Column: Democrats, don’t assume Latinos will turn out to vote. And don’t count on them supporting you if they do

People vote inside the El Mercado de Los Angeles restaurant in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles on November 8, 2016.
People vote inside the El Mercado de Los Angeles restaurant in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles on November 8, 2016.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Latinos could destroy America during this election. Both Republicans and Democrats seem to think so.

The GOP more or less implies that the caravan of Central Americans winding its way up through Mexico is going to arrive just in time to cast ballots Nov. 6, throw the election to the Dems, and open up the southern border forever. The Democrats, meanwhile, are in a panic about the Latinos already here. They’re freaked out that if America’s largest minority doesn’t show up to vote Tuesday, there goes their chance to take back the House of Representatives.

The New York Times, Bloomberg, Politico, the Washington Post and other outlets have jumped on this theory. President Obama has been pleading with Latinos at public rallies to get out the vote like never before. So has America Ferrera. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has spent more than $25 million on Latino voter turnout.


I have a message for Democrats that should put them even more on edge: Do not assume Latinos will show up, despite your hard work. And don’t trust that they’ll support you even if they do.

Recent polls show the promise and peril of counting on Latinos for a Democratic victory. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Telemundo survey found two-thirds of Latinos wanted the Democrats to take control of Congress — but at the same time, 39% (!) say they approve of Trump’s policies. The Pew Research Center says 29 million Latinos are eligible to vote — an all-time high that will only grow as more “anchor babies” turn 18 — yet only 6.8 million went to the polls in the 2014 midterms. That number might go up, but likely only to 7.8 million this year, according to an analysis by the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials’ Educational Fund.

Hear that, Latinos? Time to ditch the siestas. And Dems, you need to build a better burro if you want us to ride with y’all for the long haul.

And then there’s this: Two weeks before election day, nearly half of the Latinos NALEO surveyed said they’d had no contact from Democratic campaigns or candidates.

To consolidate the political cliches, Latinos are the perpetual sleeping giant that needs to flex its muscle to ensure that the blue wave happens. And yet they don’t vote like they’re “supposed” to.

Latinos’ lack of partisan commitment drives Democrats loco. They think we should automatically side with them in the war against the nasty, nasty Republicans.


That’s unfair. Latinos are as American as any group, if not more so. Why shouldn’t we be as apathetic as gringos?

Many things keep us from Democratic fold, starting with long memories. In California, the Republican Party signed away its future with Latinos gracias to its support of 1994’s Proposition 187 — which would have turned teachers, doctors and cops into immigration agents. Nationally, on the other hand, the Democrats haven’t done Latinos any favors. The North American Free Trade Agreement, courtesy of President Clinton, helped to destroy Mexico’s economy and forced millions to migrate to el Norte. Obama couldn’t get any immigration reform passed and cracked down on undocumented immigrants in such record-breaking numbers that activists labeled him the deporter-in-chief. Jimmy Carter? Who?

Republican commanders-in-chief? Pre-Trump, they did surprisingly well by Latinos. Richard Nixon appointed more of us to staff positions than any presidente until Clinton. Ronald Reagan got millions of undocumented immigrants from my dad’s generation — including many of my aunts, uncles and cousins — citizenship through the 1986 amnesty. George W. Bush had a half-Mexican nephew and famously said that family values don’t stop at the Rio Grande. He got 40% of the Latino vote — a record for a Republican presidential candidate. McCain got 31%, and Romney 27% and Trump 28%.

So even with the GOP aboard the Trump train, more than a few Latinos will vote Republican. It’s the same pattern seen in working-class ethnic communities during the 20th century. Irish, Poles and Germans — long part of Democratic urban machines — gave the Republican Party a chance starting with Reagan. Many never looked back. Why not Latinos?

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It bears repeating: Democrats need to articulate a position beyond “Stop Trump.” And to appeal to Latino voters specifically, they can’t just double down on immigration. The NALEO results found that “protecting immigrant rights” was the most important issue for those polled, at 28% — but that barely edged out “improving wages and incomes” (27%) and “creating more jobs” (24%). Single-issue politics work to an extent — but as Latinos become an established electorate, Democrats have to do better.

The promise and peril of the Latino vote is playing out right now in California’s 39th Congressional District, which touches Riverside and San Bernardino counties but is mostly in northeast Orange County. The district is a third Latino, but Latinos make up just a quarter of its total voters. And it’s one of the much-ballyhooed congressional races that could potentially flip the House.

A New York Times poll shows Democratic candidate Gil Cisneros with a 1% lead over Republican Young Kim, with 7% of voters undecided — this, even though Cisneros has done outreach in English and Spanish to regular and first-time voters alike.

Cisneros understands the apathy, even toward Latino candidates like him. Many would-be voters “feel that candidates make promises to them on the campaign trail and don’t follow through when elected,” he said. But Cisneros says 2018 is the year that Latinos could finally “recognize their own power in our country and continue to show up at the ballot box.”

Hear that, Latinos? Time to ditch the siestas. And Dems, you need to build a better burro if you want us to ride with y’all for the long haul.

Follow @GustavoArellano on Twitter.