Democrats have long taken Latino voters for granted as a natural voting base.
In 2012, 71 percent of Latino Americans who voted in the presidential election picked President Barack Obama over rival Mitt Romney. In 2008 the percentage was only slightly lower, at 67 percent.
That’s largely because many of the issues that Democrats champion — open immigration policies, access to health care, generous social benefits — align with the priorities of Latino voters. But more than half of Latino Americans also regularly attend church, where the Pew Research Center reports they are likely to hear conservative social messages on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. Their religious affiliation has long given Republicans hope they would make inroads with Latino voters on social issues, though so far that hasn’t proven to be the case.
But this year the GOP is hoping that with two young Latino candidates leading in the polls, more Hispanic voters will be swayed.
One recent survey suggests the Republicans might be making the right bet
The survey, conducted by two political polling firms in July and August and released in cooperation with Univision, suggests that Latino voters might be more willing to shift allegiances than previously thought. Of the Latino voters between 25 and 54 years old sampled in the survey, a whopping 55 percent identified themselves as neither "strong Democrats" nor "strong Republicans," who reliably vote along party lines.
The researchers call this sizable group "persuadable voters." In the past, 61 percent of Republican-leaning persuadable voters have crossed over to vote for Democrats, while 41 percent of Democratic-leaning persuadable voters have cast ballots for Republicans.
Those numbers suggest that the Hispanic vote is more up for grabs this year than many strategists assume, a point the researchers are quick to promote. "Despite historic voting patterns, Democratic candidates cannot assume they will automatically receive the Hispanic vote in 2016," David Binder, whose firm co-authored the survey, said in a press release.
In a set of focus groups conducted alongside polls, the researchers found that the persuadable voters they interviewed paid more attention to individual candidates than party identification, which could be particularly beneficial for candidates like Rubio and Cruz.
But Republicans shouldn’t celebrate just yet
The major flaw in the survey’s findings is the basic assumption that people who don’t identify strongly with any political party switch regularly between voting for Democrats and voting for Republicans. That’s largely a myth, as Vox’s Ezra Klein explains: Voters who style themselves "independent" end up reliably voting for one party or the other anyway. So people who are now telling focus group moderators that they care more about the individual candidate over his/her political affiliation are not accurately representing their voting patterns.
What’s more, many more of the respondents the survey labels "persuadable" lean left than right. Fully 28 percent of respondents fall on the left end of "persuadable," compared with 11 percent who lean right. (Fourteen percent identified with neither party.) Taken with the 34 percent who identify as strong Democrats, the findings still ultimately portray a pretty sizable advantage for Democrats.
It’s also worth noting that the results we’re now discussing are based on polls and interviews conducted more than three months ago. Since then, Republican candidates have made a whole host of xenophobic comments, ranging from continuing anti-immigrant and anti-refugee rhetoric to an all-out ban on Muslims entering the country. Though much of the most recent vitriol hasn’t actually been directed at Latinos, it reinforces the perception that those in "outgroups," or those unlike the typical Republican voter, are not welcome in the GOP.
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