This is how Latinos elect Donald Trump: Why Democrats can't coast on demographics and Trump's wall in 2016

Think Democrats have the Latino vote wrapped up? They don't -- here are four reasons why turnout could be a problem

Published April 13, 2016 12:00PM (EDT)

It is easy to assume that Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant and anti-Latino speeches will drive Latino voters to the Democratic Party and boost turnout among Latinos on election day. This common sense view anticipates that just like in 2008 and 2012, the Democratic candidate will overwhelmingly win the Latino vote and this will combine with consistent support from African Americans, young voters, unmarried women and other growing progressive constituencies to ensure the Democratic nominee’s victory in November 2016. We can call this the “demographic reality” -- base Democratic constituencies are larger than base Republican constituencies and if the Democratic base turns out in a presidential election year, the Democrat wins.

There is one obvious exception to this demographic reality in 2016. If Latino voters turn out at worse levels than what occurred in 2008 and 2012, it becomes much more likely that the Republican nominee will get elected president. I can envision the conditions under which this Latino turnout drought could occur. It would require four things to happen almost simultaneously:

  • The Obama Administration would need to engage in deportation raids across the country primarily targeting Latino families and children.
  • Grassroots organizing and widespread coverage in Spanish Language media would make the raids and the pain they create for families well known among Latino voters.
  • The raids would need to be blamed on the current Democratic president.
  • The Supreme Court would need to decide Texas v. US against the Obama Administration ending executive actions that make it possible for up to 5 million undocumented immigrants to live and work in the US without fear of deportation. (For purposes of this analysis, a 4 to 4 Supreme Court tie would have the same effect as an Administration loss.)

If these things all happened, and the first three of them already have, we could have a President Trump. His election would be the consequence of low Latino turnout resulting from Obama Administration policies and facilitated by the Supreme Court.

Let’s dig a little deeper on how this could all play out.

The Republican Candidates’ Positions

On the Republican side, Donald Trump kicked off his unique candidacy of economic and cultural nationalism with an attack on Latinos. During his announcement speech, he said of Mexican immigrants: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”

He has said since that he would end President Obama’s executive action called DACA, paving the way for the deportation of as many as one million young immigrants who have grown up in the US who are currently covered by the program or who will gain eligibility as they become old enough to apply. He would go further and deport US citizen children of undocumented immigrants in an Orwellian effort to “keep families together.” This series of attacks on all immigrants but especially Latino immigrants catapulted Trump to the front of the Republican field.

Only one other Republican candidate is really in the running for the nomination: Senator Ted Cruz. While less personally verbally abusive of immigrants than Trump, Cruz is on the far right wing among Republicans on immigration issues. He would immediately end DACA and DAPA and voted against the 2013 bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform which passed the Senate 68 to 32. At a campaign stop in Iowa, Cruz told a current DACA recipient that he would deport people like her.

The Democratic Candidates’ Positions

Both Democratic candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have articulated far reaching pro-immigrant policies, including broad immediate legalization strategies and a longer term path to citizenship for a significant portion of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. This reflects not only smart policy, but smart politics. Latino Decisions’ election eve poll from 2014 found that progressive immigration reform and support for the DREAM Act (which would create a pathway to citizenship for undocumented young immigrants) were far and away the top issues that Latinos felt “our politicians should address.” The same poll identified significantly more Latino enthusiasm for the Democratic Party if Obama went forward with executive actions to provide relief for undocumented immigrants and decreased enthusiasm for the Republican Party if its members opposed those same executive actions.

Under normal circumstances this wide gap in support for immigrants should create strong Latino turnout and return a Democrat relatively easily to the White House. But in 2016, all is neither normal nor rosy for the Democrats as they pursue high Latino turnout in the general election.

