Every four years, without fail, the two mainstream political parties try to win over Latino voters for their respective presidential candidates. The reason is clear: there is no route to the White House without the support of Latinos.
This wooing is carried out with cynicism and fueled by the political ambitions of all concerned. Republicans and Democrats alike seem to rediscover us every four years, then forget about us until the next election. It’s such an open and flagrant display of opportunism that some people have called it the Christopher Columbus syndrome.
Historically, Latinos are more likely to vote for Democrats than for Republicans. According to a survey published by Latino Decisions in August, 66 percent of those registered to vote lean toward Joe Biden this year, compared to 24 percent who favor President Trump. If Mr. Trump can’t attract more Latino voters, he is likely to lose the election.
Given the growing number of Latino voters, the courting process has also become more sophisticated. Years ago, a candidate need only toss out a few words in Spanish — Ronald Reagan said little more than “Muchas gracias” in his speech proclaiming National Hispanic Heritage Week, just weeks before the 1984 election — but today specific promises are required, like the one made by Barack Obama during his 2008 campaign to introduce comprehensive immigration reform in Congress — a promise he did not keep.
But regardless of who wins on Nov. 3, Latinos will shape the future.
In 2020, the ritual is in full effect. President Trump boasted about the record low unemployment rates among Latinos before the pandemic. And a naturalization ceremony at the White House was featured during the Republican National Convention, showcasing Mr. Trump’s alleged commitment to America’s newcomers.
This stands in sharp contrast with his administration’s actions: constant attacks on immigrants; separating more than 5,000 children from their parents at the Mexican border, even detaining some in cages; and trying to end protections for the 700,000 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients.
More recently Mr. Trump has taken to calling immigrants murderers and rapists again. No wonder one of those newly sworn-in Americans who attended the White House ceremony, Robert Ramírez, originally from Bolivia, wasn’t willing to say he would vote for Mr. Trump. “I will vote,” he told Univision, “but my vote is private.”
Democrats are also good at making promises, and lots of them. Their nominee has pledged something millions of Latino immigrants have been waiting decades for. “This is my promise to you,” Mr. Biden posted on Twitter. “On Day 1, I’ll send a bill to Congress that creates a clear road map to citizenship for Dreamers and 11 million undocumented people who are already strengthening our nation. It’s long overdue.”
Yet when Mr. Biden was serving as vice president, the Obama administration not only failed to offer comprehensive immigration reform, it deported over three million undocumented citizens. Mr. Biden’s promise is fundamental to making right that mistake and winning back the trust of the Latino community. Even so, those who think Democrats take Latino votes for granted remain wary, which could hurt turnout for Mr. Biden.
This year, a projected 32 million Latinos will be eligible to vote, making them the largest racial or ethnic minority ever to participate in a presidential election. And for the first time, Latinos will outnumber Black voters, according to the Pew Research Center.
The power of Latino voters is evident in states such as Florida and Arizona. Had the Latino turnout been higher in those states in 2016, Mr. Trump might not be president. But over half of all Latinos eligible to vote didn’t do so, and consequently history was written in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Despite the racist insults he hurled at Mexican immigrants during his last campaign (“They are bringing drugs. They are bringing crime. They’re rapists.”) Mr. Trump won 28 percent of the Latino vote, according to an exit poll. (Democrats say it was closer to 20%) Though not even close to the 66 percent that voted for Hillary Clinton, it was enough to win him the election. Clearly, even insults couldn’t convince that small slice of the Latino electorate that Mr. Trump, who promised economic opportunity, a wall and a crackdown on dictatorships in Cuba and Venezuela, was unfit for office.
I myself have surfed the great Latino wave. When I arrived in the United States in the early 1980s, fewer than 15 million Latinos lived in this country; now we number more than 60 million. And in less than three decades we will be at 100 million, according to estimates.
These numbers mean no candidate will be able to achieve power in the United States without Latino support. Karl Rove, chief adviser to President George W. Bush, understood this perfectly. In 2004, Mr. Bush won 44 percent of the Latino vote, more than any other Republican presidential candidate ever. It was the first time Republicans tried to divide the Latino vote and prove the phrase attributed to Ronald Reagan: “Latinos are Republican. They just don’t know it yet.”
But instead of continuing their efforts to court Latino voters, Republicans turned their backs. As a candidate in 2016, Mr. Trump announced he would build his wall at the border, and that Mexico would pay for it. This is not how to win the hearts of Latinos.
The Latino vote is increasingly powerful, diverse and sophisticated. And in exchange for that vote, which can make or break a president, the Latino community expects concrete benefits. A few words in Spanish and a few empty promises are no longer enough.
At the end of the day, more than expecting Democrats and Republicans to pay attention to the major issues that concern Hispanics — jobs, education for their children, health insurance, immigration — it’s about having more political representation so that no one has to speak for us. We are more than 18 percent of the population and yet there are only four Latino senators.
The reality in United States politics today is that we have the power to open or close the doors to the White House. When it comes to Latino voters, this is the new meaning of that old campaign ritual.