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The Curious Case of the Latino Vote, USA 2016


The Curious Case of the Latino Vote, USA 2016

Impacto Social Consultores

Sentiments towards Mexico – and Latinos generally – played a driving role in the U.S. presidential race, leaving no shortage of questions in the face of election results and the Latino vote.                                   

Demography is critical.  Thirty-six million Mexican Americans make up 11.2% of the U.S. population in 2017.  More broadly, Latinos tally at 17.6%: approaching one in five people in the U.S.  But consider that Latinos represented 12.5% in 2000, and accounted for more than half of the population growth in the U.S. from 2000 to 2014.  This rapid rise in numbers is expected to continue, wall or no wall, with considerable future import.

The 2012 presidential election saw 27% of Latinos vote for Republican candidate Mitt Romney.  Enter Donald Trump, four years later, with 29% – 2 points higher than his Republican predecessor.  While this figure is not a grand departure from Latino turnout for past Republican candidates, it is by some standards surprising in a 2016 paradigm. The unambiguous, post-dog-whistling racism central to the Trump campaign made little effort to cater to the core Latino vote on the surface. Disparaging remarks towards Mexican immigrants were liberally applied.  Calls for extreme border security measures proved nothing short of stock anthems on the campaign trail. 

Yet the Latino vote for Trump increased relative to Romney, coming in response to salient predictions of figures as low as 15%. Meanwhile, some insisted a winning campaign would need nearly half the Latino vote.  Though language barriers and uncertain turnouts complicate projections, low percentage forecasts for Trump perhaps appeared logical in the days leading up to the election for what then seemed obvious reasons.  So, what accounts for a mystifying turnout, and what might this portend?

Surely, there is traction to the view that rural white voters are not the only identity concerned by the social shifts in the U.S., encompassing rapid evolutions in feminism, L.G.B.T rights, and Muslim and Latino immigration trends. Indeed, there may be cause to think many Latino Americans are also threatened by the cultural changes of the last two decades, welcoming a return to a more familiar time as represented in the platform of the Republican candidate.  But further discussions center on the nature of Latino concerns in the U.S., possibly eclipsing issues of identify politics with priorities directed at questions of health care, education, jobs, and security.  Could it be that preoccupation with certain policy issues serve to obscure any outrage at the explicit racialized targeting?

But another well-catalogued view underscores the divide between documented and undocumented individuals.  There are those who, having gone through the protracted process of securing work permits and navigating formidable hurdles to establish legality, may find some degree of resentment in others quickly and easily achieving amnesty.  The notion of an undocumented worker taking one’s job for less pay highlights an ongoing psychological tension.  After all, Pew reports a quarter of Latinos favoring a large southern wall.  Some scholarship argues individuals of similar ethnicity are in fact the most likely to feel the negative impact of undocumented immigration.  Combined with a surge in racially-framed nativism, pressures on minorities to practice “ethnic distancing” must not be overlooked.

Notably, under the Latino umbrella, the Cuban American vote has historically lent favor to Republican candidates.  The 55% of the Cuban vote that went to Trump was, all things considered, par for the political course.  And it may simply be that this vote was more anti-Castro than pro-Trump.  Though, while only 0.7% of the U.S. population, Cuban Americans displayed a significant role in helping push the swing state of Florida into Republican dominance.

This points to a critical question challenging the predilection to reduce and analyze the kaleidoscopic diversity of Latino identities as one monolithic voting bloc. Here, the perception of a foreboding threat to Republicans in the form of a large, looming Latino vote reflexively favoring Democrats may ultimately be somewhat myopic.  A recognition of strains of conservativism in many immigrant Latino families is not to be discounted.   Movement of Latino contingents away from Catholicism in favor of evangelical Protestantism is not to be discounted. Questions of misogyny are not to be discounted.  The singular weight of issues such as abortion in determining voting patterns is not to be discounted, nor numerous other variables of social preference.

The sleeping giant to awake for the 2016 would not be the Latino vote, with only 48% voting, compared to 64% whites and 67% blacks.  Instead, coming to the fore were working class white Americans in the Rust Belt.  And so what, therefore, can be made of writer John Paul Brammer’s observation?: “If the rise of a xenophobic demagogue who called [Latinos] out by name wasn’t enough to jolt it awake, it’s hard to image that anything, outside of a presidential candidate from [the Latino] community, would do so.”

While varying models compete to explain trends in Latino voting, nearly all find agreement in a central reality: the Latino presence will continue to increase, and the future of U.S. politics will be deeply affected by this.  Zooming out, the U.S. Census Bureau anticipates over half of children in the U.S. by 2020 will be of a minority race of ethnic group.  What will this mean for the politics of race in America? Those with any penetrating insights into these realities stand to reap political reward.  But, as Donald has demonstrated, political certainties of the moment appear in scant supply.