July 27, 2016 / 4:30 AM / 3 years ago

Commentary: Will this be the year that Latino votes make the difference?

You could have made a successful career in American politics warning, or promising, that the Latino vote is about to become the deciding factor in presidential elections. For decades.

Latino leaders and immigration reform supporters gather at Farrand Field at the University of Colorado to launch "My Country, My Vote," a 12-month voter registration campaign to mobilize Colorado's Latino, immigrant and allied voters October 28, 2015. REUTERS/Evan Semon

In the aftermath of the 2012 race the Republican Party establishment itself highlighted the importance of Latino voters. Bemoaning the fact that GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney received only 27 percent of the Latino vote, an autopsy by the party of its defeat noted that by 2050 nearly 30 percent of all Americans will be of Hispanic origin.

This made the party’s inability to connect with Latino voters all the more alarming: “If Hispanic Americans perceive that a GOP nominee or candidate does not want them in the United States (i.e. self-deportation), they will not pay attention to our next sentence.”

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina has been making the same point this year. He is warning that voters aren’t that eager to hear what a candidate has to say on taxes or the federal deficit, if “you wanna deport their grandma.”

Instead of Romney’s awkward talk of “self-deportations,” GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump is calling for mass deportations of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States and for building that “beautiful wall” along the southern border.

Trump launched his campaign by calling Mexican immigrants rapists. It’s fair to say that anti-immigrant resentment has been a powerful recruitment theme for his campaign.

The urgency of the immigration issue and Trump’s acrimonious tone when he talks about Mexico are head-scratchers. Illegal immigration from Mexico has been declining for years; major U.S. cities on or near the border boast some of the lowest crime rates of any metropolitan areas; and Mexico, a middle-income country with an expanding middle class, is the second largest buyer of U.S. goods. What’s more, Mexican migrants are mostly entrepreneurial Christians with strong family values, who appreciate America’s diversity and freedom. Once upon a time, such people were considered strong prospects for the GOP.

So will Trump’s strident rhetoric on immigration scuttle his prospects in the fall? The uncomfortable question is whether he won the nomination despite such talk, or because of it.

Meanwhile, Latinos have been slow to show up and make their political power felt. Latinos are projected to make up 12 percent of the electorate this year, having pulled roughly even with African-Americans. But the Latino slice of the electorate could be larger if more of the approximately 4 million legal residents opted to become citizens and registered to vote.

Spanish-language media and community organizers have been working hard to naturalize and register more Latinos. They report spikes in registration numbers in response to Trump’s campaign. But it isn’t clear that the spike is any more significant than often occurs in election years.

Trump’s narrative of an America besieged by foreigners — be they Mexican immigrants or Chinese factory workers — resonates with aging, white, middle-class and blue-collar voters struggling to make ends meet. Who knows, the depth of negative passions the immigration issue stirs within a segment of the Republican base may yet help mobilize more votes for Trump.

The states to keep an eye on for a potentially crippling backlash against Republicans are four familiar battlegrounds and a dark horse contender for an upset. The familiar battlegrounds are Colorado, New Mexico, Florida and Nevada, all states won by President Barack Obama in 2012.

The dark horse state is Arizona, whose GOP has suffered a wrenching civil war over a series of anti-immigration measures. The issue had quieted down, with establishment Republicans regaining the upper hand and changing the subject under new governor Doug Ducey. Now, Trump’s campaign has come along to stir things up again.

Romney carried the state by a comfortable 10 points in 2012. But recent head-to-head Clinton-Trump polls show a far tighter race, with Latino turnout the unknowable wild card.

Latino leaders and immigration reform supporters gather on the University of Colorado campus to launch "My Country, My Vote," a 12-month voter registration campaign to mobilize Colorado's Latino, immigrant and allied voters October 28, 2015. REUTERS/Evan Semon

It’s possible that Trump could pull off a last hurrah for ethnic resentment and nativisim and win the battle of 2016. But if he does, the Republican Party will have lost its chance to dominate an increasingly Latino, and diverse, nation.

Andrés Martinez is the editorial director of Zócalo Public Square and a professor of journalism at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

This column first appeared in The American Voter, Reuters’ special issue on the 2016 election. Download the app from iTunes or Google Play.

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.

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