Magazine | December 8, 2014, Issue

‘Todos los Votantes’

Lessons from Hispanic voters in Texas

On July 17, 2013, Texas attorney general Greg Abbott, having recently declared his candidacy for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, hosted a town hall on Twitter. The exercise was, perhaps, poorly timed.

For 20 years, the Texas Democratic party had been in the wilderness. In recent years, though, national Democrats, casting a covetous eye at Texas and its 38 electoral votes, had dabbled in the idea that “changing demographics” would eventually turn the state blue. The phrase was general enough to cover several concurrent trends, including increasing urbanization and migration from other states, but the key issue was the growth of Texas’s non-Anglo population, and specifically its population of Hispanics. January had brought the launch of a new initiative called Battleground Texas, an organization started by non-Texans that pledged to expand the electorate and mobilize Texas voters who have historically been disengaged. And in June, state senator Wendy Davis had vaulted to fame during the course of an eleven-hour filibuster against an omnibus bill restricting abortion that was making its way through the Texas legislature.

In July, then, Texas Democrats were feeling punchy, and during the town hall, they swiftly hijacked the “#AskAbbott” hashtag. Shortly after the town hall began, a question came across the feed from Battleground Texas, @BGTX, which had promptly glommed onto the prospect that Davis would run for governor: “¿Cómo planea comunicarse con la comunidad Latina?”

The question—how Abbott planned to communicate with Texas’s Latino community—was bland only on the surface. In 2012, Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney among American Latinos by an embarrassingly wide margin, 71 to 27 percent. This was widely taken to mean that Hispanic voters had been repelled by Republican rhetoric on border security and illegal immigration, or drawn to Democratic calls for comprehensive immigration reform. Democrats had high hopes that a similar approach would work in Texas, which is already about 40 percent Hispanic. Abbott probably registered the insinuation. At least, he responded quickly and in kind: “@BGTX—Mi esposa es Latina. Y podré comunicarme con todos los votantes.” My wife is Latina. And I will be able to communicate with all voters.

It was a solid riposte on Abbott’s part. Another came this November, when he won the gubernatorial election by a 20-point margin, and carried 44 percent of the Hispanic vote while he was at it.

For Democrats, it was a rude awakening: Although long-term demographic trends might be working in their favor, any gains arising from such changes would take years to realize. For Republicans, it was a more pleasant wake-up call. If they could make inroads among Hispanic voters, as Abbott had done, the party’s long-term prospects would be less grim.

From another perspective, though, Texas’s election results suggested that both parties have been misinterpreting Hispanic voters. Discussions of the “Hispanic vote,” on both sides and at the state and national levels, have rested on the premise that Hispanic voters are disproportionately interested in specific issues—immigration reform, perhaps, or the pro-life cause—because they are Hispanic. In Texas, at least, that no longer appears to be true.

For years, Texas Republicans have argued that Texas Hispanics—hard-working, family-oriented, pro-life, and patriotic—are more amenable to the conservative message than Democrats suspect. George W. Bush, in his 1998 landslide gubernatorial reelection, won at least 40 percent of Hispanic voters. In 2000 and 2004, national exit polls found that nearly half of Texas Hispanics supported him for president, compared with 35 percent of Hispanic voters nationwide. Polls have found similar results for other Texas Republicans since then, including Kay Bailey Hutchison, Rick Perry, and Ted Cruz. In 2013, Karl Rove told delegates at the Georgia GOP convention that Texas Republicans average 40 percent of the Hispanic vote. PolitiFact Texas looked into the statement and rated it as mostly true.

The straightforward explanation would be that roughly 40 percent of Hispanic voters in Texas are Republican. But that explanation fails to take into account that there are great divisions among Republicans on the crucial issue of immigration, and that therefore the simple label “Republican” doesn’t predict where a “Republican” voter’s choice might land. The number of unauthorized immigrants in the United States has roughly doubled, from about 5.5 million to more than 11 million, since Bush was first elected governor in 1994. National debates over border security and illegal immigration have become commensurately strident, with some Republicans leading calls to fence America’s southern border and to pass stringent new enforcement laws in several states, and others calling for comprehensive immigration reform similar to the policies Obama favors.

This division has played out among Texas Republicans specifically. George W. Bush, as president, pushed for a comprehensive immigration-reform proposal that was quite similar to the one President Obama would like to implement. Rick Perry, in 2001, signed the “Texas Dream Act,” which allows certain unauthorized immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates at the state’s public colleges and universities.

