Politics & Policy

The Latino Voting Surge That Never Happened

Hillary Clinton and Julian Castro at a “Latinos for Hillary” rally in San Antonio, Tex., October 2015 (Reuters photo: Darren Abate)
That permanent Democratic majority may never emerge after all.

If you type “Hispanic turnout 2016,” Google will churn out a series of buoyant links, all along the lines of “Latino Voting Surge Rattles the Trump Campaign” and “Trump Awakens a Sleeping Giant: Record Turnout for Latino Voters.” Should you do the same exercise about Latino support for the two candidates, you will get “Clinton Trounces Trump in New Poll” and the like.

In addition to their topic, these stories have something else in common: Almost all of them were published before the 8th of November. After the election result, which was itself the biggest story, the second biggest story was that Latino turnout had remained the same as the 2012 Latino turnout, at 11 percent of all voters. And the third biggest story was that within the Latino electorate, support for Clinton had fallen slightly from Obama’s two highs (71 percent in 2008 and 69 percent in 2012) to a respectable but not election-winning 65 percent. In line with that, Trump’s share of the Latino vote rose two points above Romney’s, to 29 percent.

These figures come from the national exit polls. Those for the share of the vote have been challenged by other pollsters, who found Trump getting a low of 18 percent of Latinos. It may be that the exit-poll figures will be corrected, as sometimes happens. Bush’s 44 percent share of the Hispanic vote in 2004 was reduced to 40 percent when the pollsters examined their data in tranquility. But other pollsters doubt that will happen in this case.

And even if it were to do so, that would have the secondary result of suggesting that candidates can win a national election with very little Latino support — the opposite conclusion of all those “surging turnout” and “awakening giant” stories that dominated the campaign coverage. So there’s an interesting story here, even if not the story that reporters and analysts wanted to write.

What makes it even more interesting, if paradoxically so, is that it’s the same sequence of stories that have been written before and after the last five or six elections. The awakening giant is always going to surge before the election but then takes a nap during it and wakes up yawning. Several analysts on both sides of the debate noticed this and wrote about it while the election campaign was still cool. Roberto Suro was one; I was another here at NRO.

The Mainstreaming of Non-White Americans

Let me very briefly rehash Professor Suro’s argument and my response. He accepted that increases in the Latino vote lagged far behind the growth in Census Bureau numbers of Latino citizens. By January this year, when Professor Suro wrote, Latinos had apparently exercised very little influence on how the election was conducted. Signature Latino issues had been eclipsed by general economic ones. And, amazing to relate, the two most prominent Latino politicians in the race were conservative Republicans, namely Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, neither of whom ran on issues identified as specifically Hispanic.

Suro believed or hoped that would change as the election became more exciting and as issues such as multiculturalism and immigration became matters of ethnic loyalty. Hispanic citizens would then get angry, organize, register, and vote in larger numbers.

His theory could hardly have been given a more favorable test than that presented by the Trump campaign. Trump himself insulted Latinos carelessly, was not allowed to escape or obscure these insults by the media, and advanced a clearly restrictive immigration policy. In the conventional view, he should have been a catalyst for a Hispanic upsurge. But if the Latino vote rose at all, it rose modestly; and if it went largely to Trump’s opponent, it did so by smaller margins than in previous elections. Even if some of these numbers change, as allowed for above, they will not do so to the extent of upholding the Latino-surge theory.

That is something of a mystery if we assume, as almost everybody does, that Latinos are a fast-growing minority, that America is fast becoming a minority-majority nation, and that the “white majority” is moving into minority status. But are all those things true? And even if true, are they happening at the same rapid rate as most commentators seem to believe?

And the answer is that the demographic changes as stated above are not happening in quite the way people think and, more important, they are not moving America toward the condition of a minority-majority nation in which the whites are an ever-shrinking minority. That’s important because fear of this was probably a significant factor persuading some voters to support Trump. Writing in the liberal magazine The American Prospect earlier this year, Richard Alba, a distinguished sociologist, points out that we reach these faulty conclusions because of a single glaring error in how the Census Bureau and other researchers distribute Americans into different ethnic categories.

