The future appears bright for the Democratic party, but not all that glitters is gold. The second-fastest growing demographic in America––Latinos––have been devoutly loyal to the Democratic party for as long as anyone can remember. Since 1980, Democrats have routinely counted on roughly 60% of the Latino vote, while Republicans have only received around 25-30%. As a result of this wide historical disparity, Democrats feel that they have the Latino vote locked up. They think that their progressive immigration policies will not only continue to curry favor with Latino voters, but also bring more Latinos to the country who will vote uniformly Democratic, thus propelling the Democratic party to electoral success. But the truth is that the Latino vote is not nearly as secure as Democrats think, because they do not truly understand this key demographic.
Democrats operate under the assumption that immigration trumps all other issues for Latinos, but Latino polling data tells a different story. Not only do Latinos report prioritizing issues such as the economy and health care over immigration, but it is important to recognize that there is a wide diversity of opinion and background within the Latino community, and there is no such thing as the “Latino voter.” In other words, Latinos are not a monolithic, single-issue demographic. Despite the fact that Democrats do not understand the complexities and desires of this voting bloc, they still routinely win two-thirds of the Latino vote. The question is: how?
The answer is simple: the other political party is hostile to them. Whereas Democrats stereotype Latinos as a monolithic, single-issue voting bloc, Republicans stereotype Latinos as lazy, dangerous, and threatening to American values. As a result, Latinos have by and large been turned off from voting Republican. Even though Latinos do not prioritize immigration, the rhetoric surrounding immigration is often a proxy for a discussion of the Latino’s place in America. As Aaron Bell of American University notes, Latinos react strongly when “anti-immigrant rhetoric spills over into attacks against the Latino community at large.” As a result, immigration “can be a significant wedge issue…at times when rhetoric and policy debates surrounding immigration issues are perceived to have demeaned and threaten the Latino community.” Since the Republicans speak out against undocumented immigrants––and by extension, Latinos––so forcefully, it is not hard to see why Latinos have stayed away from the GOP.
In recent history, the Republican party has tried to reconcile this relationship. After Mitt Romney––who did not exactly endear himself to Latinos––lost the presidency in 2012, the Republican National Committee released a 96-page autopsy of what went wrong. Included in this report was a nuanced strategy to win back Latino voters––“If Hispanic Americans hear that the GOP doesn’t want them in the United States, they won’t pay attention to our next sentence.” The full proposal details a plan to elevate more Latinos to positions of power and to work toward bipartisan immigration reform. Given that the Republicans’ biggest obstacle with Latino voters is their rhetoric around immigration, this seems like a fine first step. Obviously, this strategy has faced a bit of a setback in the form of President Donald Trump, but there is plenty of potential for change.
This misconception that Latinos only care about immigration has dangerous consequences for the Democratic party. This sense of security has led to complacency with the Latino vote. As many outlets have noted, Latinos’ loyalty to the Democratic party is more precarious than it seems. Specifically, President Trump’s hostility has made it very difficult for Latinos to vote Republican. However, this administration will not last forever, and if the Republicans of tomorrow soften their rhetoric against the Latino community, as they tried to do in 2012, they have an easy route to steal a sizable portion of that demographic. The vast diversity within the Latino community––69% of Latinos say that they do not share a common culture with one another––all but guarantees that Latinos will not engage in identity politics once they are not under attack. To hammer home this point, 45% of Latinos identify as moderate, compared to only 32% who identified as liberal. Unless the Democratic party can connect with Latinos by addressing their true key concerns, they are in danger of losing a crucial demographic.