#page#Other state Republicans have taken stricter stances without paying a visible political price among Hispanic voters. Immigration and border-security issues were more prominent this year than usual, perhaps because of the spike in migration from Central America to Texas’s Rio Grande Valley. In several polls, respondents cited immigration and border security as the top issues facing Texas. The Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, made border security a central focus of his campaign. During the primary, his website pledged to “stop the illegal invasion,” and in the general election he vowed to repeal the in-state-tuition law. Patrick earned 46 percent of the Hispanic vote—against a Democratic candidate, state senator Leticia Van de Putte, who is Hispanic. And Abbott himself won 44 percent, even though he was noncommittal about the Texas Dream Act and had, as attorney general, defended the state’s controversial new voter-ID law.

In general, the Republicans’ appeal to Hispanics qua Hispanics has not been focused on the immigration issue or any other policy question. Abbott, on the campaign trail, observed that his wife would be the first Latina first lady of Texas. Later, he ran a television ad, in Spanish and English, featuring his mother-in-law, who is also Hispanic. He made about 20 campaign appearances in the predominantly Hispanic Rio Grande Valley. Bush’s Hispanic outreach during the 1998 campaign was similarly overt. He traveled to El Paso several times during his first term as governor, and occasionally offered comments in Spanish.

This approach may be working. There was evidence this year that Hispanic voters weren’t animated over issues traditionally considered “Hispanic” quite as predictably as Democrats had hoped. In October, a University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll found that 62 percent of Hispanics supported the state’s decision to send National Guard troops to the border. The same pollsters found that a majority of Hispanics support the state’s new voter-ID law, and that, although 40 percent of Hispanics support in-state tuition for certain immigrant students, 44 percent are opposed. This runs counter to conventional wisdom, to say the least.

Another possible explanation of why Texas Hispanics voted the way they did this year emerges if you look at how women voted. Republicans have sometimes suggested that, since Hispanics are disproportionately Catholic, it stands to reason that they would be disproportionately pro-life. They certainly suggested as much this year; Davis downplayed her support for abortion rights on the campaign trail, but there was no getting around the fact that she had spent eleven hours filibustering a bill that sought, among other things, to ban late-term abortions. The exit polls found that 54 percent of women voted for Abbott. Among Anglo women, the figure was 66 percent; among Hispanic women, it was only 39 percent, even as Hispanic men were giving Abbott 49 percent.

That gender gap among Hispanic voters is, clearly, correlated with things other than ethnicity—factors such as age, household income, and educational attainment. The median age of a native-born Hispanic person in Texas is 19; the median age of a Texas Anglo is 41. The most plausible explanation of lower support for Abbott among Hispanic women is that young women, no matter their ethnicity, tend to be pro-choice.

This line of reasoning can be extended to other issues: To the extent that Hispanic voters diverge from Anglos, the most logical explanation has less to do with ethnicity or “ethnic issues” than with correlated factors. The age gap points to the fact that half of the children in Texas public schools are Hispanic; both Abbott and Patrick are proponents of education reform, and that probably appealed to parents. Another big correlate with ethnicity is economic status: About 23 percent of American Hispanics were living in poverty between 2007 and 2011, according to the most recent census, compared with about 10 percent of Anglos. Similarly, the median household income of Hispanics (in Texas and around the country) is significantly below the median among all Americans. Hispanics also have less education than Anglos, on average, and are less likely to own a home or to have health insurance.

Such circumstances may be more important to Hispanic voters than the simple fact of being Hispanic. Frankly, it’s not even entirely clear what it means to be “Hispanic”: The federal government, via the census, defines Hispanic identity in terms of culture, regardless of ethnicity, but in a 2012 survey the Pew Research Center found that only 29 percent of American Hispanics think of themselves as part of a pan-Hispanic national culture. This absence of a sense of “Hispanicness” is probably especially prevalent in Texas, where Hispanic culture, whatever it is, is not a separate subculture. Among national Hispanics, there may still be a discrete Hispanic vote, analogous to the African-American vote or any other voting bloc delineated by some aspect of identity, but over the long term it’s more likely that Hispanics around the country will start to resemble Hispanics in Texas than the other way around.

In the interim, though, it’s worth keeping in mind that this is a large, diverse group of Americans with a disproportionate interest in public education, economic mobility, and the long-term future. If Abbott’s eye-catching inroads mean that national Republicans have a newfound incentive to compete for the Hispanic vote, maybe we should encourage them to do so.

– Erica Grieder, a senior editor of Texas Monthly, is the author of Big, Hot, Cheap, and Right: What America Can Learn from the Strange Genius of Texas.

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