What Do ‘Latino Voters’ Want? the GOP Seems to Know.

Melina Mara/The Washington Post
Women organized by Mi Familia Vota, a national civic-engagement nonprofit, decorated their cars with a “get out the vote” theme in preparation for a parade en route to an early voting location in Las Vegas on Oct. 24, 2020.

Is there such a thing as “the Latino voter”?

My father, a Peruvian, was something of a Republican, even when he wasn’t yet a citizen of the United States. For the first 15 years of my parents’ marriage, in Peru, he was mostly concerned with the careening allegiances of his own countrymen: the gaping divide between the elites and the poor; the wild, destabilizing vacillation between right wing and left wing in Latin America; the perpetual pendulum swing between oppression and revolution.

When my parents immigrated to the United States in the 1960s, looking for better opportunities for their children, they arrived as a sea change was afoot. The country had drifted from the rose-colored complacency of the 1950s; it was no longer the sparkling Arcadia my American mother had promised. The United States we encountered had embarked on a Cold War, committed civil rights atrocities that made a mockery of the American Dream, endured a slew of grisly assassinations, and experienced a radical change in the color of its immigrants.

The gaping divide between the two political philosophies in the gringo mind-set now became a regular theme at our Summit, N.J., dinner table.

“What exactly is the difference between a Republican and a Democrat?” my father asked. For him, a man who had lived through the vicissitudes of Peruvian politics, the separation between liberals and conservatives in his own mind was stark – more like the difference between a communist revolutionary and a hidebound military dictator.

“Well,” answered my mother, a descendant of generations who firmly believed in American exceptionalism, “a Republican believes in family, education, hard work, opportunity, individuality, the freedom to succeed on one’s own, the freedom from government interference and the conviction that a sturdy belief in God makes the rest possible.”

That was all it took.

Jorge Arana Cisneros may have been a conservative by way of Latin American Catholicism and values, but he was by no means a ready-made Republican. He had always been a lover of scientific progress and its allies: individual curiosity, group commitment, chance. He had come from a culture that believed in education, hard work and faith in a supreme being; the conviction that talent could supersede any social barrier; the notion that intelligence, skill and drive – no matter a person’s rank – might be a person’s salvation.

When my mother described a Republican’s sense of individualism and self-reliance, he was convinced the description fit him completely.

It took many more years before he became a citizen, but once he did, he voted a Republican slate for the rest of his life. My mother broke ranks to vote for Barack Obama in 2008, by which time my father had decamped this mortal coil. I, on the other hand, had left the ranks of Republicans as a child, in that heartbreak year of 1968, when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. A few years later, repelled altogether by the rigid binary of two parties, two racial categories, and the with-us-or-against-us polemic of Vietnam War defenders, I became a registered independent – a not unusual choice for Hispanics like me, impatient with the system’s lack of nuance.

For all the conjecture among so-called experts about Latinos’ party leanings and the assumption that we are natural-born Democrats or deep-down Republicans, there is little predictable about our politics, just as there is little predictable about our race, class or beliefs. Gallup Polls indicate that we are weak Democrats and shaky Republicans at best, with more than half of us claiming to be independents at heart.

Increasingly, we are an unclassifiable, protean agglomeration of Americans – a web of contradictions – adrift in a purple sea.

This is where Democrats, who have assumed a lock on the “Latino vote” for almost a century, so often go wrong. And it is where Republicans, playing the long game, are placing huge bets on winning.

It is far too early to know how the 2024 election will shake out. And polling, as history tells us, can be spectacularly unreliable. But it is nonetheless notable that in at least two recent surveys, former president Donald Trump was polling ahead of President Biden among Hispanic voters.

Cristina Beltrán, a political theorist who thinks well beyond the confines of any partisan strategy, has characterized the Latino population as nearly impossible to view as a single entity, either socially or politically. According to her, we have long been portrayed as a community on the cusp of political power, a power we never quite seem to reach. As a result, we are seen as a stubborn breed: politically passive, difficult to mobilize.

