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Amidst the wreckage of the 2020 election in the Republican party, there was one little ray of sunshine. Donald Trump did better with Latino voters than he had in 2016, handing him an easy win in Florida as Cuban-Americans voted Republican in decisive numbers. In Nevada, a purple state, Latino men swung to Trump by four more points than in the previous election. Republicans have been jonesing for this demographic for four decades, and at last, they seemed to be connecting. Largely driven by male voters, between 2012 and 2020, the percentage of Latinos voting red went up five points.
But none of this is decisive on a national scale, although it may affect close contests in the West and Southwest. According to a recent New York Times/Siena poll, incremental progress with Latino voters has not produced a major realignment that favors Republicans in the November midterms. Instead, the Democratic party has
maintained a grip on the majority of Latino voters, driven in part by women and the belief that Democrats remained the party of the working class. Overall, Hispanic voters are more likely to agree with Democrats on many issues — immigration, gun policy, climate. They are also more likely to see Republicans as the party of the elite and as holding extreme views. And a majority of Hispanic voters, 56 percent, plan to vote for Democrats this fall, compared with 32 percent for Republicans.
But as I say, it is not all good news for Democrats. Latino men are particularly concerned about inflation. Republicans are doing much better with this demographic in Texas, Florida, and Arizona. This could determine crucial races as the Democratic party fights to keep control of Congress.
Both parties need to think more carefully about two things. First, is there a “Latino voter” who exists as a discrete category? I am not sure there is. It is overstating the obvious that such a voter may have their origins in one or more of 33 countries; alternatively, that voter may be descended from a family that has lived in the Continental United States since the 16th century, particularly states that were part of Mexico prior to 1848. That voter might be a recent immigrant or not and might not identify with liberal immigration policies more strongly than an American of any other background. That voter might be prosperous, or not; might be educated, or not; and might be white, Black, or Brown. Currently, almost 60% of Latinos are of Mexican descent, and 10% are Puerto Ricans voting in the continental United States.
Second, whereas the Democratic party has failed to elevate Latino civil rights as a category of specific concern, preferring to emphasize the party’s legacy as a partner to the Black civil rights movement, Republicans have a different, and perhaps more intractable, problem. Historically, Republicans have tried to woo racial groups while maintaining that the best position on race is to deny that race itself exists. While there is an excellent argument to be made that race is an invented category that does not reflect biological differences, race does exist as a social category that allows Americans to chart their histories and understand the barriers to equality they are presented with today.
One place to understand how Republicans have stumbled when it comes to Latino voters is the attempt by the Reagan administration to simultaneously declare an end to racism in 1980—mission accomplished!—and woo Latinos as a racial group because they presented as religious and more socially conservative. Yet, as White House strategists tried to move beyond identity categories, articulating the Reagan administration’s policies as good for all Americans regardless of class, race, or gender, they were increasingly confronted with a contradiction. Historically, Latino voters organized through ethnically-defined institutions and wished to deal with the administration through those institutions.
The job of making these connections as Reagan took office in 1981 fell to the Office of Public Liason, a White House political outreach office established in the Carter Administration and directed by Elizabeth Dole. But, as she did with women’s groups, Dole practiced outreach selectively, refusing to deal with any organization that did not already support Reagan. For example, in July 1981, Dole urged presidential advisor Edwin Meese to accept a keynote invitation from the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce since that group was “the most openly positive and supportive of all the national Hispanic organizations.”
On the same day, Dole spoke to Vice President George H.W. Bush about two other major Hispanic organizations, the American G.I. Forum, a veterans group, and the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). Neither group supported the president, and both complained of being under-recognized by the administration. An unsympathetic Dole suggested they begin by changing their tune because “recognition and visibility accrue to those organizations that are willing to step up and openly support the President.” These organizations were currently “getting a free ride,” Dole told Bush. They were not going to get political attention “without really producing visible support in return where we need it.” Since the American G.I. Forum genuinely wanted Bush, a World War II pilot, to speak at their annual convention, Dole urged the vice president “to move them off the dime” in order to win an appearance from him.
Bush declined the invitation.
