How Latino Voting Power Will Count in the California Primary

Latinos make up 18 percent of California’s likely voting population, but they could play a key role in the midterm elections. Democrats running for office are hoping that reaching out to Latino voters will help them win.

Update: Read our analysis of the primary night in California, and about races from New Jersey to Montana. For more, sign up for our California Today newsletter.

LOS ANGELES — For more than three decades, political pundits have referred to Latino voters as a “sleeping giant,” to describe a demographic reality that has yet to translate to clear political force. With each presidential election, much is written about how important Latino votes could be in securing the White House.

In California, Latinos make up nearly 40 percent of the overall population, already outnumbering non-Hispanic whites. Even if their political clout isn’t yet fully realized, Latinos’ political engagement in California is impressive, especially when compared with states like Arizona and Texas. There are all-Latino City Councils, Latinos leading the State Legislature and Latinos running the largest cities in California. Has the giant already woken?

Latinos make up 34 percent of the state’s adult population, but they account for just 18 percent of likely voters, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. Although Latinos live all over the state, Latino voters are disproportionately concentrated in urban areas.

More than any other issue, a 1994 ballot initiative called Proposition 187 is credited with turning a generation of Latinos into reliable Democrats. Republicans led by Pete Wilson, who was governor at the time, backed the ballot initiative, which sought to deny public services to undocumented immigrants. The measure passed and Mr. Wilson was re-elected, but the victory was only a short-term one, with lasting partisan consequences: Among Latinos who have registered to vote in the last year, just 3 percent registered as Republicans, according to Fernando Guerra, a professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

In the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election, many analysts predicted a “Trump effect” — expecting that Latinos would turn out at a significantly higher rate because of the candidate’s anti-immigrant rhetoric. But there was little sign of significant change at the polls. According to the Census bureau, voter turnout among California Latinos in 2016 hovered around 33 percent, an uptick from 2014 but no more than in past presidential election years.

The turnout rate for the 2014 midterms was about 25 percent for Latinos, compared with 37 percent for the state overall and 47 percent for non-Hispanic whites.

“In general, they haven’t turned out to vote more than anyone else, they have actually done less,” said Roberto Suro, a professor of public policy and journalism at the University of Southern California, who has written about Latinos and politics for decades. “Turnout has underperformed nationally, with few exceptions.”

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Several former Republican strongholds with growing Latino populations, like Orange County, chose Hillary Clinton in 2016, but that swing could also be attributed to wealthy white voters casting ballots against Mr. Trump. And some political scientists fault California candidates and their campaigns for not doing enough to reach out to Latino voters.

“The metaphor, sort of a sleeping giant, suggests that they are apathetic and unengaged and are asleep,” Francisco Pedraza, a professor at University of California, Riverside, said of Latino voters. “The key difference is that in districts where they have yet to turn blue, you look at campaign spending and there’s not a lot of it. We’re leaving votes on the table if we’re not investing in those areas.”

On a recent afternoon in downtown Fullerton, one of the largest cities in the 39th Congressional District, few people even seemed to know there was a primary election coming up, though campaign signs lined the main street.

“Nobody has called me, knocked on my door, asked me for my vote,” said Carlos Rivera, a 32-year-old data analyst who lives in Fullerton. “I vote when there’s something I care about. I’m not sure whether that’s true this time.”

Latinos have faced voter intimidation in the state for generations. In the Central Valley, for example, farm owners would threaten to fire workers if their names showed up on voter rolls, according to Matt Barreto, who runs Latino Decisions, a polling firm. Latinos have also won court battles over the ways local voting districts have been drawn to dilute their voting power.

There are undoubtedly other factors as well. For example, across ethnic lines, people with college degrees are more likely to vote, and Latinos lag behind non-Hispanic whites in higher education. They also have disproportionately higher rates of poverty, which is associated with decreased voting.

Credit...Omar Omelas/The Desert Sun, via Associated Press

If Latinos are the primary key to turning California blue, as many people in the state say, it’s fair to argue that they can sway any election when the candidates are closer than 10 percentage points apart in the polls.

A clear example is the area now covered by the 36th Congressional District, where Raul Ruiz won in 2012 in large part by focusing on the growing Latino population in the district, which includes part of Palm Springs and other large swaths of the Coachella Valley. Before his victory, the area had not been represented by a Democrat since the 1980s.

Change came even more quickly in Orange County, when Loretta Sanchez defeated a longtime Republican congressman, Bob Dornan, in 1996 in a district that is now seen as solidly Democratic. But that trend has yet to take hold in the wealthiest parts of Orange County or in the reliably conservative Central Valley.

Democrats and Republicans have a mixed record of focusing on Latino voter turnout. Mr. Barreto said there has been a general reluctance to spend money for Spanish-language campaign advertising, which often boosts Latino turnout. But he said there were “very early signs” that those attitudes were changing, and that Democratic groups in particular were willing to invest money in getting Latinos to the polls for the midterms.

It depends on how many show up to vote. Antonio Villaraigosa once personified Latino political power — he was the first Latino elected mayor of Los Angeles in modern history. But his campaign for governor has struggled. He is counting on a large turnout among Latino voters to lift him to the No. 2 spot in the primary, and thus onto the November ballot. But some polls show him getting the nod from fewer than 25 percent of likely Latino voters. While Latinos are generally expected not to turn out as heavily as non-Hispanic whites do, exit polls for state elections in New Jersey and Virginia last year showed that Latino turnout was up modestly compared with past midterm elections.

“If Latinos were turning out en masse for him, he wouldn’t be in the singles,” Mr. Suro said of Mr. Villaraigosa’s poll standing in the crowded primary field. “This is the first credible Latino running for governor in forever. You’d think, if there’s a groundswell of Latinos going and saying ‘here’s our chance,’ you’d see it in the numbers by now.”

Marisol Fuentes, a 43-year-old stay-at-home mother, said she was not drawn to candidates merely by a shared ethnicity. Rather, she said she was confident that she would vote for the “most liberal” candidates she could find.

“We have a president attacking everything I stand for, and a congressman who lets him get away with it,” she added. “I will tell anyone who listens that we have to get people in office who will fight for rights for everyone.”

In the congressional races, Latinos make up roughly one-quarter of registered voters in the race to succeed Ed Royce to represent eastern Los Angeles County and northern Orange County. They also account for roughly 25 percent of voters in the battle to unseat Steve Knight, a Republican who represents the northern suburbs of Los Angeles. And they are a significant chunk of voters in districts in the Central Valley and San Diego where Republicans are facing tough re-election bids. If Latinos prove to be a force that pushes Democrats over the top, nobody in California is likely to argue about their power sleeping.

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