We are, to put a finer point on it, a sleeping Leviathan that, from time to time, stirs ever so slightly and squints out into the world only to fall back into hapless obscurity. And yet the very image of a giant waiting to flex its electoral muscle and redefine the social and political landscape of this country presumes a collective consciousness, a uniform identity.

There are a few realities we share. It is true that all Latinos can trace their roots to somewhere near or south of the Rio Grande. It is also true that most of us claim the mantle of Latinidad and say so on the census, whether we call ourselves Hispanic, Latino, Latina, Latine or Latinx. Sometimes we even speak alike. Often we celebrate “our heritage,” “our culture,” “our music.” Which might lead some to believe that we think alike. But, as Beltrán points out, we do nothing of the kind.

There is no Latino mind-set. Indeed, there are often stark differences of opinion among the major groups of origin, depending on age, religion and dominant language (Spanish or English). Mexican Americans and Cubans are often less approving of affirmative action quotas than Puerto Ricans, for instance. The majority of Mexican Americans, Cubans and Puerto Ricans say abortion should be legal, whereas Central Americans are more likely to oppose it. Defying widely held stereotypes, Mexican Americans, Cubans and Puerto Ricans, as dynamically different as they are, do not necessarily support “traditional” roles for women; all three are more likely than Anglos to agree that a woman is better off if she has a career.

Latinos may not want exactly the same things from our government – making us fair game for both parties – but, from the surveys, at least, our priorities are fairly clear.

According to 2022 data from Pew Research Center, the cardinal concern of Latinos who lean toward the Democratic Party is affordable health care; their other top priorities are, in descending order: economic security (jobs), education, gun safety and the need to address climate change. On the other hand, the hot topic for Latinos who lean Republican is economic security; and, in descending order, violent crime, education, immigration and the nation’s voting policies.

These priorities, for the most part, agree along party lines. But they are also the basic, everyday issues we all care about as Americans. As Rep. Ritchie Torres, an Afro-Latino Democrat from New York’s poorest district, suggests, Hispanics in the South Bronx want the same thing as Hispanics in Arizona: We are, he says, like most populations, struggling to clamber onto the next rung, “practical rather than ideological. The concerns are bread and butter, health and housing, schools and jobs.”

Latinos want, in other words, what every other American wants. And Republicans seem to understand this better than Democrats.

Although Latinos have been largely faithful to the Democratic ticket, there is no question that the party has been taking them for granted. The assumption has been that if they are immigrants and poor, they are surely in need of social services, and so they must be hardcore Democrats.

Some years ago, Harry M. Reid, the Senate majority leader from Nevada, summed up this attitude when he blurted to a crowd of Hispanics in Las Vegas: “I don’t know how anyone of Hispanic heritage could be a Republican, okay. Do I need to say more?” The editorial page of the Las Vegas Review-Journal snapped back: “They all think alike, right Sen. Reid?” The paper also said, “Indeed, how could the concepts of limited government, economic freedom and individual liberty … have any relevance to Hispanics?”

The senator’s remark had been ham-handed, even clueless. But it was also revealing: Democrats have felt entitled to the Latino vote for some time – and not without reason. Most Latinos do believe liberals care more about them than conservatives do. Yet Republicans are eagerly taking advantage of a growing segment of Latinos who are disenchanted with that presumption.

For the past half-century, it is true that Latinos as a whole have tended to vote Democratic. But analysts have observed, too, that we are more apt to have lower voter turnout than any other bloc, which means any projections about the Hispanic population as a whole are inherently flawed. Half a populace does not represent a unified voice, a robust political engine or even – as some pundits imagine – a reliable swing vote.

For instance, in some counties in Texas where Hispanic populations are sizable, voter turnout has been as paltry as 17 percent. Even as recently as the 2020 presidential election, only half of all eligible Hispanic Americans went to the polls, well below the overall 71 percent of White voters and far less than the number of African and Asian Americans.

