Both Democrats and Republicans have long harbored big dreams about Latino voters. Now, as California gets set for its first seemingly influential presidential primary in decades, the dreams of both parties may not be coming true.
Here are their high hopes: Democrats in California and elsewhere want Latino voting rates to climb ever higher on the assumption those voters will always lean their way and guarantee victories next year and beyond. Republicans dream that Latinos will eventually shift their way as more Hispanics move from the Roman Catholic church into evangelical Christian denominations that emphasize what are loosely known as “family values,” including opposition to abortion and a stress on heavy punishment for crimes.
If there was ever a year when Democrats figured to see the percentage of Latino votes move strongly in their direction, it was 2018. In fact, Latino voting numbers were up both in California and nationally last fall, with more than 40 percent of eligible Hispanics casting ballots. Their added numbers aided in the Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives, especially in California, where Democrats flipped seven formerly Republican congressional districts.
That increased turnout was in part the result of President Trump’s immigration policies, which led to detention of many asylum seekers and separating more than 5,000 children from their parents, a tactic judges later ruled illegal.
But the proportions of Latinos voting Democratic and Republican remained pretty static, right about where they’ve been since the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, when Ronald Reagan ran first for California governor and then for President.
Reagan always won about 36 percent of Hispanic votes, peaking at 39 percent in 1984 after bottoming out at 33 percent in his last run for governor in 1972.
Last year, after Trump repeatedly called Mexican immigrants criminals and rapists, seizing on occasional major crimes by undocumented immigrants, 32 percent of Latinos voted Republican, according to Associated Press VoteCast data collected by the University of Chicago. That’s not much of a change in percentage over the last half century.
Other surveys and exit polls had similar numbers for Latino voters.
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This disappointed Democrats and relieved Republicans, who have long feared they might face almost unanimous opposition from the nation’s fastest-growing ethnic group.
As usual, the Republican Latino vote came largely from evangelicals who made up one-fourth of all Hispanic voters last fall and from military veterans who comprised 13 percent of Latino votes. There was some overlap between the two categories, but the final numbers suggest Republican support among these two groups came in at about 90 percent.
That’s slightly higher than the proportion by which African-American voters – the single most reliable part of the Democratic voting coalition – usually votes that way.
Frustrated Democrats can’t understand why more Latinos are not offended by Trump’s frequent Twitter tirades against immigrant “caravans” and his family separation policies. Their puzzlement grows when they see polls showing immigration is by far the most important issue among Hispanic voters.
Some suggest Democrats should expend as much effort and money to win over the one-third of Latinos who persistently go Republican as they did while winning four formerly Republican congressional seats in Orange County last year.
But Democrats have long taken Latino voters for granted. Meanwhile, Republicans want to maximize whatever Hispanic votes might be available to them. Example: Steve Frank, a longtime Republican activist, blogger and campaign manager based in Ventura County, suggested while running for GOP state chairman this winter that his party should stage vote-harvesting parties in evangelical churches everywhere in California, making sure their conservative-leaning congregants vote and that their ballots are collected and filed.
But both parties may find their frustration continues indefinitely, because no tactic yet tried has caused Latino voting preferences to change much over the last 50 years, even while the number of Latinos voting has vastly increased. It all suggests that only something dramatic can ever break these longstanding voting habits and preferences.