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Fear and Loathing Among Latinos in the 2016 Campaign

Losing swing states with growing Hispanic populations makes electoral math tough for GOP

Groups of protesters, including Code Pink, demonstrate outside of the National Republican Senatorial Committee during a May meeting between Donald Trump and GOP leaders. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo0
Groups of protesters, including Code Pink, demonstrate outside of the National Republican Senatorial Committee during a May meeting between Donald Trump and GOP leaders. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo0

(First published in CQ Magazine on April 11, 2016.)

It’s hard to believe now that there was a time in the not-so-distant past when Republicans made a serious and successful play for the Hispanic vote.

Time travel back to 2000. That summer, GOP Chairman Jim Nicholson unveiled a $10 million advertising campaign in which Hispanic-American actors proclaimed their allegiance to the Republican Party because, they said, it reflected their values. It helped George W. Bush win 35 percent of the Hispanic vote that year, and laid the groundwork for an even stronger showing in 2004. Indeed, after Mitt Romney flopped with Hispanic voters in his 2012 presidential loss, party elders vowed to pass comprehensive immigration legislation that would help them better secure the Hispanic vote in 2016.

Flash-forward to the present. The GOP candidate in this November’s election will, in all likelihood, break the party’s modern record of futility with Hispanics that Bob Dole set when he won only 21 percent of their votes in 1996. The presidential candidates’ rhetoric about immigration, the pledges to deport the 11 million illegal immigrants in the country and to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border, have so alienated Hispanics that the damage could go deeper.

Indeed, the election could turn Hispanics into the new blacks, a community seemingly tied permanently to one political party, and overwhelmingly so. That is neither good for the GOP and its electoral hopes, nor for Hispanics who want Congress to respond to their issues.

“Most of them are either themselves immigrants or the descendants of recent immigrants,” Nicholson says. “So for them, immigration is a very sensitive subject. You don’t appeal to people to whom it’s sensitive by talking about it in derisive rhetoric.”

Certainly, the Republican rhetoric this primary season has offended Hispanics who’ve recently immigrated, who have relatives abroad who’d like to come to the United States, or who have friends or family here illegally. They desperately want the path to citizenship that Republicans have refused to create.

[Can Trump Have It Both Ways on Immigration?]

But Jayesh Rathod, a law professor at American University and director of its Immigrant Justice Clinic, says it goes further. Indeed, he says, many Hispanic-American voters believe the Republicans are questioning their citizenship.

“Even those more privileged economically or more conservative socially” are turning against the GOP, Rathod says.

Hispanics see a link between nativist policies and profiling of Hispanics as illegal immigrants. In 2010, after Arizona enacted a state law allowing police to check the immigration status of people they stopped if they suspected they were in the country illegally, Hispanics were alarmed.

Before that immigration had not been a top issue of concern for most Latinos, says Clarissa Martínez-de-Castro, deputy vice president of the National Council of La Raza, an advocacy group for Hispanics. Afterward, it shot to the top. Now, she says, “It packs a powerful mobilizing punch. Latinos have come to see it as a proxy. Immigration gets used to stir up racial animosity.”

If, as now seems inevitable, the 2016 election sends Hispanics into the Democratic camp for a prolonged stay, it will have serious ramifications, not only electorally, but also for policy.

Republicans will find it difficult, if not impossible, to win presidential elections, and over time they will lose seats in Congress. But as Hispanics’ electoral might grows, they will find it more difficult to get their way on policy debates. It will be easy for Democrats to take them for granted and ignore their requests in the way they’ve downplayed those of black voters or union members or environmentalists, some activists say.

“Latinos are definitely stuck between a rock and a hard place,” says Marisa Franco, director of the #Not1More campaign, an advocacy group that has harshly criticized President Barack Obama for deporting immigrants.

Indeed, if Republicans have lost Hispanics, the opposite is also true. Hispanics have lost Republicans.

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Some Hispanic groups have tried hard to avoid that outcome. Pro-immigrant advocates like those at the National Immigration Forum have rallied law enforcement, business and church leaders to the cause, even founding a group called the Evangelical Immigration Table, and made a big deal about the support they’ve received from typically Republican constituencies. They’ve argued to no avail that immigrants are good for the economy and that helping them is the Christian thing to do. For the path to citizenship, that bodes ill.