Drawing on Professor Alba’s work, I laid this out in some detail in my article cited above. All one need say here is that the rule governing the Census Bureau’s ethnic distribution is that if a child is anything other than white-bread white with two white parents — if he is the child of a white father and a Hispanic mother, say — he is placed in a non-white category even if he, his family, and his neighbors all think of him as white. That minimizes the number of people in the white category and maximizes the number of those in all other categories. If we were to reverse the rule and treat anyone with white culture or partial parentage as white, then whites would account for about three-quarters of the U.S. population until well into this century and probably longer. And, in fact, three-quarters of minority children in 2013 were born to couples who included one white parent.

Are partly white Americans white? Well, alas for statisticians, none of these groups stays obediently in its assigned category either in the maternity ward or later in life.

But are these partly white Americans white? Well, alas for statisticians, none of these groups stays obediently in its assigned category either in the maternity ward or later in life. Many of them, perhaps most, identify as white. They are more likely to intermarry than others. And they have income patterns similar to or higher than those of whites — indeed, Alba found that the highest incomes within the 14 ethno-racial family combinations he listed were those of Asian-white households.

Do partly Hispanic households identify as Hispanic? Some certainly do — and they are probably the voters who are likely to vote on Hispanic issues either because they are expressing a taken-for-granted ethnic loyalty or because they are provoked into one by anti-Hispanic statements. Some identify as white; others, as belonging to a mixed-race category; and others may never reflect on these distinctions as they relate to them. Many, perhaps most, are either born or absorbed quite comfortably into a mainstream American identity that used to be called “white” in all circumstances but that is now divided into whites and various minorities for purposes such as elections, race and gender quotas, and statistical investigations.

Back in the spring of 2016 I concluded:

Alba’s article is a rich and important one, and the picture he paints is very largely hopeful: namely a flexible American identity open to newcomers that either expands the definition of “white” as it has done before in history, or replaces it with some such term as “mainstream” as a description of its central ethnic current. This is more accurate, more peaceable, and more hopeful than the vision now dominant in intellectual liberal culture: of an America with a selfish and oppressive white plurality now retreating before the advance of angry minorities.

The Retreating Democratic Majority

But what does it mean for the 2016 election? To begin with, it explains why the Hispanic surge in voting is always going to arrive but always falls short. If many of the people whom the survey treats as Hispanic really think of themselves as white, mixed-race, or something else, then the Latino vote is bound to be both smaller in total and less lopsidedly Democratic than the pollsters predict. As Professor Suro reluctantly observed, a census category is not the same thing as a voting bloc. And this is not just a temporary feature of one election; other things being equal, it means that Latino voters are always going to account for a smaller percentage of the total vote and, still more so, of the Democratic vote than the raw census figures predict. What is true of Latinos, moreover, is also true for other minorities such as Asians. Other things being equal, they too will underperform their census figures in the polling booth because many of them will blend into a mainstream American identity.

At least two very important political conclusions flow from this. The first is that the emerging Democratic majority will take much longer to emerge and may indeed never do so. This is the theory that in its simplest version holds that a combination of demographically rising minorities, upscale educated whites congregating in college towns, government workers, and unionized whites would increasingly form a dominant electoral coalition keeping the Democrats in power almost all the time. It’s usually attributed to John Judis and Ruy Teixeira, who outlined a very sophisticated version of it in their 2002 book, The Emerging Democratic Majority. But the first appearance of the theory and the phrase “Emerging Democratic Majority” were on National Review’s cover in July 1997, headlining an article by Peter Brimelow and Edwin S. Rubenstein; the article emphasized that immigration was driving U.S. demographic change in ways that would eventually deprive the GOP of its electoral advantages (or “lock” on the presidency). A short NR article on the results of the 1996 election some months before had fostered an infant theory on the emerging Republican minority, but modesty forbids . . . And, before the seismic shock of Trump’s victory, the theory was widely embraced by the Democrats, political consultants, and the media as America’s inevitable demographic fate.

John Judis had himself renounced the theory a year ago, and he now sees the possibility of an emerging Republican advantage. Since November 8, both Sean Trende and Michael Barone have persuasively discussed the several reasons that the Democratic majority has retreated rather than advanced in this election. My own explanations would include the following:

‐While immigration plainly strengthened the Democrats demographically, it also drove those economically disadvantaged by it to the GOP.

