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LOS ANGELES — On Tuesday, Donald Trump will embark on his first trip to California as president, touching down at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar near San Diego before heading south to inspect various prototypes of the much-ballyhooed “wall” he hopes to build on the U.S.-Mexico border.
The visit comes one week after Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, sued California for passing a trio of “sanctuary state” laws that have (according to Sessions) blocked the administration from enforcing federal immigration statutes — and followed it up with a fiery speech in Sacramento accusing state and local Democrats of “boldly validat[ing] illegality.”
The fast-and-furious response from those same Democrats — “Outright lies,” snapped Gov. Jerry Brown; “White supremacy and white nationalism,” added state Senate President Pro Tempore Kevin de León — has prompted another round of breathless California vs. Trump media coverage, with the president rallying his right-wing base around hardline anti-immigration policies and the immigrant-rich Golden State relishing its role as ground zero of the so-called resistance.
“With a handful of exceptions — North Korea comes to mind — there are few governments that have worse relations with President Trump than California,” wrote the New York Times.
Yet the political stakes here are higher than many pundits seem to realize. That’s because the latest immigration clash between California and Trump isn’t just about California and Trump. It’s also about the broader constituency the president has been antagonizing since taking office and is now antagonizing again: America’s growing Latino electorate.
When Trump won the 2016 election, the chattering class immediately declared that the Latino vote — which was supposed to show up in force and keep the Manhattan mogul out of the Oval Office — had failed, once again, to materialize, despite the candidate’s near-constant provocations (such as Mexican “rapists,” “The Wall,” “bad hombres,” threatening to revoke birthright citizenship, claiming a judge could not be impartial because of his Mexican heritage).
But over the last year, studies have cast serious doubt on this assumption. Subsequent elections — especially Virginia’s, in 2017 — hinted that Latino voters have become more energized and mobilized, not less, since Trump took office. And looking ahead to the 2018 midterms, it appears that many of the races set to determine control of the House and Senate are taking place in areas with significant Latino populations.
Which means that in November, backlash to Trump among Latino voters could, in fact, decide the election — especially if Trump continues to energize the right-wing over immigration, as he seemed determined to do Tuesday in California.
“It’s a comparative status question,” says Gary Segura, Dean of the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs and co-founder of the polling and research firm Latino Decisions. “Latinos tend not to vote in midterm elections; older, whiter, higher-income people tend to vote instead. So what will the presence of a president like Trump do? In theory, it will narrow that gap. Latinos will turn out in higher numbers than people expect — and that will make a difference in at least some of these races.”
The first data point to consider is 2016. The national exit polls showed Hillary Clinton winning 65 percent of the Latino vote to Trump’s 28 percent — a landslide, to be sure, but a smaller one than Barack Obama enjoyed in 2012, when he clobbered Mitt Romney among Latinos 71 percent to 29 percent. Seeing that — and noting that Latinos still made up 11 percent of the electorate, the same as 2012 — pundits concluded that there had been no anti-Trump “surge” in 2016.
The only problem? The national exit polls may have been wrong. Since the election, researchers affiliated with Latino Decisions have examined precinct-level data from Arizona, California, New York, Florida, Texas and Nevada — actual tallies of how actual people voted in largely Latino neighborhoods, as opposed to the expedient sampling released on election night, which tends to distort minority sentiment for a variety of reasons.
What they’ve found are vast disparities between the exit polling and their own, more finely tuned analyses.
In Nevada, for instance, exit polls reported that 60 percent of Latinos backed Clinton and 29 percent backed Trump. But last year, Francisco I. Pedraza, an assistant political science professor at the University of California, Riverside, and Bryan Wilcox-Archuleta, a PhD candidate at UCLA, concluded that the split may have been more like 88 percent for Clinton versus 10 percent for Trump.
Researchers also discovered wider-than-reported gaps in Arizona (84 percent for Clinton to 12 percent for Trump, compared to 61-31 in the exit poll); in California (83 percent for Clinton to 11 percent for Trump, compared to 71-24 in the exit poll); and in Texas (77 percent for Clinton to 18 percent for Trump, compared to 61-34 in the exit poll). The same goes for New York and Florida.