It’s now hard to see a circumstance where the 11-year-old proposal to give illegal immigrants a chance to become Americans wins enactment unless a Democrat is elected president and Democrats retake both the House and the Senate.

A circumstance like that existed as recently as 2009 and 2010, and Democrats put the issue on the back burner. There’s a fine line in Democratic politics between keeping Hispanic voters motivated and solving their problems.

Obama has since won a few victories for the community, such as his 2012 decree that shields illegal immigrants who came to the United States as children from deportation. A federal court in Texas blocked Obama’s attempt to expand that order, as well as his bid in 2014 to extend the reprieve to illegal immigrants who are the parents of citizens. Their fate is now pending before the Supreme Court.

But in the view of many advocates, he’s also taken too tough a line on illegal immigrants who’ve fled violence in Central and South America. In January, as the Homeland Security Department moved to deport some of those refugees, Franco’s group derided the administration’s “Orwellian approach to its immigration policy.”

Franco is disappointed. “We’ve seen very little forward motion on policies and practices that provide relief” to immigrants, she says.

Republicans’ focus on immigration as a political issue — their efforts to defund Obama’s planned reprieves and the suits they’ve brought in court to block them — has forced Democrats to be hesitant allies. Why go out on a limb when Hispanic voters have nowhere else to turn on Election Day?

That was what happened during Obama’s first two years in office. Democrat Luis V. Gutiérrez of Illinois, the leading House proponent of the path to citizenship, went to see Obama in December 2008 to ask him to follow through on his campaign pledge to enact an immigration bill. “Luis, we are losing a million jobs a month, I’m going to have to get a hold on that first. Come back in April or May,” Gutiérrez recalls him saying.

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But the moment never came because Democrats in Congress feared the electoral consequences. “The Blue Dogs then would have voted against immigration reform,” says Gutiérrez of the Democrats’ moderate faction, and then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi decided not to force them to take a tough vote.

During that period, Hispanics weren’t the only Democratic constituency that was disappointed. The losers were those with no clout with the GOP.

Consider the bill the House passed in 2009 to place a cap on carbon emissions in order to combat climate change. Environmentalists were thrilled. But they were bound for disappointment. Democrats were divided, with coal-state members opposed to the measure. In the House, 44 Democrats voted no, and the bill never came up in the Senate.

For Democrats, it was a failure with little political risk. Environmentalists won’t turn instead to the Republicans. Only eight House Republicans had voted for the measure.

That year, a similar fate befell Democrats’ effort to enact “card check” legislation that would have made it easier for employees to form unions. The bill would have allowed them to form a union simply by collecting a majority of employees’ signatures. Current rules allow employers to request a secret ballot.

The Democratic House of 2007 passed a bill to do that, but it never got that far again. Senate Democrats from swing states announced their opposition in 2009, leaving it pointless to proceed. For unions, which had made the bill their top legislative priority, it was a bitter defeat. But union members have continued to support Democrats in subsequent elections.

Hispanics fear they are now in the same situation. “I think that Republicans are digging a hole that they may not be able to come out of for a while with the Latino vote,” Franco says. “But I don’t think Democrats are winning the Latino vote.”

Gutiérrez says the Democratic Party has changed and won’t disappoint Hispanics again if it wins the congressional majority in November. “We’re in a different place today. We are pro-immigrant. It is now a central issue of principle for the Democrats.”

[Hispanic Voters Only One Problem for GOP]

But Franco isn’t so confident. She says Hispanics must now join forces with other activists struggling to convince the Democratic Party to come to their aid, such as those in the Black Lives Matter movement. That group has been frustrated in its efforts to get Congress to enact legislation targeting disparate policing practices that have hurt blacks. “That’s where we can start to break out of the rock and hard place of being taken for granted,” Franco says.

Flash back to 2000. “The Latino community is in play in this election like never before,” Nicholson, the former Republican Party chairman, told reporters when he announced the advertising campaign to woo them. “And they’re sending this message: ‘We’re open to change. Persuade us. Make your best case.’ I’m here to promise you that we will.”

The GOP case was that Hispanics were, by upbringing, socially conservative and fit well into the Republicans’ big tent. Nicholson promised to lavish the same amount of attention on them as politicians famously had on “soccer moms” during the 1996 campaign.

The message wasn’t convincing to most Hispanic voters, but George W. Bush did do significantly better in 2000 among them than Dole had. Nicholson believes that was critical. “Look at how close the election was,” he says. And when Bush took 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004, it was the best performance of any Republican candidate in modern times, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of exit polls.

