The Hispanic vote is the fastest-growing segment of the American electorate and will play a significant role in determining the outcome of the 2016 presidential election yada yada yada . . .”
From every pundit on every platform, variations of this headline have swept the airwaves in the lead-up to this historic election. Yes, the Latino vote will play an important role in the 2016 general election, but let’s not bore ourselves with stating the obvious. The more interesting and important conversation surrounding the Latino vote in 2016 concerns the internal forces within the Latino community that are shaping their perspectives on politics, the states where the influence of the Hispanic electorate is likely to manifest itself most forcefully, and how these factors impact the two major campaigns.
The Immigration Litmus Test
Increasing numbers of Hispanics, primarily Mexican Americans, in states like Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada are shifting the ideological and political balance in these states, turning them from reliably Republican to swing states trending toward becoming Democratic. Latino voters share everyone else’s concerns about the economy and the costs of health care and higher education, but they also see the treatment of immigrants and the rhetoric surrounding immigration reform as a litmus test.
Since Latino voters are citizens, immigration policy is not a direct concern for them. But virtually every Latino voter has a family member or friend who is undocumented. Yes, virtually every one. The general perception that the Democratic Party is more empathetic and likely to work toward immigration reform, while the Republican Party has been seen as increasingly hostile and obstructionist on this issue, has resulted in a Hispanic electorate that is becoming increasingly Democratic.
The impact of this change can perhaps be best seen in Arizona, which is in play this year for the first time in ages. How Republican has Arizona been? Well, Bill Clinton eked it out by 2 percent in 1996. Before that, the last Democrat to win the state was Harry Truman.
The anti-Republican backlash among Hispanics, sparked by SB 1070 in 2010, and accelerated by heightened Republican rhetoric that has supported a militarized border wall over comprehensive immigration reform, has transformed Arizona. Hispanics have registered to vote in increasing numbers and have expressed a likelihood to turn out in historically higher percentages this fall, when they will potentially account for 20 percent or more of the electorate. To the mounting horror of Republicans everywhere, Democrats have a chance of snatching Arizona, and an anti-Republican Hispanic wave that results in changing Arizona from red to blue would all but assure a Hillary Clinton presidency and could likely end the political career of the once untouchable Republican “Senator for Life” John McCain, who faces a serious challenge from Democratic Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick.
Florida, Florida, Florida: A Tale of Two Islands
Within Florida are two of the more unique and consequential shifts taking place in Hispanic America.
First, the Cuban-American electorate, largely concentrated in South Florida, has long been the only major Latino community that consistently voted Republican. But as the original generation of historic exiles has faded from the scene and been replaced by more recent arrivals and second- and third-generation Cubans born in the United States, the singular focus on Cuba policy has diminished.
In fact, our December 2015 poll marking the one-year anniversary of the President’s announcement to normalize relations with Cuba found clear majority support for the new policy overall among Cuban Americans with 56 percent to 36 percent in favor. Only those over age 65 opposed it, by 51 percent to 41 percent. This change in demography and philosophy on Cuba policy has resulted in the Cuban electorate becoming increasingly split in recent presidential elections. And with more than 1.2 million Cuban Americans in Florida—currently still the largest single bloc of Hispanics in the Sunshine State—these shifts are seismic.
Second, the continuing economic turmoil in Puerto Rico has led to a significant exodus from the island in recent years, with many of the new arrivals to the U.S. mainland settling in Orlando. There are now more than 1 million Puerto Ricans living in Florida. Residents of Puerto Rico are American citizens and therefore are eligible to vote immediately upon arrival, and this group has historically voted overwhelmingly Democratic, to the tune of 83 percent for Barack Obama in 2012.
These two factors were decisive in Barack Obama winning the state in 2008 and 2012. Even with these demographic shifts, President Obama only carried Florida by 74,000 votes (less than 1 percent) in 2012, and given the state’s entirely Republican cabinet and overwhelmingly Republican state legislature it’s way too early to call this a sure win for Democrats in 2016. The long-term impact of Donald Trump’s candidacy on Republican prospects in Florida beyond 2016, however, likely points toward a repeat of Pete Wilson’s impact in California in the 1990s. Changing demographics and the widespread offense taken by Hispanics to Wilson’s Proposition 187 converged to change California, once the cradle of the Republican Party, into a solidly blue state. The same could take place in Florida.
Potential Hidden Trump Hispanic Vote
Our recent national poll of Hispanic voters for Univision News showed Hispanic support for Donald Trump currently hovering around 20 percent. But believe it or not, there may be an opening for him to increase that level of support. There are two bases for this claim. First, we’ve seen some evidence in focus groups of Latino voters being intrigued by the idea of a successful businessman President. The second has to do with security. The level of instability and violence in the country and world could lead some voters to consider his message of strength that claims to promise increased safety and security at home.
In our Univision poll, the economy and terrorism were the first and third most important issues among Hispanic voters. Interestingly, while Clinton holds a 50 percentage point lead over Trump in her ability to better handle all other issues, her advantage shrinks to only 35 percentage points when it comes to handling the economy and terrorism.
These factors put some voters in the awkward position of simultaneously being opposed to Trump’s anti-Latino rhetoric while at the same time being interested in and potentially willing to vote for him based on economic and security concerns. This electoral Catch-22 could ultimately raise his share of the Hispanic vote from 20 percent to perhaps as much as 30 percent, a shade higher than Mitt Romney’s 27 percent in 2012.
Potential Hidden Clinton Vote
There is good news for Hillary Clinton, however. A little known fact about public opinion research is that cost considerations often affect the reliability of the results. Conducting research in multiple languages is expensive and often the decision is made not to offer any other languages besides English.
The pitfall of this approach is that a significant percentage of the Latino electorate is more comfortable communicating in Spanish, and if contacted for a poll performed exclusively in English, will likely decline the invitation to participate. Hillary Clinton has historically done very well among Spanish-dominant Latino voters, so polling that doesn’t include them is likely underestimating her overall support. As much as 40 percent of the Hispanic electorate is Spanish-language dominant, with a significant portion of that group being essentially Spanish-only speakers. This group, incidentally, is likely to look favorably on Tim Kaine, whose bilingual proficiency will make him a valuable surrogate on Spanish-language media.
The above forces have created an environment in which 2016 may come to be known as the year when the Hispanic electorate not only tipped the balance in a presidential election, but effectively redrew the electoral map for a generation.