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This is the year of the Latino vote

It’s been 20 years in the making — and, win or lose, it’s reshaped the Democratic Party.

David McNew/Getty

After all that — after all the rallies, the polls, the drama, the leaks, the 17 months of American public life we will never get back — the story of the 2016 presidential election might turn out to have been set way back in June 2015, when Donald Trump came down the escalator of Trump Tower and briefly referred to Mexican immigrants as murderers and rapists.

Latinos were listening.

Most of America didn’t take Trump seriously for the first several months of his candidacy. But two groups very much did. One was his fans, for whom he was breaking through “politically correct,” racially neutral orthodoxy to articulate their fears of cultural change. The other was Latinos, and Latino immigrants in particular.

But fear, anger, and frustration have colored Latinos’ views of politics and politicians for at least the past decade — and often, they simply haven’t been enough to get them to the polls. The Latino vote is sometimes referred to as a “sleeping giant”: the potential for massive power, rendered inert by voter registration and turnout rates that lag far behind white and black voters.

The growth of America’s Latino population is part of a demographic shift of tectonic scale: a force of nature. The rise of Latinos as a political force has been anything but. It’s been slow and uncertain and, above all, shaped by political decisions — by both Republicans and Democrats.

Early voting makes a serious case that the Latino “sleeping giant” is finally rustling awake. In Arizona, Latinos have gone from 11 percent of the early-voting electorate in 2012 to 13 percent this year. In Texas, Latino early voting rose 26 percent. In Florida, 152 percent.

Nevada Voters Head To The Polls During State's Early Voting Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

In North Carolina, an increase in early voting among Latinos in the face of restrictions has helped keep Democratic hopes alive in the state. In Nevada, a surge in the last few days of early voting made the state, according to state politics expert Jon Ralston, all but unwinnable for Republicans.

If that holds and Hillary Clinton wins the election, she may very well have Latinos to give a large share of the credit. But even if Latinos, in the final analysis, don’t turn out more in 2016 than in 2012 — Latinos have demonstrated that they deserve to be considered a tentpole of the Democratic coalition, and that Democratic policymakers ought to defer to them accordingly.

The giant is at very least twitching in its sleep forcefully, and it’s getting bigger all the while.

The era of the Latino swing vote is over

Twelve years ago, George W. Bush won reelection with more than 40 percent of the Latino vote. That statistic is still invoked today by people, usually moderate Republicans, who believe that Latinos still ought to be a swing vote — that even if they’re not.

Ronald Reagan once apocryphally said Latinos are “Republicans who just don’t know it yet,” but that’s probably no longer true. At this point, Latinos have been trending toward Democrats for a decade. Pollster Latino Decisions found Mitt Romney won an anemic 27 percent of Latino voters in 2012. Even in Florida — once the stronghold of Republican latinidad — Latino Republicans are now outnumbered not only by Democrats but by unaffiliated Latino voters.

In 2015, the liberal Center for American Progress simulated how the 2016 election would look in several key states if Latinos (and other nonwhite voters) voted for the Republican nominee in the same proportions they’d voted for Bush in 2004. The results: Republicans would be up by 18 points in Arizona and up by 9 in Florida. Meanwhile, Democrats’ margins in Colorado and New Mexico would be only 1 and 2 points, respectively.

That is not how the 2016 map actually looks. New Mexico is a safe state for Democrats, and Colorado looks fairly secure as well; Florida will come down to the wire, and even Arizona could be in play in a Clinton wave.

Invictus Games Orlando 2016 - Day 1 - Powerlifting Finals
George W. Bush is disappoint.
Photo by Scott Iskowitz/Getty Images for Invictus Games

Part of the shift is demographic: Latinos are a fairly young population in the US (and most of the recent growth in the eligible-voter population has come from young Latinos turning 18), and young voters tend to be more progressive.

But part of it — much of it — is the result of Republicans pushing anti-immigrant bills and turning a blind eye to issues of race and prejudice, while Democrats got over the ambivalence they’d shown during the late Bush and early Obama years to embrace the idea of becoming the party of diversity, even at the expense of white working-class voters.

Becoming a safe, low-propensity Democratic vote didn’t always benefit Latinos or Democrats

The problem for both Latinos and Democrats, though, was that Latinos have never been a high-propensity voter bloc. Consistently, from 1992 to 2012 — despite millions of dollars put into voter-registration drives during that time — the percent of eligible Latinos who signed up to vote stayed stuck at 58 percent. Even when most registered Latinos turned out to vote, the registration disadvantage stuck Latinos far behind white and black voters when it came to voter participation.

