Deep in the Heart of Texas

Will they or won’t they? That question regarding Latino voters and whether or not they will show up to the polls comes up each election cycle. More recently, this question has been followed by: Can Latino voters turn Texas blue?

With 38 electoral votes at stake, Texas represents the ultimate prize for Democrats, and with more than five million eligible Latino voters in the state, it seems doable.  But how committed are Democrats to making that happen?

“I would say Latino voters are already energized,” asserts Enrique Gutierrez, Hispanic Media Director and Southern Regional Press Secretary for the Democratic National Committee (DNC). “From what we’ve seen and heard, and what polling has shown they’re excited about voting in this election, and it doesn’t matter who the Democratic nominee is.”


Critical Mass


According to Latino Decisions, in an analysis of Latino voting trends, the number of Latino registered voters grew from 1,092,000 to 1,918,000 between 2014 and 2018, plus 925,000 registered voters who didn’t vote.  Add to that another 2,751,000 who are eligible to vote but did not register.

“It’s a simple proposition, how do we get to 50 plus one to win,” says Manny Garcia, executive director of the Texas Democratic Party.  “We argue that if you look at demographics, you’ll see that you have a Latino community in Texas inclined to vote Democratic. We’re a core constituency for getting Democrats to win, because by and large, most of these districts will need a percentage of the Latino vote in order to win.”

But because Texas was not considered a serious battleground state, the DNC left it alone, but that may be changing. While Gutierrez will not share actual dollar figures, he stresses that what’s significant this election cycle is that the DNC began to organize around Latino voters early, something it had been criticized for not doing in the past, not just in Texas, but in other battleground states like Florida and Arizona. They also assigned a Latino outreach director to all three states.

Efforts on the ground began almost as soon as DNC chair Tom Perez was elected in 2017. For the first time, a Latino is the head of the organization and Gutierrez agrees that it has made a difference, from hiring more Latinos at the DNC to having access and direction from Perez to reach out to Latino leaders and engage in one-on-one conversations to determine the most important issues and what changes can be made to support the Latino community.

“When Perez took over in 2017, he was aware of the criticisms made about the committee’s Latino outreach and made a commitment to up our game,” Gutierrez shares. “The power of having a Latino chairperson to convene groups, leaders, and organizers nationally for events, like Cafecitos con Politics, has made a difference. He has an open door policy for speaking with Latino leaders and stakeholders, who have given input and he has implemented their suggestions.  He’s giving us a voice and we’re running with it.”

The DNC also launched a new effort targeting Latinas called ¡Mujeres Mobilize! According to Cynthia Rotunno, Latinx Community Engagement Director at the DNC, polling has shown that Latinas have become more engaged than their male counterparts, voting in greater numbers. Latinas involved in the effort are encouraged to hold house parties to discuss issues,  and fifteen Latina ambassadors are deployed to help flip local races from red to blue.

“We launched Mujeres in 2018 hoping to harness the energy of Hispanic women and girls,” explains Rotunno. “Latinas were already marching for issues that were personal to them and helping to organize families and friends to get out the vote.”


Room to Grow


Not only have Latino outreach efforts amplified, so has attention from pollsters, Most recently, Progress Texas released a report, Flipping Texas in 2020, a follow-up to a previous report, Flipping Texas in 2018. Executive Director Ed Espinoza points out that the study reveals quantifiable evidence that Texas may be moving into the blue corral.

For instance, Democrats expanded voter rolls by more than a million between 2004 and 2018, while Republican voter rolls remained nearly stagnant, gaining only 150,000 new voters. Texas also picked up four new congressional seats and stand to earn three more from redistricting.

Inevitably compared to a sleeping giant, Latino voters have always had the potential to change Texas, but Espinoza also identified a newer giant in Texas—new arrivals from other states that tend to be more progressive.

