Illinois Comptroller General Susana Mendoza recalled that during her 2016 election campaign she visited some areas so often that an elderly woman complained. “I already told you I'm going to vote for you. I am 80 years old. It's not easy for me to get up to open the door,” the woman said, Mendoza told City Lab.
Mendoza's intense campaigning has been credited by many – from the co-president of Hillary Clinton's Illinois campaign to Hispanic vote researchers in Chicago – as part of the reason for a significant increase in Latino voters in the state.
About 295,000 Hispanics voted in Illinois in 2012, when President Barack Obama was seeking reelection. Four years later the number spiked to 527,000 – an increase of 232,000 in just four years and one of the most dramatic spikes in Latino voting in presidential elections.
Other states reporting significant increases included California and Florida, with 188,000 and 153,000 additional Latino voters respectively. But Illinois, with only the fifth highest number of Hispanics, has just 1.49 million Hispanics over the age of 18, compared to 10.2 million in California and 4 million in Florida.
Florida and California also saw their number of Hispanics becoming U.S. citizens – and able to vote – outstrip their number of new Latino voters. In Illinois, however, the number of new citizens increased by 39.35 percent from 2012 to 2016, while the number of voters rose by 78.64 percent.
Illinois is a decidedly Democratic state and not the kind of swing state that attracts a lot of national attention. Clinton's campaign, for example, put a lot of effort into Florida, spending more than $18.8 million there only to see President Donald Trump win. Voto Latino estimated that while $12 to $18 per voter was spent in swing states like Florida, only $6 per voter was spent in Illinois.
The lessons of Illinois may well be valuable for election strategies in other states, especially given the relatively small amounts of money spent on it.
Illinois organizations used specific strategies to add Latinos to the voter rolls. The Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) , for example, runs a program that encourages civic participation as it helps people obtain U.S. citizenship.
“These conversations are very important to promoting engagement after they become citizens,” said Celina Villanueva, ICIRR's director of civic participation.
But Hispanics who could not vote also can play important roles. “What was impressive for me, and what became part of our strategy, was the participation of people who could not vote, undocumented migrants. After we spoke with them, they spoke with their families, their children, and persuaded them to vote,” said Greg Aguilar, who worked for Vota Quad Cities, a bilingual voter registration group.
During Hispanic Heritage Month from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15 Vota Quad Cities, LULAC and other bilingual organizations went to Latino cultural events and other places frequented by Hispanics. “We went to Latino barbers or supermarkets to talk to people and register them to vote,” Aguilar said.
But the biggest factor for the dramatic increase in Hispanic voters from 2012 to 2016 was the handful of top Latino politicians who pushed Latino voters to get involved in the election, said Jaime Dominguez, a political scientist at Northwestern University and member of the Chicago Democracy Project.
Winning trust among Latinos
The seeds of the expanded Hispanic interest in the 2016 elections were planted during the municipal elections of 2015, when Jesús ‘Chuy’ García was a candidate for the Chicago mayor's seat. García, a Cook County commissioner since 2010 and the first Mexican American elected to the state senate, lost but his candidacy encouraged Latinos.
“The Latino vote is not monolithic, but his candidacy inspired sectors that had been inactive or did not see any reason for civic participation,” said Domínguez.
Had Garcia won, he would have become only the second Mexican American mayor of a big U.S. city, after Eric Garcetti in Los Angeles. “That possibility changed the importance of the election for Latinos,” said Doug House, president of the Illinois Democratic Commission.
Another important Hispanic figure was Mendoza, according to Kevin Conlon, co-director of the 2016 Clinton campaign in Illinois. Mendoza defeated Republican Leslie Munger by 4 percentage point and became the first Latina elected to statewide office in Illinois.
“Having Mendoza on the ticket helped our campaign a lot,” said Conlon.
Mendoza and Munger spent a total of $11 million in the campaign, far more than the $1 million spent in the previous state comptroller's race.
Mendoza's campaign also focused on areas where Clinton was favored and did not require a lot of Clinton attention, Conlon said. While Clinton volunteers left to campaign in Idaho or Indiana, Mendoza focused on remote parts of Illinois.
“We went to places where residents had never seen national or statewide candidates,” said Mendoza.
Her campaign also included areas that were not predominantly Hispanic. Mendoza's political career started in Little Village, a historically Latino neighborhood of Chicago. But Hispanic voters in more remote areas were not accustomed to seeing Latino candidates and “people were surprised when we spoke to them in Spanish,” said Mendoza.
Other Hispanic politicians who have been in the public eye for decades also helped to get Latino voters involved in the electoral process.
Rep. Luis Gutiérrez has represented the 4th District in the U.S. Congress since 1993 and has been a key participant in immigration policy debates. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, who held the post from 1989 to 2011, also contributed to the increased Hispanic voter participation.
“Daley pushed for more Latino representation and little by little brought them … into his ruling coalition,” said Dominguez. “For example he was the first to pick a Latino council member, Danny Solis from District 25, as president of the municipal council.”
Solis, who is the brother of Patti Solis Doyle, one of the first directors of Clinton's presidential campaign, has remained a member of the municipal council since 1996.
Mendoza said her election victory was partly the result of all the work of those who preceded her. But it also shows the importance of long-term work by Hispanic politicians to motivate voters. Perhaps political parties in swing states should work hard, to get more elected Hispanic officials to show Latinos that their votes count, for whatever presidential candidates they may favor.
“People want to see politicians who speak their language and identify with them,” said Mendoza. “It's a question of which came first, the chicken or the egg. Did they vote because they saw (Hispanic) representatives, or did their vote elect the representatives?”