Latino vote was insufficient to rescue Clinton’s fortunes in the pivotal states of Florida and North Carolina.  Whereas in 2012 Obama had an estimated 71-27 percent advantage among Latinos against his opponent, Clinton failed to match that total – exit polls indicate roughly a 65-29 percent split – even against a candidate explicitly targeting Latino interests.  Trump called for mass deportations of the country’s 10 million undocumented Latino residents and a rollback of the Obama administration’s efforts to provide safe haven and legal status for at least half of this vulnerable segment of American communities.  Whatever the reasons for their low participation, these communities now confront existential threats.

  • If Trump follows through on his promises, the impact will be manifested in numerous domains beyond immigration and related human rights that have profound implications for the welfare of U.S. Latinos, including the composition of the Supreme Court and its commitment to voting rights; protection against discrimination in employment, housing, and financial services; access to health care for 20 million people who for the first time gained coverage through the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”); opportunities for pre-school and tertiary education; and environmental regulations needed to protect public safety and health.

Political scientists and informed citizens must now revisit their assumptions about the impact that a growing Latino population may have on the outcome of presidential elections.  The gap separating the two parties in terms of Latino preferences is vast and increasingly consolidated, suggesting an enormous and enduring disadvantage for the Republicans.  But whether the Latino vote can become a decisive, rather than merely influential, component of the electorate is much less certain.  The anger among white voters – at least this time around – carried the day.  This “whitelash” may or may not be a transitory phenomenon, but the prospects for efforts to make the United States a force for good in the world, and to make government an agent for social and economic justice for all, will depend in large part on the future mobilization of the Latino community.  Arguably, the future of the United States – and by extension the world’s – hinges on the capacity of Latino voters to make America great again.

November 10, 2016

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  1. Chip Gerfen

     /  November 10, 2016

    A question. What does it say about the Latino voting block that a candidate who explicitly and vociferously denigrates Latinos can pull in 30% of the Latino vote? Whether or not the difference between Obama’s numbers and Hillary’s is a statistically significant difference, it is remarkable that Trump’s outrageous language did not result in a marked shift toward the Democratic candidate. More specifically, do you think that the construct of the category of Latino voter is itself sufficiently stable to talk about it in terms of future election results? Might we not arguably conceive of even more Latino voters moving politically to the right if the candidate were more palatable than Trump–say a Rubio or just any candidate whose rhetoric is not openly hostile? This piece seems to assume that there exists a sufficiently stable and homogenous Latino voting block for Democrats to mobilize in the future, but it isn’t clear to me that one can safely make this assumption, at least not in any way comparable to the reliable pattern of voting in the African American community for whomever the Democratic candidate is (with, of course, the proviso that particular democrats will affect turnout overall in the African American community).

    • Chip,

      You are right to pose the question of how one should interpret the fact that 30% of Latino voters opted for Trump over Clinton, even while he had “explicitly and vociferously denigrated” Latinos. But by analogy one could ask a similar question regarding how Trump garnered more than 40% of the women’s vote after explicitly and vociferously denigrating women. Undoubtedly some disabled Americans cast their votes for Trump as well, again despite explicit and vociferous denigration. This just underscores that how people choose to vote is a product of numerous considerations. A voter who deeply identifies with a particular party or set of policies, for example, may support a candidate who in other — less important to them — respects they find problematic. Keep in mind that an unprecedentedly large proportion of voters for both Clinton and Trump told pollsters that they were not happy with their choices and were selecting the lesser of two sub-optimal options.
      Of course, I agree fully with your comment, echoed in side messages to me from a couple of colleagues, that the Latino vote is by no means monolithic. Quite the contrary, it is strikingly heterogeneous, varying across region, country of heritage, immigration history, class, religiosity and party identification, among other dimensions. That said, in recent years both the political science literature and political commentary have for good reason identified “the Latino vote” as a growing and increasingly reliably Democrat-leaning segment of the electorate. We know through lots of high quality empirical data that how this plays out in California or New York is different from how it plays out in Texas or Florida, in part because of that heterogeneity. But we also know that in distinctive places like Florida the Latino population is becoming more diverse, and in the process is becoming more similar in voting behavior to that in other regions of the country. It is for this reason that some of the impacts that we’ve seen in places like Nevada – where immigration policy is a crucial motivator of voter preferences in ways that are not evident among longtime resident Cuban Americans or Puerto Ricans — are emerging on a smaller scale in places like Florida. So, to answer your question, the construct of “the Latino voter” is not stable and, yes, is an over-simplification, but perhaps no more so than it is an over-simplification to categorize “white college-educated” as a single category. If one accepts that aggregating voters into blocs is a useful exercise, which I think is the case, “the Latino vote” is actually a significant force in American elections and my hunch is that it will remain so for decades to come.
      Views about immigration policy vary among Latino voters as they do among pretty much every demographic group, but on the whole Latinos weigh the issue as far more important than do virtually all other segments of the electorate. This extends well beyond those individuals and groups who are directly affected by immigration policies. A number of studies have documented how this might stem in part from racial profiling, which Trump and many of his supporters have explicitly and repeatedly advocated: researchers find that in states where racial profiling has been encouraged by public policies, even Latinos whose families may have been in the United States for generations frequently express dismay over being asked to demonstrate their right to be in the country. Also, when colleagues at AU recently conducted a survey of households in the DC-metro area analyzing how people perceived their neighborhoods and their ability to lead fulfilling lives in our community, we were shocked by a couple of findings. First, the overwhelming majority of Latino residents expressed a fear that they personally, a member of their family, or a close friend, might be deported, and asserted that this affected them “a lot.” Second, our survey found that extraordinarily high levels of not only African American respondents but also Latino populations in the DC Area experience fear about the prospect of having an interaction with a police officer, despite the fact that most of these same respondents were no less likely than whites to indicate that their own encounters with DC area police had not been conflictual. Fear about immigration and law enforcement policies clearly extends well beyond the immediate universe of undocumented Latinos and affects communities of color almost universally.