That meant that even as Latinos swung into the column of “safe Democratic voters,” Latino leaders sometimes struggled to command authority within Democratic Party politics and agenda-setting. In the states, political shifts lagged demographic ones: Democrats poured millions of dollars into Texas over the past few electoral cycles, and it remained a safely red state.

Republicans, meanwhile, benefited from anti-Latino sentiment among their party’s base — without having to suffer any electoral costs from long-fled Latinos turning out to vote against them.

The Latino population shares many characteristics with other low-propensity voting groups, like being low-income, lower-education and relatively young. Voter suppression efforts have been targeted at Latinos as well as black voters.

And crucially, Latinos who had a personal connection to unauthorized immigrants (as most of them do) had reason to distrust the party of Barack Obama, who promised immigration reform and then deported record numbers of immigrants throughout his first term. Democrats didn’t always have the infrastructure to target Latino voters effectively, and relying on community groups to bolster their efforts only worked when the community groups weren’t upset with Democrats.

“Latino” is a coherent political identity largely because of Republican attacks

I started hearing reports from Latino friends only a couple weeks into Trump’s campaign: They’d gotten a very worried call from their grandmother, they were feeling less safe than they’d felt before Trump entered the race.

That was before Trump called to deport all 11 million unauthorized immigrants and their millions of US citizen children from the US — then publicly waffled for two weeks before rolling out a detailed policy proposal that would put the fear of deportation front and center in every unauthorized immigrant’s life.

It was before he implied that a federal judge couldn’t be objective toward him because of the judge’s Mexican-American heritage. It was before a homeless Latino man was beaten with a metal pole, and the two men who beat him told police that “Trump is right”; before Trump was asked about the incident and (though he walked it back the next day) responded initially with, “My followers are very passionate.”

All of this helped Trump mobilize a core of racial populists who hadn’t been passionately energized by the Republican Party’s last two nominees. It helped him win the Republican nomination, and to retain an almost-fanatical base of support through the general election.

But it was also enough to sharpen the other side of the wedge: It heightened Latino political awareness. And despite the fact that his attacks were usually limited to immigrants (often “illegal” ones), he made Latinos writ large feel under attack.

This has happened before — in fact, many observers of Latino politics saw it coming.

California Gov. Pete Wilson, kind of eh on that “give me your tired, your poor” thing.
Jon Levy/AFP via Getty

In 1994, facing reelection, California Gov. Pete Wilson focused his campaign on state proposition — “Prop 187” — to bar unauthorized immigrants from all public services, including public school.

Wilson won the battle: He secured reelection and the proposition passed. But he lost the war. Not only was the proposition struck down in court, but he turned California Latinos into a unified, engaged, pro-immigrant political force, as USC sociologist Manuel Pastor wrote earlier this year in Dissent:

It was widely perceived as a broad attack on all immigrants and all Latinos—and it contributed to a grassroots embrace of a pan-Latino identity. […] My father always proudly and distinctively called himself a Cubano, but Prop 187 led him to declare himself “Latino” as well.

The odious proposition, which was later ruled unconstitutional, forced a generation of Mexican-American political figures in California and elsewhere to declare their allegiance to immigrant rights.

Prop 187 is widely regarded as the moment California turned deep blue, the moment that a fast-growing voter group swung decisively into the Democratic camp. It certainly was that. And while Latinos have been trending toward Democrats for a while now, Trump might have pushed his party over the edge with Latinos: Latino Decisions projections suggest Clinton will win nearly 80 percent of the Latino vote.

But Prop 187 helped create that voter group even as it pushed it leftward.

This is why, out of all the data suggesting a Latino surge in early voting in 2016 — the hours-long wait outside a Latino supermarket in Nevada on the last day of early voting, the spike in low-propensity, unaffiliated Latino voters in Florida — the most surprising outcome might be in Texas, which isn’t even a swing state. Texas Latinos, mostly Mexican-American, have been plagued by low turnout for years.

But in 2016, early voting way outpaced previous years in Texas, from Harris County (Houston) to counties on the US/Mexico border. It won’t be enough to turn the state blue this cycle, but it could give Democrats the foothold they’ve been looking for in a state they’ve struggled to crack.

A self-mobilizing Latino vote

It would be a mistake to see this as the story of a reflex: Donald Trump hit Latinos just below the knee, and they instinctively, unthinkingly kicked. Low-propensity voters who believe that neither political party cares about them don’t suddenly become high-propensity just because one party’s nominee demonstrates he really doesn’t.

What happened, instead, was a long, exhaustive, labor-intensive and expensive effort to mobilize Latinos against Trump: to, as one RNC protest put it, wall him off from the White House.

