Shared from the 10/14/2018 Houston Chronicle eEdition

Parties misjudge Latino vote power

Picture

Didi Martinez, from left, Naiyolis Palomo and Marie Moreno take a selfie after voting early in the midterm primaries. Palomo, 24, became a U.S. citizen in December.

Marie D. De Jesús/ Staff photographer

It’s a familiar story line making an encore in Texas elections: Latinos are center stage as the protagonists who will lift a “blue wave” of Democratic candidates into office and disrupt a half century of Republican dominance.

But after the votes are counted, the discussion turns to an anticlimactic disparagement in which Hispanics, again, become the scapegoat of the Democratic Party’s unrealized election hopes.

“Every two years, the Democrats find some sort of factoid that they stay on and convince themselves that this is the year that will make Texas competitive,” said Chris Wilson, a Republican strategist and former research director for Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign. “But every two years, it falls flat.”

Behind this ebb and flow, there are striking miscalculations of Latino participation, experts say, and an acute neglect of this electorate by both parties. If Democrats have overestimated the power of the Latino vote to turn Texas competitive overnight, Republicans are underestimating it in a fast-changing time that some analysts consider unprecedented.

Renee Cross, senior director of the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs, says Texas politics today are “a perfect storm for the growing Latino population.”

A set of unique conditions have begun to crystallize into more Hispanic participation in Texas. Among them, the end of the “Latino friendly” Republican Party from the former Gov. and President George W. Bush era, a backlash from President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policies, motivation with Latina candidates in top state tickets, and unparalleled innovative mobilization efforts led by Latinos themselves, Cross and other experts say.

‘Voting is aprivilege’

“I want to make sure that we are electing people that are going to push legislation to better the well-being of immigrants and people of color,” said 24-year-old Naiyolis Palomo, an immigrant from Cuba living in Houston who voted for the first time in this year’s primaries after becoming a naturalized citizen in December. “I had a lot of pride when I went to vote. Becoming American and voting is a privilege that I take very seriously.”

This year, Latino voters have Democratic former sheriff Lupe Valdez at the top of the ballot running against Republican Gov. Greg Abbott. Two other female candidates, state Sen. Sylvia Garcia from Houston and Veronica Escobar from El Paso, are running as Democrats and aspire to become the first Latinas from Texas to represent their state in the U.S. Congress.

Results of the mobilization are beginning to show in areas such as Harris County.

Earlier this year, Hispanic voters here set a record for their turnout in primary midterm elections. Their turnout was at least 85 percent higher than in any other non-presidential primary since 2002, and more significantly, 164 percent higher than in the last midterm primary in 2014, according to data of Spanish-surname voters provided by Hector de León, director of voter outreach at the Harris County Clerk’s Office.

“It’s taking years (for Latinos) to get all set for elections,” said Tony Díaz, a Houston activist and writer who teaches Mexican-American studies at Lone Star College. “It’s like with grammar. …It takes time to learn, but then it becomes natural.”

Díaz said that one of the strategies mobilizers are applying is certifying young people, as Texas requires, to be able to register others, which “they have been doing at parties and quinceañeras and wherever they go.”

The growth between the last two primaries did not favor GOP candidates as much as Democrats. Republicans were able to increase the Latino turnout by a hefty 50 percent in that period, but it pales to the 300 percent increase of Hispanics who voted for Democratic candidates in Harris County’s primaries.

Overall in the state among all groups, though, Republicans had a higher turnout. While Latinos are furthering their own blue wave and setting records, it’s unlikely that they alone can turn Texas competitive.

“Neither Democrats nor Republicans are doing a good job investing in Latino voters,” said Bernard Fraga, a political science professor at Indiana University and author of “The Turnout Gap,” published by Cambridge University.

“November results could be a wake-up call,” he said. “At the very least, November is going to be a test, particularly for Democrats, to understand that they have to invest time and money on this group in Texas if they really want changes.”

One of the main miscalculations in assessing the Latino vote has been comparing the share of the Hispanic vote with their share of the population, which led to a “conclusion that they have a shockingly low electoral participation,” said De Leon, the county’s voter outreach director.

A popular misconception is assuming that because 39 percent of the Texas population is Hispanic that their electoral participation should be of similar proportions. In reality, fewer than 5 million of Texas’ 11 million Hispanics are eligible to vote. That’s only 20 percent of the state population and about 30 percent of all registered voters.

In addition, national exit polls have misled the public about the Latino participation in elections by drawing conclusions from non-representative samples, according to several analysts, including Matt Barreto, a political science professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and co-founder of Latino Decisions. That is one of the reasons why, in the last presidential elections, exit polls significantly undervalued the Latino vote, as did a subsequent U.S. Census survey of the results that estimated adismal increase of the Hispanic turnout by only 2.2 percent compared to 2012.