  2. Chip Gerfen

     /  November 11, 2016

    Eirc, many thanks for your thoughtful and detailed response! I imagine that like many of us, this has been a week of little sleep and lots of reflection. Your point is well taken. One can challenge the construct of a Latino voting block and similarly challenge the construct of women voters as a block or white voters as a block or any other demographic construct. Clearly, we need to understand both the benefits and limitations of aggregating in this sense. One thing that I still wonder, however, about the characterization of the “Latino voter” is that apart from all of the factors that you have clearly enumerated above, the still evolving nature of the make-up of this block may also be crucial to take into account, given the ebbs and flows of immigration patterns from different locations (currently trending towards return overall, for example, in the case of Mexicans but perhaps not Caribbean Latinos). This introduces another factor of instability when trying to model the group in order to predict how the aggregate construct will behave as a voting block going forward. It will be interesting to see what happens over time, as the composition of the Latino voting block becomes perhaps more stable over multiple generations and as the Latino population in the US is potentially less affected by a continued influx of new immigrants. This is all uncertain at this point. But it seems likely to me that even if it will be useful to think of the Latino voter in aggregate terms with respect to particular issues affecting Latinos in the US, it is also possible to imagine the Latino voter becoming increasingly assimilated and less “racialized” over time (this term is itself problematic, I know) and thus less uniform/block-like in its voting patterns. In overly simple terms, the trajectory of the Latino voter may come to resemble the more assimilative trajectory of Irish or Italian voters. If so, we might find ourselves needing to refer to the constructs of college educated Latino voters, and so forth, much as we have to do if we don’t want to miss important distinctions within white voters. With regard to non-Hispanic whites, for example, the numbers published by Pew estimate that white voters preferred Trump by a margin of 58% to 37%. If we stop there, we get only a partial picture. We really don’t understand with sufficient granularity a big part of the story behind the results of this election. But it we back those numbers out a bit, we see another story emerging. Among whites without a college degree, Trump beat Clinton by a much wider margin: 67% for Trump and 28% for Hillary. Among white college graduates, Pew estimates that Trump beat Clinton by only 4%. And although Pew doesn’t break out the data ( with respect to the voting preferences of white women college graduates, Pew’s data do allow us to reasonably infer that Trump’s narrow victory among college educated whites is essentially attributable to a gender effect, with white men (but not college educated white women) accounting for why Hillary did not win the “white” vote among the college educated group. In short, the concept of white voter, from my perspective, is less than useful even if we can provide numbers for it. Rather, for “white” voters, we really need to be looking at the intersection (minimally) of race, gender, and education level in order to be able to better understand the global result of the so-called “white” vote. If I were a political party, I’d sure be doing that very carefully so that I could target my messages over the next two years! And I think it might be similarly useful and insightful to break down the Latino vote in an analogous manner.


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