Why do Latinos stay away? For many, a lack of interest in the voting process is simply a byproduct of disillusionment or distrust. Those who fail to participate may have emigrated from a country in which voter suppression is common. Or they are afraid to vote, reveal their addresses and call attention to the immigration status of someone in their household. Or they may feel that neither the red team nor the blue team represents them exactly – that a two-party system with no room for nuance doesn’t serve their slice of the American pie.

That said, Latinos account for half the increase in the growth of eligible U.S. voters since the 2020 election, according to Pew, and are projected to make up 14.7 percent of all eligible voters this November. As ever, it is hard to pin down precisely what will drive them to cast a ballot – if they turn out.

They could, for instance, be moved by the Supreme Court’s historic decision to dismantle Roe v. Wade. (One 2022 survey found that 82 percent of Latino voters support reproductive freedom, whether or not they would choose abortion.) Or, they might be counted among the steady stream of Latinos who join evangelical churches every day and are encouraged to take their faith to the polling place. “Don’t just pray,” the Pentecostalist Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, founder and president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, tells a congregation of millions. “Register all the people in your church to vote life, liberty and biblical justice” – be a political force, in other words, a catalyst of change.

What we do know: Despite Donald Trump’s outrageous remarks about Mexicans at the launch of his 2016 campaign for president (accusing them of being “criminals, drug dealers, rapists”), and despite his austere anti-immigrant policies (separating migrant children from their families), he racked up almost 30 percent of the Latino vote in 2016 and expanded that count in his failed 2020 run for reelection.

The numbers astounded Democratic operatives. Yes, in that same election year, Latino voters helped Joe Biden flip states that Trump had won in 2016, including Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and, most remarkably, the conservative bastion of Arizona. But Democrats’ fevered hope that Hispanics would finally kill the Republican Party never came to pass; instead, the elusive “Latino vote” was keeping Republicans alive.

The very fact that almost half of all Hispanics stay home on Election Day has proved galvanizing for Republicans. With such a low turnout rate, the population becomes fair game for potential recruitment. As a result, conservative funders have poured money into an organized effort to lure Latinos to their side. In the past decade particularly, Republican outreach has been more than purposeful; it has been assertive, dedicated, strategic, massive.

One of the most energetic enterprises doing this work is Libre, an initiative funded by the conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch. Libre’s staff and volunteers set about their work not only in the way that a pop-up political committee might – by ringing doorbells to muster support for a specific, forthcoming election – but over time, for the long haul. They do so by seeking out needy Latino neighborhoods, giving away millions of dollars in food and services, and taking down citizens’ personal information for future promotional uses and mobilization.

Somehow, Libre, which claims to be nonpartisan, sidesteps the fact that Koch money has worked to defeat any hike of the minimum wage or further implementation of the Affordable Care Act – defeats that would be antithetical to what most Latinos want. As Latina Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) has pointed out: “The Kochs believe in a world with no Medicare; no Social Security … no public programs that support families when they fall on hard times. … The Koch brothers think they can buy the Latino vote. … But despite what their ads say, the Koch brothers are not advocates for the Latino community.”

The GOP’s mounting success with Latino voters is not a hidden challenge for Democrats. They have long been well aware of the vast, richly equipped conservative army that has been hard at work recruiting. Yet analysts note that many in the Democratic Party act as if they are just waking up, rubbing their eyes and learning about it.

“We need to quit taking a policy book to a fistfight,” says one liberal political analyst, voicing a growing concern that the Democratic approach has been too lackadaisical, its ideas too flabby; that the losses will grow only worse; and that liberals will continue to bleed Latinos in the way the Catholic Church has bled them to evangelical megachurches.

Most worrisome to Democrats paying attention is the realization that Republicans may indeed have a better script – as my mother certainly had in her dinner-table indoctrinations of my father – and that they will use it to chip away at a voting constituency that Democrats have, for so long, thought rightfully theirs.