An actual count of Spanish surnames by the Texas Legislative Council, based on the Secretary of State voting records, later revealed that the Latino vote grew more significantly in every measure between 2012 and 2016. While the eligible Hispanic population increased by 15 percent, the surname count showed that their voting registration rose by 20 percent, and their turnout, by nearly 30 percent, much higher than exit poll assessments.

These numbers also expose a possibly overlooked pattern: Latinos are registering and voting at significantly higher rates than their population is growing.

In Harris County, Latino voter turnout jumped from 46 to 53 percent between the last two (presidential) elections, De Leon said, contributing more than half of the overall increase in the 2016 turnout.

‘Need to do more’

Bush courted the Latino vote like no Republican before, experts say, and they rewarded him with unprecedented support for a Republican with 35 and 40 percent of their vote in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, respectively.

“When George W. Bush was governor, he appointed more Latinos to positions than have ever been appointed in the history of the state of Texas, (including) Supreme Court justices, district court judges, secretary of state, and the list goes on,” said Republican Harris County Treasurer Orlando Sanchez, who has held several elected positions in the Houston area for over two decades.

Sanchez said that although the Democratic Party had more Hispanic candidates in the primaries this year, a higher percentage of those running as Republicans won in the primaries.

“The message to the Republican (Party) is, it helps you to recruit more minorities, which is the message that I have been trying to deliver to the Republican Party for 25 years,” he said. “You need to do more in my community.”

Texas also pioneered the Texas Dream Act, signed by Gov. Rick Perry in 2001, that allowed noncitizen students to pay in-state tuition for higher education.

But those Latino-friendly days are over, and state GOP leaders today are taking a different tack. They have passed laws including the anti-sanctuary cities SB4, targeting unauthorized immigrants and forcing local police to comply with requests from federal immigration authorities. They led a multistate lawsuit in 2014 against an expansion of DACA, the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program providing temporary protection against deportation for immigrants brought to the country illegally when they were minors.

And Republicans demanded Trump cancel DACA, which he did, and have continued challenging it in court against attempts to save it, even though most Americans support the program.

The Texas Dream Act is a good example of the changing times, said Mark Jones, a Baker Institute political researcher and Rice University professor.

“When it was passed in 2001, it had near-unanimous support among Republicans … but in 2017, supporters of the Texas Dream Act had to fight pretty plausibly hard from passing a repeal in the Senate,” Jones said.

“The difficulty for that strain of the Republican Party is that they are seen by a majority of Texas Latinos as being anti-immigrant and anti-Latino,” Jones said.

Alejandro Trevino, a spokesperson for Abbott’s re-election campaign, disagrees.

“Gov. Abbott has made it a priority to reach out to Hispanic voters and build meaningful relationships within the community,” Trevino said.

Trevino emphasized that, as with all voters, Hispanics want leaders who deliver results for the economy, education and safe communities.

“Texas is No. 1in jobs created by Hispanic business owners,” he said. “The values the governor is fighting for are the same values shared by so many in the Hispanic community, including a commitment to faith, freedom and family.”

New strategies

The number of progressive-leaning Latino organizations working to mobilize the Texas electorate is increasing. While Texas Hispanics have been usually ignored by parties as nonworthy investments in a solidly Republican state, they are now appearing in focus among priority regions.

“My biggest lesson in 2016 is that neither party is truly dedicated to enfranchising the Latino community,” said Maria Teresa Kumar, president and CEO of Voto Latino, one of the national organizations working to mobilize Latino voters in Texas, particularly millennials and residents with low-election participation.

While over 27 million Hispanics in the U.S. are eligible to vote, about 60 percent are under the age of 33, Kumar said. Young voters, in general, tend to be less active in elections, with the chances of participation increasing as they graduate, marry, have children and become homeowners, said Cross.

De Leon said that in Harris County, about 50 percent of Latino registered voters are between 18 and 39 years old.

Carlos Duarte, Texas director of Mi Familia Vota (My Family Votes), said that besides implementing innovations in social media and smartphone applications, the organization is reaching out in person.

“We have been going classroom by classroom in high schools and community colleges to educate students in understanding the connections between the things they care about and the power of using their vote to elect officials that can do something about it,” Duarte said.

“The big news,” he said, “is that, after we have been building the base working with Latinos for years, Texas is now on the map of nonprofits paying attention to them and investing resources. I have never seen this kind of enthusiasm here before.” olivia.tallet@chron.com

See this article in the e-Edition Here