The least diverse primary elections in America are now history. Next up after the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary are Nevada and South Carolina, followed by the Super Tuesday slugfest on March 1. It is in these upcoming primaries — not the ones in Iowa and New Hampshire, the two states with the highest percentage of white voters in the nation, and few Latinos — where Hispanics will decide whether to repeat history and Republicans whether to ignore it.
Republican candidates in Iowa and New Hampshire competed to demonize Hispanics. Trump may have infamously labeled Mexicans criminals and rapists, but his rivals were not far behind. Jeb Bush railed against “anchor babies,” Ted Cruz saluted Trump for focusing on illegal border crossings, and Marco Rubio scrambled to compensate for his earlier support of comprehensive immigration reform.
These slights were not emotional outbursts uttered in the heat of the electoral moment. They were part of a strategy designed to appeal to an anti-Hispanic base in two states where the candidates could assail Hispanics with little fear of retribution. Latinos represent only 2.2 percent of eligible voters in New Hampshire and 2.9 percent in Iowa, while the percentage of whites exceeds 90 percent in both states and is the highest in the nation.
But the demographics of the Republican primary and beyond are about to change. Unlike Iowa and New Hampshire, the next round of primaries have high numbers of Latino voters.
In Nevada, where the Republicans will caucus on February 20, 17 percent of the eligible voters are Hispanics. Since the Reagan years the percentage of eligible Hispanic voters in the Silver State has more than tripled, while white voters as a proportion of the population have plummeted by a third. The changes in Nevada mirror those in several Super Tuesday states, such as Texas, where 28 percent of eligible voters are Latino, and Colorado with almost 15 percent.
These figures are part of a national trend that has seen the number of Hispanics able to vote grow by 10 million since 2000 to become more than 11 percent of eligible voters in the United States today.
In 2004 George W. Bush won 44 percent of Latino voters, but since then no Republican candidate has received even a respectable minority. In 2012 Mitt Romney advocated self-deportation and was rewarded with 27 percent of the Hispanic vote. This year most election watchers believe that the Republican nominees must have at least 40 percent of the Hispanic ballots in order to have a shot at the White House.
A recent MSNBC/Univision/Marist poll, however, found that if elections were held last month Hillary Clinton would win 69 percent of the Latino vote and Donald Trump 27 percent. Her numbers among Hispanics against Cruz, Rubio and Bush were also blowouts. So in the coming months, with Iowa and New Hampshire behind them, expect Republicans on the campaign trail to kiss “anchor babies” and hope that Hispanics develop primary amnesia or stay home on Election Day.
Republicans may get their wish, for Latinos have consistently punched below their weight in presidential contests. In 2012, only 48 percent of eligible Latinos voted, a percentage very similar to their participation in recent elections. By contrast, 67 percent of eligible African Americans went to the polls that year, which meant that African-American voters outnumbered Latinos by almost 50 percent in the general election despite both groups having similar eligible voter figures.
Hispanic potential voter numbers have skyrocketed in Nevada, Colorado and Texas, but in past elections their actual voting percentages in those states have trailed other groups, partly because of the high proportion of millennials among Hispanics. This November could see another anemic Hispanic turnout despite the immigration stance adopted by Republicans and reports from the National Center for Health Statistics that Latinos have benefited more than any group from the enactment of the Affordable Care Act, which every Republican candidate has pledged to repeal.
Trump’s tirades are the price Hispanics pay for their voting apathy. In the months that remain of the presidential campaign expect Republicans to modulate their rhetoric and morph into Latino amigos. Whether Hispanics respond with payback for Iowa and New Hampshire, or instead dismiss Republican slights as mere campaign peccadillos, may determine not only the next president of the United States but whether Latinos will hear the same vitriol in future elections.
Jose W. Fernandez practices law in New York. He served as Assistant Secretary of State for Economic, Energy and Business Affairs from 2009-2013.