US v. Texas

The Supreme Court has scheduled oral arguments on April 18th in Texas v. the United States. Texas and other Republican-led states sued the Obama Administration to stop implementation of two executive orders called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) that would ensure that up to 5 million undocumented immigrants are not deported. The very conservative Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals found against the Obama Administration and in the Fall of 2015, the Supreme Court decided to take up the Administration’s appeal. A decision is likely in June.

If the Supreme Court decides against Texas, thus allowing DACA and DAPA to proceed, then the reason for Latinos to vote could not be clearer and we can expect high Latino voter turnout. A Democratic win will continue Obama’s executive actions while a Republican win will end them immediately. Something similiar happened in 2012 when President Obama announced the first phase of DACA before the election and Latino voters turned out solidly, ensuring that the program protecting young immigrants would continue after the election. A Latino turnout rate similar to 2012 would all but guarantee the election of a Democrat in 2016.

But either a Supreme Court decision for Texas or a 4 to 4 tie would almost certainly depress the Latino vote below 2012 levels. A tie is made possible by the death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia and the current unwillingness of the Republican-controlled Senate to even consider an Obama nominee to fill the seat. In the case of a tie, the Fifth Circuit decision in support of Texas would stand. The two most likely scenarios are either a tie or an Administration win.

President Obama and the Raids

At the beginning of 2016, the Obama administration began a policy of using raids at homes and businesses to deport people who came to the United States to flee rape, murder and gang warfare in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. All three nations are now in the top five most deadly countries in the world. Thousands of families as well as unaccompanied children travelled to the US as refugees as the murder rates in these three countries skyrocketed. They rode trains, buses and trucks through Mexico to get to the US - Mexico border.

In justifying these raids, the Administration says simply that it is doing what it has said it would do on immigration since late 2014: prioritize recent border crossers and criminals. (The Administration is not alleging these unaccompanied children and families are criminals, but instead that they are recent border crossers.) The Obama Administration moved decisively away from Bush era workplace and neighborhood raids because they led to widespread fear in communities, with parents keeping children home from school for weeks on end, and residents unwilling to report crime to local police for fear of deportation.

It is not clear why the Obama Administration has returned to raids. However, two theories are making the rounds among immigration activists, lawyers, and Capitol Hill offices:

  • There is a concern at the White House that during the summer months (when the number of border crossings often peaks), there will be a significant uptick in Central Americans fleeing violence and arriving at the southern border. This could lead to a highly visible refugee problem just months before the presidential election, raising a tough issue for a Democratic nominee facing Donald Trump. The Administration has acknowledged that one goal of the raids is to discourage more people from fleeing from Central American violence to the United States.
  • As the Supreme Court considers the case of Texas v. US on the legality of President Obama’s executive actions on immigration, the Administration wants to send a clear message to the Justices that it is enforcing existing immigration laws, contrary to the arguments of plaintiffs in the case.

Donald Trump offered another theory for the Obama Administration’s new policy, tweeting: “Wow, because of the pressure put on by me, ICE TO LAUNCH LARGE SCALE DEPORTATION RAIDS. It's about time!”

Deportations to Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala often end badly. The Guardian newspaper reported on three Honduran men who were “gunned down shortly after being deported by the US government. Each was murdered in their hometowns, soon after their return – one just a few days after he was expelled from the US.” The Guardian then cites work by a social scientist at San Diego State University that identified “45 such cases in El Salvador, three in Guatemala and 35 in Honduras.” The US government clearly knows that deportees are at great risk. Because of the violence, in 2012 the Peace Corps pulled out of Honduras and in January of this year it pulled out of El Salvador.

Given this risk, a sound policy on people fleeing Central American violence is needed. As Phil Wolgin wrote recently, this would entail acting immediately to ensure due process for potential asylees including providing notice of their right to apply for asylum and information on how to do so, as well as access to a lawyer to help present their case. In the medium term, the Administration could work with governments in the region and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to allow for a fair and timely process for people to apply for asylum in the region so they do not have to make the dangerous journey to the United States -- often under the control of criminal gangs acting as smugglers. In the long term, US foreign policy in the region must seek to create stability and reduce violence. Unfortunately, as the Arizona Republic reported while identifying the root causes of child refugees in 2014, historically US actions, including supporting coups and dictators, have often contributed to a lack of political stability and peace in the region.

