Big Latino Turnout In Midterms Raises Stakes For 2020

Nov 19, 2018
Originally published on November 19, 2018 1:49 pm

Election after election, pundits predict that Latinos will be a powerful voting bloc. And Latino voters consistently underperform those expectations by failing to turn out at the polls in big numbers.

But this year's midterm results in Nevada, Arizona and other states suggest that Latino turnout is up dramatically — a development that could reshape the electoral landscape for 2020 and beyond.

In Texas, turnout rose dramatically in heavily Latino precincts across the state — from the Rio Grande Valley, to big cities like El Paso and San Antonio.

As she walked into the voting booth in Houston, college student Chelsea Linares said she was thinking about her parents, who immigrated to Texas from El Salvador before she was born.

"All the emotions hit," Linares said. "It was very important not only for me, but to be able to give a voice to my dad that can't vote, my mother that can't vote."

"They came so my voice could be heard," she said.

A record 29 million Latinos were eligible to vote in this year's election, according to the Pew Research Center. We won't know how many did cast ballots until the official tallies are complete. But preliminary data suggests there was a significant jump in Latino participation.

One in 4 Latino voters cast a ballot in a midterm for the first time, according to exit polls. And Latino turnout more than doubled in competitive districts compared with 2014, according to early voting data analyzed by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

"Latinos showed up to the polls because we talked to them," said Rep. Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico, the chairman of the DCCC. Luján says the organization started reaching out to Latino voters more than a year ago and spent more than $21 million on Spanish-language campaign ads and field operations.

"We listened to them. Our candidates connected with their personal stories. We knocked on their doors. We reached out online," Luján said.

Latinos are a fast-growing demographic that has long been coveted by candidates and strategists in both parties. Democrats think President Trump gave them the edge in this cycle. And there's some evidence to back them up.

Three-quarters of Latino voters believe Trump and other Republicans are using "toxic" rhetoric to divide the country, according to a poll conducted by Matt Barreto, professor of political science and Chicana/o studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, and co-founder of the polling firm Latino Decisions.

"They were also tired of the discussion of immigrants in such a negative and racist rhetoric," said Barreto, who was hired by the Hillary Clinton campaign in 2015. "This was a very strong mobilizing issue in the Latino community."

By focusing heavily on immigration nationally instead of the economy, the GOP missed an opportunity to attract Latino voters, said Daniel Garza. He's president of The Libre Initiative, a conservative nonprofit group that tries to engage Hispanic voters.

"I think [Republicans] failed on driving a message that was very positive for them, which was the economy and jobs," said at a panel discussion last week organized by the Aspen Institute and UCLA Latino Policy & Politics Initiative.

Still, Garza said that some Republicans candidates have done a good job of reaching out to Latino communities. He pointed to GOP successes — especially in Florida, which has a large Cuban-American population that tends to vote Republican.

"That's good for us," Garza said. "That's really good for Latinos to be engaged by both sides. Cause you have to earn our vote like you earn everybody else's."

But in most places, exit polls show that Latinos voted overwhelmingly for Democrats. In Texas, 65 percent of Latinos voted for the Democratic Senate candidate. The percentage was slightly higher in Arizona (69 percent) and Nevada (67 percent), two states where Democrats flipped Republican-held Senate seats.

Those results suggest that Democrats and their allies are doing a better job of engaging Latino voters.

"If candidates want Latinos and Latinas to turn out at the ballot box and vote for them there they will need to make greater and more genuine efforts to court Latino voters," said Janet Murguía, the president of UnidosUS, a non-partisan group that registered tens of thousands of Latinos to vote in the midterms.

Candidates and campaigns need to knock on doors in Latino communities, and understand which issues they care about, says Murguía. And there's one state that's the "gold standard" when it comes to Latino engagement: Nevada.

With this election, Democrats captured nearly every statewide office. They did it in part by building a ground game that courts Latino voters year round, even when there's no election on the calendar — thanks to the efforts of people like Dora Olivia Arizmendi.

