Latina/o voters, and Latinas specifically, played a decisive role in the 2008 and 2012 national elections and are poised to play a similarly significant role in 2016. Owing to the growth of the population and especially their growing share of the electorate, as well as the strength of Latina/o support for Democratic candidates in swing states – Latinas/os command an increasingly important role in Presidential elections.
However, if 2008 and 2012 cemented the significance of Latinas/os voters to Democratic national success, then 2014 underscored the costs to Democrats when that support fades. Democrats lost a number of key House, Senate, and Gubernatorial races in 2014 as Latina/o support for the party weakened and Latina/o turnout decreased.
Key to understanding this loss was a series of defeats and upsets on immigration reform, despite the overall importance of this issue to Latina/o voters and the unprecedented levels of apprehension and deportation of Latina/o immigrants. In particular, the bi-partisan immigration reform bill that had passed the Senate in June 2013, died in the House asthe Republican leadership refused to schedule hearings on the bill. While beleaguered Latina/o voters had witnessed this kind of partisan stalling before, a number of people took comfort in President Obama’s June 2014 promise that he would take executive action to reform immigration policy before the end of summer because of Congress’ failure to act. And yet in September 2014, eight weeks before the election, Obama announced that no executive would be taken until after the election, leaving many to openly wonder if relief would ever come.
In turn, a number of Democratic candidates avoided any discussion of immigration, and particularly advocacy on comprehensive reform in their race – hoping to shape a different narrative around other policy issues including health care and economic recovery. The inability of Congress to secure passage of immigration reform, coupled with Presidential delay on the use of executive action, the absence of immigration advocacy, and a lackluster mobilization of Latina/o voters ultimately cost Democrats in lower turnout among Latinas/os and a significant decrease of support.
Comparing 2010 and 2014 returns, Democrats lost support among Latina/o voters across House, Senate, and Gubernatorial races. However, the loss of Democratic support, did not automatically translate into a gain for Republicans. For example while Latina/o support for Democratic candidates in House district races was down 6 percentage points from 2010, Republicans only gained 3 points among Latinas/os voters. Republicans did make up some ground, especially with Latino men; however, the most significant Republican gains came in Florida and Nevada where the races were largely outliers with the Florida Democratic candidate (Crist) having previously governed the state as Republican and Brian Sandoval representing one of only two Latino Republicans running in a statewide race. In fact, across the range of elections, the gender gap between Latinas and Latinos widened in 2014; however, as Christina Bejarano notes this continues to be a “modern” gender gap as both Latinas and Latinos have historically been strong Democrats and tend to diverge on their levels of support for the party. In other words, while gender differences between Latinas/os increased, both Latinas and Latinos still strongly favored Democrats over Republicans even as their enthusiasm waned.
Looking forward to 2016, the political landscape is once again shifting as a number of high quality candidates either officially enter the Presidential race (or make strong gestures to the effect), including Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush and two Latino Republicans – Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. Immigration once again dominates both national news and Latina/o voter concerns; however, the political advantage has now returned to Democrats.
Most notably, President Obama signed a series of executive orders in November 2014 providing the potential for deportation relief (and work authorization permits) to millions of undocumented immigrants through extensions of the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) plan and the newly created Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA). Implementation of these orders would benefit close to 6 million immigrants – double the number affected by the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act. Moreover, implementation of DACA and DAPA would likely expand access to additional resources (depending on each individual state) such as driver’s licenses and healthcare.
However, shortly after the signing of these historic orders, Republicans quickly mounted an aggressive attack, with 26 states led by Republican Governors suing the Executive in federal court and Congressional Republicans introducing legislation to stop funding for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) until the orders were repealed. On February 16 – days before the first phase of the orders went into effect, Judge Andrew Hannan of the Southern Texas District court issued a temporary injunction halting implementation until a full challenge could be heard. Both the court challenge and the funding block elicited negative responses from Latina/o voters – with over 2/3 of Latinas/os polled in a recent Latino Decisions survey supporting Obama’s executive action and simultaneously opposing Republican efforts to block the orders. As the survey indicates, the consistency across Latina/o ethnic groups, age, religious affiliation, and even partisan identification is remarkably high, underscoring the fact that concerns about immigration have only increased for Latina/o voters since the 2014 midterms.
In the meantime, Presidential candidates continue to stake their ground in favor or opposed to both the orders and immigration reform. Hillary Clinton further consolidates her support among Latina/o voters with advocacy for both deportation relief and more importantly a path to legalization including citizenship while both Cruz and Rubio reaffirm their support for additional restrictions and border enforcement. Jeb Bush stands alone among Republican contenders in his defense of immigration reform that isn’t merely punitive and specifically advocacy for legalization (albeit not citizenship) for the 11 million undocumented in the U.S.; however, even this moderate position is drowned out by the cacophony of Republican voices calling for additional restrictions, deportation, and further border enforcement.
Finally, looking forward to the 2016 election, it is clear that Latinas/os will play a significant role in the outcome of the Presidential race. Hillary Clinton has already begun a targeted mobilization campaign aimed at Latinas/os and brought high profile Latinas such as Amanda Renteria and Emmy Ruiz into the campaign structure. While some Republicans such as Rubio pollster Whit Ayers maintain that GOP candidates will need at least 40% Latina/o support – the only candidate among the Republicans at present who can even approach that is Jeb Bush. Both Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz suffer from high unfavorability ratings among Latino voters – numbers unlike to change as they continue to push for further immigration restrictions. In the end, another Clinton/Bush showdown may create some voter fatigue but a campaign involving Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush is likely to benefit Latinas/os as swing states of CO, FL, NV and NM once again play a significant role.
Anna Sampaio is an associate professor of Ethnic Studies and Political Science at Santa Clara University with specialization in Latina/o politics, intersectionality, and immigration. Her most recent publications include: “Latinas and Electoral Politics: Expanding Participation and Power in State and National Elections,”(in Gender and Elections: Shaping the Future of American Politics, eds. Sue Carroll and Richard Fox, 2013, Cambridge University Press); “Racing and Gendering Immigration Politics: Analyzing Contemporary Immigration Enforcement Using Intersectional Analysis.” Politics, Groups and Identities (2014) and “Revisiting Latina/o Gender Differences in Party Support,” (with Christina Bejarano) for Latino Decisions.