Why the Raids Matter to the Presidential Election

Regrettably, this sound policy is not yet in place. Instead, there are the raids, which have become a focus for grassroots activists and organizing groups across the country that work in Latino communities. Over the last decade these groups have built out the capacity to communicate rapidly to their constituents and mobilize thousands of people to advocate for or against local, state and federal immigration policy.

Members of the largest coalition of these groups, the Fair Immigration Reform Movement (or FIRM), as well as many unaffiliated organizations, have over the last two months completed more than a dozen highly visible protests across the country.   This included: a civil disobedience where activists were arrested outside the White House; hundreds of protestors blocking traffic in Los Angeles; the surrounding of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement building in San Francisco which also led to arrests; a march of 20,000 on the capital in Wisconsin; and a rally in New Haven, Connecticut where both the police chief and Democratic Mayor joined with protestors and spoke against the raids.

The raids are a dominant topic in Spanish language media. This matters to the election because in the Latino Decisions Election Eve poll in 2014, fully 59% of Latino voters polled said they relied in part on Spanish language media for election information. Spanish language television news covers not just that the raids are happening but also the protests against the raids, efforts to get resources for lawyers for refugee children, and even the extreme measures that families are taking to avoid being deported. In the context of the elections and raids, the Spanish language networks have highlighted that both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have broken with President Obama to oppose the raids -- with Hillary Clinton making this clear for the first time at a forum hosted by Univision anchor Jorge Ramos in Des Moines, Iowa.

The raids create a significant problem for Democrats. Many of the best respected grassroots immigrant rights and Latino civil rights organizations in dozens of states across are publicizing the raids and directly blaming President Obama. (At the White House action last month, advocates were arrested while holding a sign that read “President Obama you have blood on your hands.”) Univision and Telemundo are blasting these denunciations of the head of the Democratic Party into the homes of millions of Latino voters. Latino voters watching stories about deportations of Latinos to their potential death, have to decide whether a party whose President is facilitating this is worth coming out to vote for.

The Latino Vote

Latino voters are an essential ingredient for any Democrat to win the Presidency. President Obama was elected in 2012 with a coalition of voters that included dramatic majorities of African Americans and Latinos. Because the electorate has become more diverse, meaning that voters of color make up a higher percentage of the electorate every four years, Obama was able to win the Electoral College relatively easily in 2012 despite losing the white vote by 20 points. This 20 point loss of the white vote for someone who actually won the Presidency is historic. Democrats have done as bad or even slightly worse than this 20 point margin at different times in the last 40 years but in each case (Carter/Reagan; Mondale/Reagan; Dukakis/Bush) the Democrat lost and generally was crushed at the polls. The rapid growth in the number of Latino voters is the essential element in this changing American electorate.

Latinos are particularly important in key “swing” states that could go either way in the November election dependent in significant part on how many Latinos vote. These include: Nevada, Colorado, Florida, New Mexico, and even Virginia and Pennsylvania. However, Latinos in recent presidential elections turn out to vote at rates well below the rates for either black or white voters. And, Latino voter participation rates, according to the US Census, not only change election to election but can fall significantly as they did between 2008 and 2012, after climbing every year from 1996 to 2008.

Latino voters are much younger on average than white and black voters. The Pew Research Center estimates that 44% of 2016 Latino voters were born after 1980 compared to 35% of African American and 27% of white voters. And we know that young voters both turn out less frequently than older voters and are more susceptible to swings in turn out election to election.

So here’s the election math for both parties.