Still, when Nicholson launched his advertising campaign, the GOP was deeply divided on immigration. Business-minded Republicans, like Bush, favored a more lenient policy. But many rank-and-file conservatives held more nativist attitudes.

It didn’t matter until May 12, 2005, when the uneasy truce between GOP factions came to a head. Then, Republican John McCain of Arizona stood beside Democrat Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts to offer a Senate bill with a new proposal: a path to citizenship. The idea was to let the 11 million illegal immigrants in the country make amends, pay fines and apply for green cards, and ultimately become citizens.

McCain anticipated the response from some in his party, which had a Senate majority, and the buzzword they would use to stop him: amnesty. This “is not amnesty; this is earned adjustment,” he said that day.

McCain’s conservative colleagues responded as he expected. John Cornyn of Texas and Jon Kyl of Arizona offered a competing, harsher bill. It would have dramatically ramped up border enforcement. It nodded to the business community by creating a new guest worker program — with no path to citizenship — but required that illegal immigrants inside the country first leave before they could win one of the visas.

[Will GOP Let Clinton Capture Latino Vote?]

Many conservatives even rejected the Cornyn-Kyl measure, arguing that the guest worker program was too generous and would have allowed illegal immigrants then in the country to cut the line for visas by allowing them to apply before departing for their home countries.

Between the two sides, there never was a meeting of the minds.

House Republicans, in December 2005, provided their verdict on the debate, passing a bill by Wisconsin GOP Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner that would have boosted interior and border enforcement, with neither a guest worker program nor a path to citizenship. Two hundred and three Republicans voted for it. Only 17 voted no.

Running in the Republican primaries for president two years later, McCain reflected the experience he’d gone through. Before Congress could contemplate a path to citizenship, it had to focus on immigration enforcement, he said: “I say it is a lesson learned about what the American people’s priorities are. And their priority is to secure the borders.”

Hispanic voters felt differently. Two out of three of them voted for Obama. McCain took 31 percent. The inroads Bush had made were gone.

McCain said last week he worries about the rhetoric in this year’s presidential campaign and the effect it will have on the Hispanic vote. But he denied that he’d been inconsistent: “I’ve always said enforcement first, control of the border.”

In reality, the way it played out in 2008 was indicative of two new dynamics in the GOP presidential primary season that remain true today. First, GOP candidates believe that to win, particularly in primaries, they must woo the party’s nativists and downplay any sympathy they feel for immigrants. Second, Latinos won’t give a Republican credit for his past support if the candidate reverses himself in the campaign to appeal to angry whites.

That certainly was the case in 2012 for GOP candidate Romney, who famously said that he would employ enforcement tactics so tough on would-be employers of illegal immigrants that the immigrants would voluntarily leave the United States. “The answer is self-deportation, which is people decide they can do better by going home because they can’t find work here,” he said during one of that year’s GOP debates.

Romney did worse among Hispanics than McCain had, winning just 27 percent of their votes.

After that election, the Republican National Committee conducted an extensive review of what went wrong and, in March 2013, issued a report calling for Congress to take the issue of immigration off the table by passing a bill like the one McCain had proposed eight years before.

In introducing the report at the National Press Club, Zoraida Fonalledas, the RNC’s national committeewoman for Puerto Rico, spoke in Spanish: “If Hispanic Americans hear the GOP doesn’t want them in the USA, they won’t pay attention to our next sentence. It doesn’t matter what we say about education, jobs or the economy. If Hispanics think we don’t want them here, they will close their ears to our policies.”

[Awkward Moments in Latino Outreach]

A few Republicans took the warning to heart, among them Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who joined forces with Democrats to propose a 2013 bill similar to McCain’s and Kennedy’s. The bill passed the Democratic-controlled Senate that year, but House conservatives refused to take it up.

In this year’s presidential primaries, it became an albatross Rubio couldn’t shake, even though he renounced his sponsorship of the measure. Although he was favored by party elites, Rubio won only one state before dropping out of the race last month.

Rubio says he thinks Hispanics will vote Republican if Republicans share with them the same message they share with everyone else: “I don’t think it’s any different than our general message about how important mobility and economic empowerment [are]. I think Hispanic voters care about what every American voter cares about.”

