The Republican Latino Is Only Partly a Myth

Angelo Franco


According to transcripts obtained by the Washington Post, on a phone call with Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto shortly after his inauguration, President Trump told his Mexican counterpart that he had won 84 percent of the Cuban-American vote in the November 2016 elections. Experts say that they have no idea where Trump may have gotten this number from because the percentage of Cuban-Americans that voted for Trump is far lower. Still, according to exit poll data, more than half of Cuban-Americans voters in Florida backed candidate Trump.


By anyone’s wild guess, this is probably a much higher percentage of Latino voters favoring the Republican candidate. Especially given Trump’s hard stance on immigration and his acrimonious statements made about immigrants throughout his campaign (and now presidency), the Latino vote seemed to be all but guaranteed to be squarely on the side of the Democrats. To that, it must be noted that the overall percentage of Latinos who voted for Trump is about 26-29 percent, compared to the Cuban-American vote. This wide gap in the Latino demographic is one that has plagued both major parties as they strive to grab this much desired bloc. If Republicans can claim over half of the Cuban-American vote in a key state like Florida, is there hope yet for a stronger Latino base to lean towards the GOP? After all, as Ronald Reagan infamously quipped, “Hispanics are conservatives; they just don’t know it yet.”


There is a good case to be made for this. Even the late conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer argued  that Latinos should be a natural Republican constituency because they are family-oriented, religious, and socially conservative. All in all, the GOP shouldn’t have to fight an uphill battle to garner votes from a bloc that already shares its values and would, presumably, back its conservative policies.


In the U.S., however, Latino voters are just as fickle as the rest of the population. That is, their beliefs shift to mirror that of the general public, their political views are fractured along generational and religious lines, and their familial dynamic has changed to keep up with the times. Today, for example, and majority (54 percent) of Latinos in the U.S. favor same-sex marriage, despite being more likely than other Americans to embrace traditional gender roles. Likewise, there is a wide religious divide among Latinos who favor either conservative or liberal policies. For allowing same-sex marriage, for instance, 56 percent of Latino Catholics are in favor of it, while a whopping 74 percent of religiously unaffiliated Latinos favor it. Though of course, 53 percent of Hispanic-Americans identify as Catholics, while only 12 percent report being unaffiliated.


This religious disparity can be a deal-breaker. This is because Latinos in the U.S., just as other Americans, fluctuate in their religiosity. Approximately 6 percent of Hispanic-Americans jump into identifying as Evangelical Protestants between childhood as adulthood. This is good news for the GOP, as this constituency stands firmly on their side for issues that matter to Republicans, such as staunch opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion.



But as a counter trend among Hispanics, approximately 7 percent report losing their religious affiliation when they enter adulthood. And so while conservatives may rely on the declining number of Catholic Hispanics as they switch to Protestantism, they have widely ignored the growing number of unaffiliated Latinos who favor more liberal policies.


Then there is the question of how much Hispanics actually care about social issues. It turns out that Latinos, while already not consistently conservative, are also just not very ideological. Much like their middle-class white counterparts, only a rather small fraction of Hispanic-Americans cares about social issues that political platforms usually rely on. For example, only 22 percent of Latino voters say that the issue of same-sex marriage is a critical problem facing the nation; while 32 percent say the same about abortion. Instead, they cite unemployment, rising healthcare costs, and public education as the most important issues they think  should be addressed.


Even the exit poll data of Latinos who voted for Trump is contested by independent surveyors. They point to a number of inconsistencies and variables that exit poll data usually does not account for. The organization that conducts exit polls, Edison Research, itself warns against using this data to analyze specific sub-populations (like Latinos and African-Americans) for the simple fact that their data is not based on random samples of the country, or even a state.


Instead, precincts are chosen in advance and, as evidenced by previous years, they tend to be places with higher income and levels of education, which means they are, geographically, areas with a higher white population and where a relatively low number of Latinos are surveyed.


Other variables skew the data, such as the language in which the survey is given – only about 4-7 percent is offered in Spanish, a deterrent for foreign-born Hispanic-Americans who may be more comfortable in their native language. According to an independent exit poll survey conducted by Latino Decisions, the number of overall Latinos who voted for Trump is actually just about 18 percent, which is closer to the number other polls came up with in the days leading to the election.


So with so many Latinos leaning towards the Democratic party, why do so many politicians appear to be Republicans? The more visible of these are perhaps former presidential hopefuls: Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.  What may account for this is the same reason that over half of Cuban-Floridians backed Trump during the 2016 elections. Both Senator Rubio and Senator Cruz are Cuban-Americans whose parents arrived in the United States before 1980.



Then, any Cuban who was even found at sea would be granted political asylum and conditional residency. A year later, they could apply for permanent residency and, eventually, for American citizenship. This policy, part of the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, was made somewhat less lax in the mid 1990s by President Clinton when it became known as the so-called “wet feet, dry feet” policy, and it mandated that any Cuban national found at sea be repatriated, but those who reach land and have at least one foot on U.S soil (hence the moniker) be granted asylum so they can pursue legal residency a year after their arrival.


As one of his last foreign policy decisions, President Obama ended the “wet foot, dry foot” policy; indeed, many believe that the high number of Cuban-Americans who backed the Republican party in 2016 is, in part, a direct rebuke to Obama’s policy towards Cuba, especially his policy reversal to reopen diplomatic relations with the Caribbean island in 2014.


Because of the Cuban Adjustment Act (and then the wet foot, dry foot policy), Cuban-Americans were especially poised to have a different immigrant experience than, say, their Mexican counterparts, who make up the largest group of Latinos in the U.S. – nearly two thirds of Hispanic-Americans are of Mexican descent, and that’s nearly 11 percent of the entire U.S. population. Cuban-Americans have, at least since the 1960s, arrived to the U.S. with a protected status that fast-tracked them into legal residency. Because of this, according to the Pew Research Center, Cuban-Americans have higher levels of education, higher median household income, and higher rates of home ownership compared to other Hispanic populations in the U.S. This is what Rafael Bienvenido, Ted Cruz’s father, refers to when he speaks about coming into the U.S. legally: He obtained political asylum automatically when his student visa expired (the elder Cruz also bribed a Cuban government official into giving him an exit permit so he could attend the University of Texas).


Meanwhile, Mexican-Americans arrive in the U.S. with a decades-long legacy of discrimination that may have begun as early as the Mexican American War, which General Ulysses S. Grant said was, “One of the most unjust [wars] by a stronger against a weaker.” With Mexican-Americans—and eventually Hispanic-American immigrants from other countries— being segregated into poor neighborhoods, their low education attainment rates, and high rates of unemployment, poverty, and incarceration, there isn’t enough grooming grounds for high-profile politicians to enter the arena.


It is a rather strange dichotomy, with Cuban-Americans with higher education levels voting Republican, while their white counterparts with a college degree lean Democrat. As far as that constituency goes, Cuban-Americans do in fact seem to be the bloc that the GOP needs to finally win over the Latino vote. But Hispanic-Americans, unfortunately for them, are not monolithic.


Author Bio:


Angelo Franco is Highbrow Magazine’s chief features writer.


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