The bottom line is that, contrary to conventional wisdom, Clinton probably ran ahead of Obama among Latinos in key states, whereas Trump probably ran behind Romney. This could be part of the reason why Clinton came a lot closer to winning Arizona (3.5 percentage points) and Texas (9 percentage points) than Obama did in 2012, when he lost those two states by 9 points and 16 points, respectively. It could also be why Clinton’s margin of victory in California was 1.3 million votes larger than Obama’s.
Of course, all that additional Latino backing did not put Clinton over the top in the Electoral College, which was decided in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t exist.
“The real story is that Latino turnout was up in basically every jurisdiction in the U.S.,” says Segura. “The actual precinct vote shows that about 79 percent of Latinos nationwide voted for Clinton — up from about 70 percent in recent years. Those extra nine percentage points are obviously a reaction to Trump.”
Which brings us to 2017 — the first big election of the Trump era. The Virginia gubernatorial race was supposed to be close, and the commonwealth’s House of Delegates was supposed to remain safely Republican. Neither prediction panned out. After a campaign defined largely by Trumpian tactics — Republican gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie ran ads about “sanctuary cities” and the MS-13 gang — Democrats won the governorship by 9 percentage points and picked up 15 seats in the Legislature.
Why? Early voting among Virginia Latinos was up 114 percent from the last state elections in 2013, and the Election Day participation rate in heavily Latino districts was up 5 percent, from 33 percent to 38 percent. Latinos didn’t decide the election on their own: white, college-educated voters made up a larger share of the Virginia electorate in 2017 than in 2016, and for the first time, minority participation in general held steady from the presidential election to the gubernatorial election. But Latinos didn’t stay home, either — an early sign that, with Trump in the White House, the old rules of Latino turnout may no longer apply.
All of this will be crucial in 2018. Many of the most pivotal House and Senate races are happening in places with a lot of Latino voters — and if they show up like they showed up in Virginia, and vote as heavily Democratic as they did in 2016, then Democrats could win back control of Congress.
Take California. The Golden State is home to seven Republican-held congressional districts won by Clinton in 2016 — nearly a third of the 24 seats Democrats need to flip in order to recapture the House of Representatives. Republican incumbents Ed Royce and Darrell Issa are retiring in two seats where Latinos make up a third (CA-39) and a quarter (CA-49) of the population, respectively. Both lean Democratic, according to the handicappers at the Cook Political Report. An additional three seats are rated as tossups; a fourth “leans” Republican. They’re all between 20 and 40 percent Latino. Another targeted district — CA-21, where Democrat Emilio Huerta is challenging incumbent Republican Rep. David Valadao — is 71 percent Latino.
Texas and Florida are similar stories. FL-27 — the Miami-area district where Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is retiring — happens to be more than 71 percent Latino; Democrats are favored to flip the seat. Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo’s district (FL-26) is a tossup, in no small part because it’s 70 percent Latino; Clinton won there by 16 percentage points after Obama won by 11. Meanwhile, GOP Rep. John Culberson, the most vulnerable incumbent in Texas, represents a district (TX-7, in the Houston suburbs) that is 32 percent Latino. The next most vulnerable Lone Star incumbent, Will Hurd, hails from TX-23, which runs along a majority of Texas’s border with Mexico. His district is 68 percent Latino.
On the Senate side of things, the Latino factor may be even more pronounced. To regain control of “the world’s greatest deliberative body,” Democrats need to net two additional seats. Their top targets? Arizona, where Republican incumbent Jeff Flake is retiring, and Nevada, where Republican incumbent Dean Heller has tied himself in knots over Trump’s policies on health care and taxes.
Latino voters could conceivably decide both contests. Arizona has America’s fourth-largest Latino electorate, as a percentage of the overall voting population; Nevada, where former Democratic Sen. Harry Reid has organized a formidable Latino turnout machine, is sixth on that same list. Even though national Latino turnout did not rise in 2016, it surged in Arizona and increased in Nevada, according to state-level census data released last year — in part because of Democratic Party mobilization efforts and in part because of backlash to Trump. If Nevada and Arizona go blue, Democrats will likely take back the Senate.
There’s no guarantee that Latinos will show up later this year; white voters, and even black voters, have been almost twice as likely to turn out as Latinos in midterm elections.
Yet we’ve never seen what a midterm looks like with Trump as president. If recent history is any guide — and if Trump keeps needling Latinos the way he’s needling them this week in California — then it might look like nothing we’ve seen before.
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