"I have to be an example for my community, for my co-workers," said Arizmendi, a housekeeper at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. Arizmendi is also a member of the Culinary Workers Union, which is more than half Latino. She took time off from her job to help register fellow union members and get them to the polls.

"I was in 110 degrees, knocking doors," Arizmendi said. "And now I can see the differences. I'm proud of that. And I feel happy."

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's become a stereotype of political forecasting to say Latinos could be a powerful voting bloc. This year, they did turn out in large numbers at the polls in key races. NPR's Joel Rose has been looking at what this could mean for the future.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: In Texas, turnout rose dramatically in heavily Latino precincts, from the Rio Grande Valley to big cities, like El Paso and San Antonio. College student Chelsea Linares voted for the first time in Houston. Her parents immigrated to Texas from Honduras before she was born.

CHELSEA LINARES: All the emotions hit in. I just started thinking about my family, my friends - to be able to give a voice to my dad that can't vote, my mother that can't vote, all the young people that wish that they could, but they can't.

ROSE: A record 29 million Latinos were eligible to vote in this year's election. We don't know how many did cast ballots until the official tallies are complete, but preliminary data suggests there was a big jump in Latino participation. According to exit polls, 1 in 4 Latino voters cast a ballot in a midterm for the first time. And Latino turnout more than doubled in competitive districts compared to 2014, according to early voting data analyzed by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. The group's chairman, Congressman Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico, says the DCCC spent more money on Spanish-language campaign ads and started reaching out to Latino voters more than a year ago.

BEN RAY LUJAN: Latinos showed up to the polls because we talked to them, we listened to them. Our candidates connected with their personal stories. We knocked on their doors. We reached out online.

ROSE: Latinos are a fast-growing demographic that has long been coveted by candidates and strategists in both parties. This time, Democrats think President Trump gave them the edge. And Matt Barreto agrees. He's a professor at UCLA and co-founder of the polling firm Latino Decisions. Barreto says three-quarters of the Latino voters he surveyed say Trump uses toxic rhetoric to divide the country.

MATT BARRETO: They were also tired of the discussion of immigrants in such a negative and racist rhetoric, and this was a very strong mobilizing issue in the Latino community.

ROSE: By focusing heavily on immigration instead of the economy, the GOP missed an opportunity to attract Latino voters. That's according to Daniel Garza, the president of The LIBRE Initiative, a conservative nonprofit group that tries to engage Hispanic voters. But Garza also pointed to GOP successes, especially in Florida, which has a large Cuban-American population that tends to vote Republican. At a panel organized by the Aspen Institute and UCLA, Garza said many Republican candidates have done a good job of reaching out to Latino communities.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DANIEL GARZA: That's good for us. That's really good for Latinos to be engaged by both sides 'cause you have to earn our vote like you earn everybody else's.

ROSE: But in most places, exit polls show Latinos voted overwhelmingly for Democrats. Janet Murguia is the president of UnidosUS, a nonpartisan group that registered tens of thousands of Latinos to vote. She says the Latino vote helped Democrats flip Republican-held Senate seats in Arizona and in Nevada.

JANET MURGUIA: There's no question that Nevada is the gold standard for getting out and mobilizing the Latino electorate.

ROSE: With this election, Democrats in Nevada captured nearly every statewide office. They did that in part by building a ground game that courts Latino voters year-round, even when there's no election on the calendar.

DORA OLIVIA ARIZMENDI: I have to be example for my community, for my co-workers.

ROSE: Dora Olivia Arizmendi voted in a midterm election for the first time in Nevada. She's a housekeeper at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas and a member of the Culinary Workers Union, which is more than half Latino. Arizmendi took time off from her job to help register fellow union members and get them to the polls.

ARIZMENDI: That was in 110 degrees knocking doors. And now I can see the differences. I'm proud of that, and I feel happy.

ROSE: The midterm results in Nevada and elsewhere are raising expectations for 2020 that Latinos might finally be the voting bloc that decides a presidential election. Joel Rose, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.