He declined to discuss his immigration bill.

That measure’s fate is awkward for the Republicans who voted for it three years ago. Take Bob Corker, the Tennessean who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He says he “voted for it to solve a problem our country is dealing with” and doesn’t understand the politics: “I’m not a politician. I’m a policy guy.”

Others, who represent states with large and growing Hispanic populations, are more forthright. The rhetoric of the GOP presidential candidates “has gone too negative and too angry, and that’s particularly offensive to minority groups,” says Cory Gardner, the freshman senator from Colorado. Gardner says his colleagues will do better with Hispanics if they find ways to talk about immigration policy without demonizing immigrants.

If history is a guide, Hispanic support for the Republican candidate — be it Donald Trump, who has called Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals, or Ted Cruz, whose hard-line position is consistent — will drop again.

“I honestly thought that 2016 might be the year where the Republican Party really competed for the hearts and minds of Latino voters,” says Martínez-de-Castro, of the National Council of La Raza. “They are not.”

Groups like Martínez-de-Castro’s are making every effort to get out the vote, running voter-registration drives and encouraging Latinos with green cards to become citizens. There’s some evidence their efforts are working. According to the Homeland Security Department, naturalization applications grew 11 percent in fiscal 2015 over the prior year.

At the same time, America’s Hispanic community is younger than that of blacks or whites and more of its youth are reaching voting age every year. The Pew Research Center projects that 3.2 million Latinos turned 18 since the 2012 election.

It’s long been a challenge to get Hispanics, especially young ones, out to the polls. In 2012, for instance, 2 in 3 eligible blacks voted. For whites, it was 64 percent. Less than half of eligible Hispanics did.

The black vote is a model, though, for what activists like Martínez-de-Castro are hoping to achieve. It had typically lagged behind the white vote, until Obama inspired black voters to come out.

There’s no similar, inspirational figure for Latinos this year. But the community has a history of responding in force when it feels threatened, as in California after then-GOP Gov. Pete Wilson got behind a 1994 ballot measure to deny illegal immigrant children access to public schools. It passed before being overturned in court. In the aftermath, the Hispanic vote surged and the Republican Party’s power in California eroded.

“There’s a considerable amount of research that shows that the Latino community is mobilized when it feels a credible political threat, and I think for many Latinos the prospect of a Trump presidency is a credible political threat,” says Melissa Michelson, a professor of political science at Menlo College in California and an expert on the Hispanic vote. “They are responding to it in ways that are consistent with the past.”

Pew says Hispanics will make up nearly 12 percent of the electorate this year, up from 10 percent four years ago. It will make them nearly as important a voting bloc as blacks if they vote as often and as uniformly as blacks do.

William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, a centrist think tank, thinks this could be the year the Hispanic vote comes out in force. “There’s going to be a major effort to get that vote out. It’s a growing vote. Everyone calls it a sleeping giant and it really is,” he says.

In the presidential race, Pew projects, it would have the greatest impact in Florida, Nevada and Colorado, where Hispanics make up at least 14 percent of voters.

Might Cuban-Americans rescue the Republicans in Florida? That’s not very likely. Exit polls after the 2012 election showed a growing gap between Cuban-Americans as a whole and the sons and daughters of the exiles who fled Fidel Castro’s revolution. The Cuban-American constituency used to be reliably Republican, but Romney barely beat Obama among Florida’s Cuban-Americans, 52-48 percent. And of Cuban-Americans born in the United States, exit pollsters said 6 in 10 voted to re-elect the president. Overall, Obama won exactly that percentage of the overall Hispanic vote in the state, 60 percent to Romney’s 39 percent.

And if the GOP candidate loses the swing states with growing Hispanic populations, it makes the math very tough. He would then have to break the stranglehold Democrats have had on the Midwest and mid-Atlantic over the last six elections. Frey says Republicans would have to win states that haven’t gone their way in a presidential year since the 1980s, such as Pennsylvania and Michigan, which last went Republican in 1988. Or they’d have to win places like Wisconsin, which last voted for a Republican when it chose Ronald Reagan in 1984, or Minnesota, which most recently selected the Republican candidate, Richard Nixon, in 1972.

Frey projects that, should the minority vote slant even further away from the Republican candidate, the GOP contender would need close to 70 percent of the white vote to win. Romney won 59 percent of the white vote in 2012. “It’s a very tough calculus,” he says.

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