Yes, But How Will They Vote?

This is a contribution to Prospect Debate: The Illusion of a Minority-Majority America.

Richard Alba’s thoughtful and iconoclastic piece in the Winter issue requires us to rethink the nation’s shifting racial profile. What it doesn’t do, however, is dispel the thesis that “demography is destiny”—that the shifting racial palette of American voters will contribute to creating a lasting Democratic majority.  

The key question for hard-nosed political strategists is how Hispanics and the children of marriages between Hispanics and non-Hispanic whites will vote, since these constitute the largest racial components of the presumably emerging Democratic majority. Here, too, a great deal of caution is in order—for if the Census Bureau has not yet figured out how to accurately classify children of mixed marriages, as Alba suggests, exit polls haven’t even tried. When a voter tells a pollster she’s Hispanic, that settles it—she’s Hispanic, no matter her lineage.

But even when a voter who’s half-Hispanic or a quarter-Hispanic calls himself white, that doesn’t mean he hasn’t experienced prejudice, or heard the nativist siren calls coming out of the Republican Party, or had an undocumented cousin who lives in fear of deportation. It’s a likely bet that when one political party positions itself as anti-immigrant—a catch-all in our time for anti-Hispanic and anti-Asian—voters of mixed Asian or Hispanic parentage will look less fondly on that party, even if they think of themselves as white.

The best illustration we have of this supposition comes from California. Until 1994, moderate Republicans would periodically win as much as 40 percent of the state’s Hispanic vote. In 1994, however, the incumbent Republican governor, Pete Wilson, trailing his Democratic challenger in the polls, made a fateful decision: He chose to identify himself with a ballot measure known as Proposition 187 that would deny all public services—including the right to attend K-12 public schools—to undocumented immigrants. His ads purportedly showed immigrant hordes streaming across the border; “They keep coming,” the ads proclaimed. Wilson won re-election and Proposition 187 passed, though it was quickly struck down in the courts. And the California Republican Party has never recovered.

In short order, the new, Latino-led labor movement in Los Angeles County decided to undertake a vast, ongoing project to naturalize, politically mobilize, and get to the polls the rapidly growing number of immigrants and their citizen children. The common theme running through labor’s campaigns was that the Republicans were the party bent on relegating Hispanics to either second-class citizenship or no citizenship at all. This project was soon embraced by labor organizers across the state, with results that have been politically transformative. As California has turned into a majority-minority state, not only have entire regions of the state flipped from the Republican to the Democratic column, but the state as a whole has shifted on the political spectrum from purple to the darkest blue. Of the 57 non-special-election races for statewide office since 1994—which includes the races for governor, U.S. Senate, and for lesser statewide and constitutional offices—Republicans have won exactly once. That was when Arnold Schwarzenegger hung on to the governor’s chair in 2006.

What exit polls have demonstrated over the past two decades is that California Hispanics have emerged as the most liberal demographic in the Democrats’ coalition. In voting on bond measures, initiatives, and referenda, their level of support for bigger spending on schools, transportation, and infrastructure exceeds that of African Americans. During those years, the right has campaigned for initiatives designed to weaken unions’ ability to wage political campaigns; but Hispanics have rejected these measures at a rate higher than African Americans, union members, or anybody else.

In the 2012 election, the California labor movement also successfully mobilized the Asian-American electorate, which in California includes many high-income and highly educated voters. (In all these endeavors, labor’s outreach has preponderantly been to these populations at large, rather than just to a small subset of union members.) In its outreach to Asians, labor went after the GOP’s anti-immigrant stance, and the exit polls showed that Asian Americans supported President Barack Obama over GOP nominee Mitt Romney by an astonishing three-to-one margin.

As I’ve noted, exit polls necessarily accept voters’ self-identification, so none of these data provide a clear guide to whether the children of mixed marriages vote differently from their non-mixed-marriage counterparts. Moreover, lineage is just one factor in determining an ethnic group’s voting history; local political culture is another. One of the great divergences in current American politics is the gap between the voting habits of Hispanics in California and those in Texas—states with almost identical shares of Hispanic residents. Texas Hispanics favor the Democrats at a rate markedly below that of Californians, and the state’s Hispanic elected officials are on the whole positioned somewhat to the right of their Golden State counterparts. Part of the difference is that while labor has waged a two-decade campaign to socialize and mobilize immigrants in California, no comparable campaign has taken place in Texas, since unions barely exist there and no other institution has had the resources or motivation to do the job.

So does the rise of multiracial families identifying as white weaken the prospects for an emerging Democratic majority? We don’t know. We do know that the Republicans’ continual war on immigrants likely offsets some of the political consequences that may derive from the phenomenon that Alba so insightfully describes. 

Next: Frank D. Bean, "Ethnoracial Diversity: Toward a New American Narrative"

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