The Cataclysm that the Latino Vote Couldn’t Stop

By Eric Hershberg

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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