Much of this is the doing of Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic Party. From the day Clinton declared her candidacy last spring, her campaign has done very little wrong with Latino outreach.

One of her very first campaign events was an appearance in Nevada with young immigrants, in which she previewed a platform much more progressive than activists were expecting and quieted most of the concerns about her willingness to go further than Obama on an issue where many felt Obama had done too little too late. Her policy and her personnel consistently met Latino and immigrant-rights-activist demands.

She put more effort into Latino mobilization than any presidential candidate ever has. She picked a running mate who could (and, the weekend before Election Day in Phoenix, did) give a speech entirely in Spanish. Obama’s 2012 campaign hired Latino vote directors in Florida, Nevada and Colorado; Clinton’s 2016 campaign added North Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and even Ohio (in addition to targeting Latino communities in other states like Wisconsin and Nebraska).

But a strong campaign doesn’t account for all the enthusiasm being shown by Latino early voters: It can’t keep people waiting in line for hours to vote.

Members of the Culinary Workers Union Local 226 in Nevada before the final presidential debate.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty

Furthermore, quadrennial outreach efforts from presidential candidates don’t permanently mobilize voters. They don’t even, necessarily, make it any easier to turn them out to vote four years later. They certainly don’t improve turnout in midterm elections, or improve Latino political participation at the local level, or make people feel more integrated in the political life of their communities.

What the “Latino surge” has in common across many of the states where it’s been seen is this: It is, to a large extent, self-mobilizing.

In Arizona, the Clinton campaign is building on local groups’ voter-mobilization efforts to replace Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Maricopa County. In Nevada, the massive surge in early voting in Clark County, where Las Vegas is located, was largely the doing of the Culinary Workers Union Local 226, a UNITE HERE affiliate that represents about 57,000 hotel and casino workers — over half of them Latino.

The culinary union is a longtime force in state Democratic politics. But many of the members who are mobilizing on its behalf are Latino hotel maids like Celia Vargas, a Salvadoran maid at a Trump hotel profiled in a must-read article by the New York Times’ Dan Barry:

It has not been easy. Downsizing after her husband’s deportation, selling her bedroom set, moving in with her daughter and her family. Publicly agitating for the union — and for the Democratic nominee for president — and then fretting that there might be retaliation at her nonunion, pro-Republican workplace. And working, constantly working […] for a presidential candidate whose name is on the bathrobes she stocks, on the empty wine bottles she collects, on her name tag.

He will receive her labor, but not her vote.

The Latino surge may not reshape the election — but it will definitely reshape the Democratic party

The problem with extrapolating from early voting is that it is impossible to tell when high early voting just means fewer people will show up to vote on Election Day (a phenomenon called “cannibalizing” a party’s own votes). Yes, detailed breakdowns of early voters in Florida, for example, offer compelling evidence that many Latino voters there are people who haven’t voted before or who don’t vote often — meaning there’s reason to believe Democrats there are turning out more Latinos than they usually would.

It’s possible that, just like the surge in support for Donald Trump during the primaries, the Latino surge in the general election is just a group of voters who were already participating in politics and are now simply more enthusiastic about it.

Nevada Hosts Its Democratic Caucus Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

If the surge is a difference of intensity rather than an expansion of the Latino vote, it might not be enough to win Hillary Clinton the election. As my colleague Matt Yglesias pointed out last week, the white working-class voters the Democrats lost over the past decade are more prevalent in swing states than the Latinos they’ve gained. Latinos will make a difference in Florida and Nevada, but both states’ white electorates are conservative enough to make those states close, and Arizona and Texas are not turning blue just yet.

The inexorable grind of demographic change will ultimately make Latinos an important voting bloc, even if turnout stays low: 58 percent of the 27.3 million eligible Latino voters in 2016 is a bigger number than 58 percent of the 23.3 Latinos eligible to vote in 2012, and the number for this year and 2020 will be bigger yet. But when and how Latinos assert themselves will determine what power they have in politics going forward.

If the Latino surge holds, and Clinton wins the election — especially if she somehow wins Arizona — it will mark the second consecutive presidential election, and the third national election cycle out of four, where Democrats owe their success to Latinos.

Democrats may feel a renewed debt to Latino and immigrant voters, and a desire to distinguish themselves from Republicans on immigration in particular and in diversity in general. The 2016 election has seen Latinos themselves mobilizing and making demands throughout. They have taken a place as a key pillar of the Democratic Party.

Prop 187 brought a new generation of leaders into Latino and immigrant-rights organizing. It’s too soon to tell whether 2016 has done the same.

But it’s certainly given a lot of Latinos a taste of what it feels like when your community is on the line — and inspired them to show up earlier and stay longer than ever before.

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