Voter registration among California Latinos skyrocketed this year as Donald Trump labeled Mexican immigrants as “rapists,” but that doesn’t mean the Democrats can count on a tsunami of Latino votes in the November general election.
Latinos make up 39 percent of California’s population, having surpassed whites two years ago as the state’s largest ethnic group. But even after the registration surge, Latinos remain a disproportionally small part of the California voter pool, only 23.8 percent of registered voters.
“I think there’s an overplaying of the impact this could have on a statewide election,” said Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data Inc., a California firm that tracks election data for campaigns.
About 20 percent of the 8.5 million voters who turned out to vote in California’s primary election in June were Latino.
Mike Madrid, a California Republican consultant who specializes in Latino politics, said he was surprised the Latino primary turnout wasn’t higher, given the extremely negative view of Trump and the Democratic nomination battle between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
“It appears younger voters are turning off rather than showing up to have a protest vote,” said Madrid, who believes that could continue in November.
While there is less than a slim chance that Donald Trump can win California, the level of Hispanic turnout could decide major statewide ballot measures as well as tightly contested congressional races in the Central Valley, San Diego and Los Angeles, where Democrats are betting on anti-Trump sentiment to topple incumbent Republicans.
Although Trump insists that “the Hispanics love me,” Republican consultant Madrid said he’s never seen a candidate with higher negatives among Latinos. That includes Pete Wilson, who as governor in 1994 championed Proposition 187, a ballot measure that sought to ban undocumented immigrants from receiving public services. The measure poisoned the GOP’s relationship with California Latino voters.
Many California Latinos are ineligible to vote – either because they are too young or not citizens. But Latinos still represent 28 percent of Californians who are eligible to vote and do not approach that share of the turnout or of the state’s registered voters.
You can’t just say, ‘OK, Trump is thoroughly antagonizing Hispanic voters, therefore, let’s just sit back and enjoy their turnout’
Adrian Pantoja, Pitzer College
Despite Trump’s negative ratings among Latinos, organizers will have to knock on doors, send mailers and make calls to get a Latino turnout that surpasses previous elections, said Adrian Pantoja, a political scientist at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., and an analyst at the polling firm Latino Decisions.
Trump is getting Latinos interested in the election but a voter mobilization effort is at least as important, he said.
“You can’t just say, ‘OK, Trump is thoroughly antagonizing Hispanic voters, therefore, let’s just sit back and enjoy their turnout,’ ” Pantoja said.
Another reason to question the impact of the Latino vote is that while voter registration growth among California Latinos doubled this year compared to the last presidential election in 2012, there has also been a huge registration spike among whites, Asians and other voters. That means the Latino share of the California voter pool did not go up by much. It’s still far less than justified by the population.
Political Data’s Mitchell said there have been just two instances in the past 16 years where turnout of California Latinos outperformed their share of the electorate. One was Antonio Villaraigosa’s race for Los Angeles mayor and the other was a state Assembly race featuring labor-backed Latino Kevin de Leon and Christine Chavez, granddaughter of labor and civil rights leader Cesar Chavez.
“This idea of them as a sleeping giant, we’re always looking for it, but it’s a theme that I think has been oversold and has not really borne itself out yet in our elections,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell said he expects Latino voter registration to continue to rise with Trump on the ballot, though – and that could make a decisive difference in specific races even if the statewide numbers don’t change that much.
“It could have a one, two, three percent difference in a district and decide a big congressional race or decide a lot of local races,” he said.
At stake are the Democratic efforts to topple incumbent Republicans David Valadao and Jeff Denham in the Central Valley. Other Republican congressmen seeking re-election who might be vulnerable to a swelling Latino vote include Steve Knight in Los Angeles County and Darrell Issa in San Diego County.
High Latino turnout could also help Rep. Loretta Sanchez of Orange County, a Latina, at least narrow the gap in her U.S. Senate race against state attorney general Kamala Harris, according to analysts. Both are Democrats, and polls show Harris far ahead.
Mindy Romero, director of the California Civic Engagement Project at the University of California, Davis, said voter mobilization has the potential to drive turnout higher than the presidential election in 2012, when Latinos made up 19.3 percent of the California vote.
“A lot of Latinos feel when they hear Trump’s comments, they are not just offensive but threatening,” she said. “It’s a powerful thing to mobilize around.”
Turnout is particularly low among younger voters, though, and more than a third of California Latinos eligible to vote are under 30, according to the Pew Research Center.
The San Francisco-based Latino Community Foundation is working with billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer’s NextGen on a voter registration campaign targeting those young Latinos, including going to concerts by Marc Anthony and others to register voters.
“People are angry, you can go to any community organization where there’s a meeting held and people get really revved up about this election. What we’re trying to do is make sure that this anger and frustration turns out the vote,” said Jacqueline Martinez Garcel, CEO of the Latino Community Foundation.
She said many people simply don’t know how to register to vote. Along with congressional races, Garcel called Latino turnout vital for the 17 statewide ballot measures going before voters in November. She highlighted measures to repeal the ban on bilingual education and allow the possibility of early parole release for some felons whose crimes were not violent.