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Op-Ed

Latino voters rebuked Trump and the Republicans, but they weren't wowed by the Democrats either

On Tuesday, Latinos across this country sent a message to both major political parties. They overwhelmingly rejected Donald Trump’s offensive and often threatening rhetoric, mobilizing in big numbers to rebuke him and the Republican Party at the polls. But they also showed Democrats that just stoking Latino fears and anger won’t win enough Democratic votes in the Sun Belt to overcome the power of conservative white middle-class voters in the Rust Belt.

Some pundits are disappointed at the overall Latino turnout, suggesting the sleeping giant has yet to awaken. They’re wrong. Although we don’t know the final turnout numbers, election eve survey data from the research firm Latino Decisions suggest that Latino voters exceeded a record 13 million, an increase of at least 17% over 2012.

Without the Latino vote, we might have seen an electoral landslide for Trump. Latinos helped seal Democratic victories in Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, Virginia and here in California. They also provided Democrats unprecedented support in Arizona and Texas. And Latinos helped elect several new members of Congress, including the first Latina in the U.S. Senate, Catherine Cortez Masto, from Nevada.

But in Florida, the number of Latino votes wasn’t high enough to overcome the power of white Republican retirees and rural voters. Those voters favored Trump in big margins. In addition, usually in Florida (and nationally) whites turnout at higher rates than Latinos (2012 was an exception in Florida). Even if final data show high turnout in the 2016 election, which may be the case in some Florida Latino communities, it is probable that these disparities overall will remain.     

The historical reasons for lower Latino turnout are many. Latinos are disproportionately represented within socioeconomic groups — lower income and less educated — that have real challenges when it comes to getting to the polls.  And both parties have done an abysmal job at connecting with Latinos; neither has allocated the resources necessary to bring them fully into the voting fold.  

Take the Democrats. Even though Latino voters skew overwhelmingly Democratic, the party has regularly failed to effectively engage them, often leaving it to Latino advocacy groups and local efforts to take the lead on outreach. Clinton’s team didn’t launch a significant Spanish-language ad campaign in major Latino markets, including Florida, until September, largely focusing first on reaching Latino millennials through social media. The targeted advertising that Obama used was not enlisted to the same degree.

The Clinton campaign hoped to create a Latino “firewall” using Trump’s ugly rhetoric as a rallying cry.  But the long-term work in Latino communities was missing. The focus was on just this election cycle; Clinton didn’t have Latino organizing teams in battleground states, including Florida, until May. And again, these efforts emphasized Trump and his threats about immigration; they didn’t significantly address key Latino concerns like healthcare, education and the economy. 

Make no mistake, demography is political destiny for Latinos and the nation — including Florida. The growing magnitude of the Latino population means these voters will exercise an increasingly powerful effect on the U.S. political landscape, even if their turnout rates don’t increase. By 2040, the U.S. Census Bureau projects that Latinos will be 28.6% of the total U.S. population, up from the current 17%.

In many states, the Latino population will grow at an even higher rate, including swing states such as Nevada, Colorado and Florida. As their proportion of the population in these states increases dramatically, Latinos are likely to play a deciding role in the choice for president, according to an analysis by the California Civic Engagement Project at the UC Davis Center for Regional Change.

And this high rate of growth will potentially boost the Democratic Party in elections to come. But Latinos aren’t a monolith and their loyalty can’t be taken for granted by Democrats. Florida is again a case in point: Exit poll and survey data both indicate about a third of Latinos who voted in the Sunshine State cast a ballot for Trump. Nationally, some Latinos also supported Trump but to a lesser degree. The National Exit Pool poll estimates the president-elect received 29% of the Latino vote. But this number is disputed as the poll’s methodology is recognized as inadequate for Latinos and other subgroups. The Election Eve Poll by Latino Decisions found Trump with only 18% of Latino voters.

In either case, Trump’s win may have cemented a critical problem for the Republicans. The GOP brand is now linked to his aggressive, racialized discourse about people of color and immigration. Trump will have won the presidency without attracting large numbers of Latino votes. America’s changing demographics mean that Republicans will not be able to win the presidency in the future, or even perhaps in just four years, without the Latino vote.

Republicans likely still face an internal struggle for the soul of the party, and its relationship with Latinos will be crucial in that struggle. If the GOP continues to make Latinos feel vilified, Latinos are likely to prefer the Democratic camp for years to come. 

We can already see this happening in California, where Trump and his rhetoric may have dealt a death blow to the state’s shrinking Republican Party for at least another generation. As the Latino share of the state’s voter registration rolls has increased, California has become more Democratic. Registration in the state is now only 26% Republican, securing Democratic domination of every statewide office and the legislature.    

Republicans in other states should take note, because California’s demographics offer a window into the future of our nation as a whole. If they continue to alienate Latinos — counting on low Latino turnout and on frustrated white voters to keep them in power —  the political dominance they are celebrating now, and their relevance, will be short-lived. 

Mindy Romero is a political sociologist and the founding director of UC Davis' California Civic Engagement Project.  

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