Now that they’ve failed their midterms, Democrats are spinning the election losses and trying to convince themselves and everyone else that things are really not so bad. Meanwhile, privately, they’re thinking about 2016 and hoping it doesn’t get worse.
They must take comfort from the likelihood that they’ll likely have the formidable Hillary Clinton at the top of the ticket, and she’ll be hard to beat. They expect to maintain the White House, and then, they tell themselves, everything will return to normal.
Part of what they mean by “normal” is that the Hispanic vote will return to their column, that last week’s result—when 36 percent of Hispanic votes went Republican, up from 27 percent in 2012—was an aberration that they can get beyond.
But is it really? Or is this something they should be worried about for the long term? Given the changing demographics of the voting population, it’s an important question that Democrats can’t afford to get wrong.
Hispanic voters made up just 8 percent of 2014 voters, according to the national exit poll. Keep in mind that Hispanics are the second-fastest growing ethnic group in America, after Asian-Americans, and that, every month, another 50,000 U.S. Hispanic teenagers turn 18 and thus become eligible to vote.
And yet the Pew Research Center’s Hispanic Trends Project estimates that the turnout rate for Hispanic voters was about what it was in the last midterm election, around 31 percent. And that means that, even as the number of potential Hispanic voters continues to climb, their participation rate in midterms has flat lined.
The only silver lining for those who would like to see more Hispanics vote is that they do tend to make a better showing in presidential election years. In 2012, when President Obama squared off against former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Hispanics accounted for one in 10 voters. And since they gave more than 70 percent of their votes to Obama, it’s no exaggeration to say that Hispanics played a major role in reelecting the president just as they helped elect him the first time four years earlier.
Democrats got spoiled. And it appears that many of them were counting on this trend to continue this year. For the last several months, prominent Democrats have urged Hispanics to make their voices heard on Election Day. They just naturally assumed that Hispanics would show up in large numbers and cast an overwhelming majority of their votes for whatever Democratic candidate happened to be on the ballot.
In September, in Salt Lake City, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told a gathering of the US Hispanic Chamber of Commerce that the way to prod Republicans in Congress to finally tackle immigration reform was for Hispanics to vote. ”The real message that reaches Republicans is at the ballot box,” she said. “And that’s where they have to feel the impact.”
Just a few days before the election, Vice President Joe Biden told a Hispanic audience in Miami: “This is your election…This will be the election, if the community stands up, where we start to say, ‘The outcome of every future election in America will be fundamentally impacted upon by the Hispanic community.’”
There is no doubt that Hispanics had a big impact on the election, and that they made their voices heard. In fact, they shook up both political parties. And they did all that by doing two things they weren’t supposed to do. Many of them stayed home, and those who did vote didn’t just roll over and automatically pick the Democrat on the ballot.
Part of the problem was the quality of the Democratic candidates this time around. To call them mediocre, uninspiring, and stale would be overly generous. And bad candidates tend to make bad choices.
In some races—like that of Democrat Wendy Davis, who lost the Texas governor’s race to state Attorney General Gregg Abbott—the Democrat became known for ignoring Hispanic voters, and thus giving a Republican opponent the opportunity to fill the void with targeted, ethnic-specific advertisements in English and Spanish. Abbott took advantage of that opening and pulled down a hefty share of the Hispanic vote.
Exit polls put the figure as high as 44 percent, though the polling firm Latino Decisions has challenged that finding and puts the figure at 32 percent. The true figure is probably somewhere in the middle—perhaps around 38 percent, which is an impressive haul for any Republican and usually enough to win at both the state and federal level.
Another Republican who actively marketed himself to Hispanic voters was Rep. Cory Gardner in Colorado, who handily defeated Democratic Senator Mark Udall. Gardner was criticized by fellow conservatives for “Hispandering” in reaching out to an ethnic group that makes up a fifth of Colorado residents. Media reports confirm that Gardner made a significant pitch to Hispanic voters in both English and Spanish. Of course, in doing so, he had a lot of help from Washington. The Republican National Committee, which sent workers to 11 states with large Hispanic populations, dispatched three full-time Hispanic outreach coordinators to Colorado.
Consider also that, in some races, Democrats didn’t just ignore Hispanics but went out of their way to antagonize them as a way of appealing to conservative white voters. There was the ill-fated reelection campaign of Senator Kay Hagan in North Carolina, who lost to Republican Thom Tillis. For weeks leading up to the election, Hagan ran television commercials touting her opposition to “amnesty” for “illegal aliens.” Here’s a tip: Those kinds of nativist buzzwords will not endear you to many Hispanics.
And sure enough, before long, immigration activists in North Carolina were picketing Hagan at campaign events. When she responded by claiming to be a “friend” to immigrants, the activists stormed the stage at one event and chanted: “Friends don’t deport friends.” Optics like that only contributed to the perception by many in North Carolina that Hagan’s campaign was self-destructing.
In the end, because of Democrats’ mistakes and Republican masterstrokes, the GOP managed to carve out much more support from Hispanics than many political observers expected. It’s true that, according to media reports, those Hispanics who voted favored Democrats by a margin of 28 percent. That sounds pretty impressive, until you consider that, just two years earlier, in 2012, the margin was 44 percent. Clearly the trend line is not favoring Democrats.
Already there are signs of a backlash on the left against Hispanics by angry Democrats who, rather than look in the mirror, blame them for the losses. They say that Hispanics are apathetic, that they don’t care about voting.
That’s not so. It’s just that 2014 was the start of something big with the Hispanic electorate. Think of it as a new independence movement. After years of being a “cheap date” for Democrats—at both the state and federal level—because they loathed and feared the Republican alternative, Hispanics are finally starting to wise up and ask themselves difficult and uncomfortable questions.
Like this one: Why bother to vote for people, in either party, who obviously don’t care about us?