In fact, although these two Latino organizations had a history of non-partisanship, and their members historically leaned Democratic, Dole believed that Mexican-Americans, in particular, made ideal Reagan Republicans. They were, she argued in a 1981 strategy paper, “generally middle-class, conservative, family-oriented, patriotic and much better educated than the community at large.” Mexican-Americans were also well-assimilated: nearly all spoke English, and most voters preferred it to Spanish or did not speak Spanish at all. But as Dole also noted, they behaved like an ethnic group and could be encouraged to vote like one. Mexican-Americans “cherished” their culture, Dole wrote, and took pride in group attainments. Dole urged administration officials to reach out to this community in Spanish-language newspapers, television, and radio to make their argument.
In fact, these conversations also occurred before a midterm election, when Ronald Reagan’s popularity was declining. By the spring of 1982, Republicans were looking down the barrel of a recession, which seemed to be affecting what Latino support the president had. Voters who had previously supported Reagan were now abandoning the GOP “at an alarming rate.”
In a new strategy paper, Dole broke down what analysts knew about the three main Hispanic groups (Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Cubans) and a fourth group, made up of several million Americans from other parts of Latin America and Spain. Dole bluntly advised that rewards should only go to those organizations that explicitly supported the President; “overtly critical” ones should be ignored. Dole also emphasized that any initiatives designed to recruit Black voters should be suspended. “Hispanics have traditionally felt very competitive with Blacks for appointments, Federal contracts, grants, and White House recognition.” Therefore, it was “essential,” Dole wrote, “that the administration be aware of this sensitivity and avoid any action which could be construed as favoritism to Blacks over Hispanics.”
In fact, Latino voters made a big difference in an election that might otherwise have strengthened the GOP’s position in Congress. They registered Democratic in overwhelming numbers before the election, and Republican candidates all over the southwest—some of whom were themselves Latino—went down to defeat. Henry Zuniga, a staff member hired as a liaison to the community, told Dole that outreach had been poor and that the 1982 midterms might represent a “death knell for Republican chances of maintaining a foothold with these voters.” There was hope, but only if the administration would cultivate Latino communities rather than demanding loyalty from them as a prerequisite for that attention. Zuniga had seen Republican successes “where a Republican candidate aggressively seeks the vote. The Hispanic is basically conservative and remains a high potential for the Republican party,” he reported.
Zuniga grasped a crucial point: deeply opposed to appealing to communities of color as identity groups and doing it half-heartedly when they did it at all, the Reagan administration failed to grasp that Latino voters could understand themselves as simultaneously conservative, in competition with Black Americans, and in need of resources to overcome white racism. Even as they asked for data and strategies to win this demographic, Republican strategists preferred to see their own values as they existed among Latinos—but not to shape policies to serve this constituency. And Reagan administration policies, particularly drastic cuts to welfare programs and social services funded by federal money, had hurt Latinos disproportionately.
Finally, the Reagan administration failed to consider those Latino voters as gendered voters. Directing outreach to overwhelmingly male organizations such as the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the American G.I. Forum, LULAC, which had a long history of women’s activism, was ostracized.
This dynamic seems to be in place today 40 years later. While men of Latino descent look to economic issues and are persuaded by Republicans hanging inflation around Joe Biden’s neck, their wives and daughters continue to find the GOP’s policies towards women and children wanting.
Yet what seems even more obvious is that Latino voters simply do not attach to political parties as other groups do. They hold traditionally Republican views on some issues and traditionally Democratic views on others. As the New York Times/Siena poll found,
More than a third of Hispanic voters say they agree more with the G.O.P. on crime and policing, and four out of 10 Hispanic voters have concerns that the Democratic Party has gone too far on race and gender. Hispanic voters view economic issues as the most important factor determining their vote this year and are evenly split on which party they agree with more on the economy.
The GOP is pushing economic issues in this election cycle, so it is perhaps no surprise that some Latino voters, largely men, are moving toward Republican candidates. Those votes will be decisive in some states, such as Colorado, and not in others, but it is a clear reason for Democrats to begin thinking about how they will frame their own principles and policies as a benefit to these moderate voters beyond 2022.
Documents used to write this article were drawn from files labeled “Hispanics,” Box OA5455, Elizabeth Dole Files, The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.
Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. This article first appeared in slightly different form as a post on the author’s Substack, Political Junkie, on September 19, 2022.