‐Too confident of their ultimate victory, the Democrats began to talk contemptuously of working-class voters who had once been their mainstay, and those voters eventually heard them.

‐The Democratic promotion of identity politics for minorities was bound to drive white voters to a form of identity politics, too, if only as a protective device, and Trump seemed to offer one.

‐Fate always throws spanners into the zeitgeist, and on this occasion the spanner was FBI director James Comey’s on-again, off-again indictment of Hillary Clinton.

 ‐Above all, as outlined above, minorities tend to intermarry into the American mainstream, to lose their minority consciousness over time, to have children born without one, and accordingly to swell the American mainstream majority under the radar of political commentary. (This is known to sociologists as “racial attrition.”)

Cultivating a sense of ethnic separateness and even animosity is essential to solidifying the new Democratic coalition of minorities — and making it permanent.

So, as the election has shown, the emerging Democratic majority may not actually emerge. None of which means that the factors pointing to it have disappeared. Continuing high levels of largely uncontrolled immigration in particular give the Democrats a strong advantage. They directly increase the number of potential voters with both a minority consciousness and attitudes hostile to the free market and small government; this more than compensates for those migrants who fully assimilate to America’s common culture and Tocquevillian habits of social cooperation. They also expand the ethnic enclaves in which migrants can live as if still resident in their former countries, which slows the process of assimilation for successful newcomers. It’s no coincidence, compañeros, that the Democrats and liberal bodies such as the Ford Foundation have instituted a thousand programs to help immigrants and their children “keep” their “native” language and their “traditional” culture inside the United States. Cultivating a sense of ethnic separateness and even animosity is essential to solidifying the new Democratic coalition of minorities — and making it permanent. The rest of America is gradually waking up to this.

‘Racial Attrition’

That brings us to the second political conclusion: If Republicans campaign on the basis of the real ethnic nature of American society, they can win most elections most of the time. What is that real nature? Democrats and their allies like to present the electoral choice as one between a party of white America in retreat and one of minority America on the advance. As we have seen, however, their “white America” is a misnomer for a mainstream America that incorporates assimilated minorities so comfortably that they are generally unaware of having once belonged to a minority. Clumsy though the phraseology is, the two parties are most accurately seen as follows: The GOP is an alliance of the majority of the Majority with minorities of the Minorities; the Democrats are an alliance of majorities of the Minorities with the minority of the Majority. Call them the Majority-Minority party and the Minority-Majority party respectively.

At present these two alliances are relatively evenly balanced numerically. But the GOP alliance grows naturally and steadily owing to the hidden demographic progress of “racial attrition,” which the Democrats can defeat only by bringing in more and more low-paid immigrants and socializing them into an ethnic or multicultural identity. In this election, the crossover of the “white working class” (which in reality is wider in both class and racial and ethnic terms) from the Democrats to the Republicans greatly strengthened the GOP alliance. It will probably strengthen further if President Trump succeeds or even just proves a more conventional president than predicted and wins back disaffected up-market white voters. That leaves a final question of how minorities, however defined, will jump. And that can and will be greatly influenced by how the Trump GOP deals with the crisis of identity politics that is now devastating the Democrats.

Pre-election commentary tended to suggest that, whether he intended it or not, Trump was the focus of a new politics of “white identity.” Some of Trump’s casual racial remarks certainly pointed in that direction. But his entire campaign, encapsulated in his slogan “Make America Great Again,” was directed to reviving a strong politics of national identity encompassing all Americans. Maybe the best way of accounting for the Latino vote, for instance, would be to say that Trump’s insulting remarks were ultimately outweighed by the fact that he presented a strong image of leadership that would put the interests of all Americans first. It is not hard to imagine that a Republican candidate who ran on a politics of cultivating and celebrating a generous American national identity but who also treated his opponents courteously and all citizens with respect would make his Majority-Minority coalition into a dominant electoral coalition in a less ravaged society. That kind of national identity politics is most likely to divert a white identity politics, to counter the ethnic identity politics of the Democrats, and to appeal to a mainstream America drawn from all traditions but living within a tradition that is distinctively its own. An exceptional tradition, you might say.

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