Two challenges, however, are Millennials and South Texas. According to Espinoza, voter turnout has increased in the most populous counties except for South Texas and voter turnout among Millennials, while growing, remains underrepresented, especially in Texas. Organizations like Jolt, however, have emerged with the mission of increasing voter turnout among young Latinos.

“Turnout in the last presidential election and midterm is getting better across the state except for one area, South Texas. From 2016-2018 turnout was at least ten points lower than rest of the state,” he says. “But if Millennials and Gen X voters voted in the same numbers as Baby Boomers, Texas would have turned blue a long time ago.”

In another study, Univision, the University of Houston Department of Mexican American Studies, and Latino Decisions surveyed Latino voters regarding their inclinations toward presidential candidates for the 2020 presidential election as well as top issues. Seventy-two percent of Latinos nationally said they planned to vote for a Democratic presidential candidate.


Reversing the Trend


Latino voters have battled a reputation for not voting for decades. Some argue that the reason for low Latino voter turnout is that candidates and political parties didn’t invest in outreach with Latino communities but instead, ignored them or at best, gave them token attention. Others say non-Latino consultants were overly influential.

That changed in 2018 when Latino voters became engaged rather than disenfranchised during the midterm elections. According to the Pew Research Center, Latinos reached a new high of 30 percent of eligible voters in Texas. Nationwide, there were 29 million Latino eligible voters in the 2018 midterm elections, accounting for 12.8 percent of all eligible voters.

Pew also reported that Latino voter turnout increased to about 40 percent, about a thirteen percentage point increase over 2014. Latino voter turnout still has room to grow, however, compared to turnout among white voters (57.5 percent) and black voters. (51.4 percent) which increased by 11.7 and 10.8 percentage points, respectively, since 2014.

In congressional races, Latinos cast votes for Democratic over Republican candidates, 69 percent to 29 percent in 2018. In Texas, 64 percent voted for then Democratic senatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke over Republican Ted Cruz and 53 percent for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Republican Lupe Valdez over Republican incumbent Gregg Abbott.

“From our perspective, Texas is the biggest battleground state in the country, but to win we need to expand the Latino vote by reaching out to the community, voters and nonvoters,” Garcia says. “In order to do that, we’re forming the largest coordinated campaign that we ever formed, with more than 1,000 field organizers on the ground, engaging with folks, talking not just about the importance of their vote, but about issues that matter to their daily lives, like universal healthcare, teacher’s salaries, and jobs.”

According to Espinoza, the most common mistake made by parties and candidates is lack of communication. The attitude had been that Latinos have to vote for Democratic candidates because the alternative is so terrible.

“You can’t expect Latinos just to show up and vote, just because they hate the other guy, that doesn’t mean they’re gonna love you,” asserts Espinoza. “A lot of politics can be self-perpetuating if you only talk to voters who vote. If you want to change the electoral reality, you gotta change your campaign, you have to have a plan for not just who’s voting but who’s not voting.”

But the issues Latinos care most about have also shifted. While healthcare, wages and immigrants’ rights were the top three concerns in June of 2019, in September, the top three concerns were healthcare, immigrants’ rights, and stopping Trump, according to Latino Decisions.

When candidate Trump kicked off his campaign by calling Mexican immigrants criminals and rapists, political pundits wondered if Latino voters would respond. In 2018, they certainly did and political consultant Gilberto Ocañas, currently working with the Julian Castro presidential campaign, believes that it was a sea change in Latino attitudes toward politics.

“There was an old survey in 2009 that looked at the top five things Latinos talked about and politics was at the bottom,” he offers. “Now we see more Latinos taking it upon themselves to be more active, for the first time more people talked to other people about politics. When you have a racist anti-Latino leader on Twitter and TV every day, it can create a coming together in the Latino community and the potential for a really big blue and a brown wave.”

Much can change in the run-up to November 2020, but Democrats are hoping Latinos will make a difference, deep in the heart of Texas.

By Valerie Menard