When Donald Trump barged into the Republican primary in June, calling Mexican immigrants drug smugglers and “rapists,” party leaders were horrified. All summer, pundits argued that his nativist stances would drive Latino voters away from the GOP, preventing it from challenging the Democratic coalition in presidential elections to come. As Joshua Holland wrote for The Nation earlier this month, “It’s become a political cliché that the GOP’s rhetoric on immigration is suicidal given the growing importance of the Hispanic vote.”
In time, the cliché may prove true, but not in 2016. The electoral math all but ensures that Latino voters won’t decide the general election. Instead, their most significant impact likely will be felt in the Democratic primary. In key states from Texas to California, Latinos might be Hillary Clinton’s best weapon against a surging Bernie Sanders—and her campaign strategy of late suggests that she knows this.
For years, pollsters and party strategists have talked about a ballooning Latino population that would permanently alter the face of the American electorate. The Pew Hispanic Center anticipates that Hispanics, as the youngest ethnic group in America, will account for 40 percent of the growth in the electorate between 2012 and 2030—from 24 million to 40 million eligible voters, respectively. Today, they constitute 13 percent of all eligible voters.
But at least for the moment, Hispanics probably won't make or break the general election in 2016 because of the peculiarities of our semi-democratic process.
“The Hispanic vote is very inefficiently distributed for the Electoral College,” said Sean Trende, a senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics, in an interview.
As Daniel McGraw explained in a Politico article earlier this year, “The states that have a big Hispanic population and have big Electoral College vote numbers—California, Texas, New York, New Jersey and Illinois—will not be in play in the 2016 presidential election.” Most pollsters project four of those states to back the Democratic nominee, with Texas safely in the Republican camp.
So rather than shoring up Latino support in those states, the nominees are likely to spend the bulk of their time and energy courting voters in Wisconsin and Ohio—swing states with overwhelmingly white populations.
“A half to two thirds of the Hispanic vote resides in states that don’t get attention from the candidates,” said Mark Hugo Lopez, the director of Hispanic research at Pew Research Center. “The Latino vote will be important, more important than it has been in a long time, but I don’t know if it will be decisive.”
Granted, there are a handful of swing states with larger Hispanic populations. Colorado, for example, is 21 percent Hispanic, but the state has only nine votes in the Electoral College. “In a close election, that could make a difference,” Trende said. “But states like Iowa, Ohio, and Wisconsin are where it matters.”
But it’s a different story in the Democratic primary. Hispanic voters account for about 13 percent of registered Democrats, compared to only 6 percent of Republicans. With Bernie Sanders edging closer to Clinton in recent polls, states like Nevada, Texas, and Colorado—whose primaries fall in late February and early March, and who have relatively high Latino populations—have become increasingly important.
Historically, the Latino community has been loyal to Clinton, who registered voters throughout South Texas while working for George McGovern’s campaign in 1972. During her unsuccessful bid for the 2008 nomination, she trounced Barack Obama among Latinos. In Nevada, she won 64 percent of their vote to Obama’s 26 percent. In Texas, she outpaced Obama 66 percent to 32 percent. His worst performance statewide was in Starr County along the Rio Grande River, the same area where she registered voters nearly four decades earlier. Hispanics comprise 96 percent of the population in Starr, and Clinton won it by 83-16. Those votes helped her eke out a win in Texas, breathing fresh life into her faltering campaign.
Hillary’s support among Hispanics is similarly strong this year. A July poll found that 73 percent of Hispanic Democrats support Clinton, whereas no other Democratic candidate broke double digits; Sanders had only 3 percent. And this time around, Clinton doesn’t have to worry about her main rival trouncing her with another key constituency. As The New York Times’ Nate Cohn observed earlier this year, Obama won the 2008 nomination largely because he won African-American voters by a five-to-one margin: “Without their support, he would have lost, and lost big.” But for Sanders, “there’s a big hole in his coalition: black voters.” A poll in June showed that only 2 percent of Black Democrats support him, and a poll in August found his favorability rating among African Americans at just 23 percent (to Clinton’s 80 percent). The favorability gap had narrowed slightly by September, to 65-14, but not enough to overcome Sanders’s woeful numbers with Hispanics.
And improving that number won’t be easy for the Vermont senator, who hails from a starkly white state where less than 2 percent of the population is Hispanic and barely more than 1 percent black. He has stumbled when trying to talk about racial issues. On immigration, he has suggested that immigrants are taking American jobs, telling Vox in July, “We’ve got to work… to address the problems of international poverty, but you don’t do that by making the rest of the people in this country even poorer.” That’s the same argument he made in 2007, when fought to kill an immigration reform bill: “Back then, the Vermont Independent warned that the immigration bill … would drive down wages for lower-income workers, an argument that’s been used by hard-liner reform opponents,” Politico reported.
Clinton has moved to shore up her support among Latino voters. In May, she embraced Obama’s executive actions to protect undocumented immigrants from deportation. As early as June, Clinton already had 12 staffers in Nevada recruiting volunteers for outreach to Latinos. Last week, her campaign announced that it would begin a major push to organize Latino voters for the Nevada caucuses and the primaries in Texas, Florida, and Colorado. Clinton spent last Friday in South Florida. Her campaign has events scheduled in San Antonio and Las Vegas. According to Reuters, Clinton is planning to use the first Democratic debate next week as a launching pad to host house parties “geared at garnering support among Hispanics.”
Sanders’ campaign is only just now starting to look beyond Iowa and New Hampshire to put boots on the ground in the Super Tuesday states that have larger minority populations. If and when he manages to set up a campaign apparatus focused on courting Latino voters in Super Tuesday states, it will come months after Clinton began to make inroads in the Hispanic community there. That, combined with his immigration stance and general lack of appeal to Hispanics, may well doom his attempt to win the party’s nomination.
“Barack Obama was young. He was nonwhite. He was incredibly charismatic. And he didn’t appeal to Hispanics,” Trende says. “I find it hard to see a white guy like Bernie Sanders having more appeal.”