To win, Republicans need a large turnout of white voters with a low turnout of Latinos. Democrats on the other hand, want 2016 turnout rates from African Americans and Latinos to be consistent with either 2008 leading to a Democratic landslide or to 2012 resulting in a solid Democratic victory.

Debunking Trump’s White Vote Argument

In the March 3rd Republican debate Trump talked about how he is getting “millions and millions” of new people to vote and vote as Republicans – the point being that he believes his candidacy will inspire lots of people who otherwise would not vote to do so or that it will encourage Democratic voters to vote for him in the general election. (The Washington Post found no evidence of this alleged trend.)

If Trump wants to win, he definitely does not want to increase the number of African Americans or Latinos who turn out to vote. A recent CNN/ORC poll found that 74% of non-white voters had an unfavorable opinion of Trump, far exceeding the unfavorable rating for any other 2016 candidate for president from either party. If Trump is the nominee, he will enter the general election with much lower favorable ratings among Latinos than either Republican nominee John McCain had in 2008 or Mitt Romney had in 2012.

What Trump really means is that he can bring new white people to the polls or convince white Democrats to vote for him. (Let’s forget for the moment that in a recent CNN poll 53% of white voters had an unfavorable opinion of Trump.) Unfortunately for him, increasing white turnout alone is not a winning strategy. This is for two connected reasons.

  1. The percentage of whites voting in the general election has fluctuated over the last twenty years from a low of 60.7% in 1996 to a high of 67.2% in 2004, when George W. Bush was re-elected. Because of the increase in the number of voters of color over the last twelve years, even if Trump hits the 2004 high water mark for white turnout, and Latino and African American turnout looks like 2004, 2008 or 2012, Trump will not win.
  1. When Bush won in 2004, he did so because he both won whites during a year of very high white turnout and he captured a relatively high percentage of the Latino vote. Exit polls recorded this as 44% of the Latino vote but it was almost certainly more like 39% as determined by Ruy Teixeira. Whether using Teixeira’s numbers or exit poll results, in 2004 Bush far exceeded the level of support from Latinos that the Republican nominee got in 2008 or 2012. Trump will not do as well as McCain or Romney among Latinos, and will not come close to Bush.

The most straightforward way for a Republican nominee to win the presidency is Bush’s route: to both get high white support and high white turnout as well as get strong Latino support. However, that Latino support must now be much higher than Bush’s 2004 level. This is because from 2004 to 2012, the number of Latinos who voted grew by 47% from 7.6 million to 11.2 million. And, 4 million additional US citizen Latinos have become eligible to vote since 2012.

The polling and research group Latino Decisions has done the most extensive review of the percentage of the Latino vote necessary for Republicans to win the White House and even with high white turnout and a return of African American participation to pre-Obama levels, they estimate the Republican will need to get 42% of the Latino vote. This level of Latino support for Trump is unimaginable.

The Democratic Nightmare Scenario

But the Democrats can still lose.

With this powerful demographic wind in his face, Trump will need a combination of factors to win:

  • A higher than 2004 turnout among whites while winning at least 60% of the white vote.
  • African American party preference and turnout to return to pre-Obama levels.
  • Latino turnout to fall significantly.

This combination would ensure that the following states won in 2012 by Obama were toss ups in 2016: Florida, Colorado, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia. If Trump could win Florida and any two of the others, he would almost certainly become President.

To be clear, there is not an easy path to the Presidency for Trump or for any Republican given the demographic change that continues in America. The only reason there is still a path in 2016 is because of the potential for suppressed Latino turnout.

The most obvious route to a major Latino turnout decline is a 4-4 Supreme Court tie in Texas v. US and continued raids by the Obama Administration. Right now, this is a pretty likely scenario.

(If you want to test your own hypothesis about Latino, black and white turnout and vote share you can do so on two tools:’s election scenario tool and Latino Decisions Threshold Calculator. They address the assorted variables a bit differently but are both worth trying out.)

By Henry Fernandez

Henry Fernandez is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. The views expressed are his own.

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