Immigration Will Drive Latino Voting This November

Oct 12, 2018
11:59 AM
Originally published at Latino Decisions

By Adrian Pantoja

With the Brett Kavanaugh nomination behind them, congressional Republicans are in the process of making immigration an important campaign issue. This past Monday, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) promised a “big fight” over funding the border wall and on Tuesday, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) signaled his intention to fully fund Trump’s border wall at an estimated cost of $23.4 billion. Donald Trump stirred and rode an anti-immigrant backlash to the presidency and now Republican congressmen are seeking to do the same in their bid to retain Congress. Trump’s immigration gamble paid off in key Rust Belt states with few Latino voters. Congressional Republicans are pursuing a riskier strategy since several competitive races are in states with significant numbers of Latino voters. In a previous analysis, I noted that the Democratic path to victory runs through heavily Latino districts and states. With this backdrop in mind, this essay considers how immigration issues are likely to impact Latino voters. Other pundits have argued that immigration is no longer a salient issue for Latinos. However, results from the Latino Decisions/National Association of Latino Elected Officials (NALEO) tracking poll reveal that immigration remains a leading issue and is likely to drive Latinos to the polls this November.

Immigration issues are contentious, personal and emotional. In week 6 of the Latino Decisions/NALEO tracking poll, I assess Latino voters’ evaluations of and emotional reactions toward various immigration policy proposals. Perhaps one of the more contentious aspects of U.S. immigration policy is securing the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border. Although unauthorized migrations along this stretch of land have declined to a trickle in the last few years, President Trump is holding steadfast on his proposal to build “the wall.” We asked respondents whether Congress should approve funding for the border wall after the mid-term election.

Over two-thirds (69%) of Latino voters oppose funding Trump’s border wall. Their strong opposition is likely driven by their anger towards Donald Trump and his characterization of undocumented immigrants as criminals, drug dealers and rapists. In our poll, 72% of Latinos rate Trump unfavorably and this negative assessment is impacting Republicans in Congress who are rated unfavorably by 60% of respondents. Latinos’ negative evaluations are also driven by other immigration policies being pursued by the Trump Administration. Recently, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen announced changes to the public charge doctrine by declaring that immigrants will be ineligible to receive a “green card” or U.S. citizenship if they use certain public benefits such as food stamps, Medicaid and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). We asked Latino voters whether they agreed or disagreed with the decision to block legal immigrants from receiving public assistance.

Over three-quarters (77%) of Latino voters disagree with the DHS’s proposed changes to the public charge doctrine. DHS Secretary Nielsen is defending these changes on the grounds that they will “promote immigrant self-sufficiency” and ensure they do not “become burdens on American taxpayers.” Critics argue that this new course is part of a broader strategy to reduce the number of legal immigrants eligible for U.S. citizenship. Nonetheless, Donald Trump continues to highlight the threats posed by unauthorized immigration. One of the most controversial policies authorized by Secretary Nielsen was the separation of over 2,000 immigrant children from their parents and placing them in detention centers. The backlash against this decision was swift and intense, causing Secretary Nielsen to backpedal and claim that “we do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period.” Yet, leaked documents reveal that Nielsen pursued the policy intentionally with the aim of deterring further increases in unauthorized immigration. In the survey we asked respondents whether these new revelations should lead to her resignation as DHS Secretary. Over three-quarters (78%) of respondents in our poll agreed that she should resign.

Despite the backlash and termination of the family separation policy, the ACLU estimates that over 500 children remain in detention facilities. This ongoing tragedy is triggering a variety of emotions among Latinos. Previously I have written about the power of positive and negative emotions in shaping voting behavior. Specifically, political psychologists find that anger is strongly associated with increasing turnout, while fear or anxiety induces feelings of political powerlessness. In the poll we included a batter of questions capturing emotions evoked by the presence of over 500 children in detention centers.

What is evident from Figure 3 is that Latino voters are experiencing a mixture of emotions. Feelings of disgust, unhappiness and anger are pervasive. Over 90% said they felt a loss of pride and two-thirds (67%) felt afraid. With the exception of fear, their emotional responses are strongly associated with boosting voter turnout. Given the unfavorable ratings of Republicans in Congress, high rates of Latino turnout will significantly contribute to the coming blue wave.

In 2016 Donald Trump stoked and rode an anti-immigration wave to victory. Fears of a blue wave, coupled with the Kavanaugh fiasco, are leading some congressional Republicans to campaign on an anti-immigration platform in an effort to mobilize their base. This strategy is likely to backfire as a significant number of competitive House seats and Senate races have sizable Latino electorates. The results of our tracking poll confirm that immigration remains a salient issue for Latino voters and that the Trump Administration’s policies are highly unpopular. Indeed, immigration is going to be one of the most important factors driving Latino turnout and their vote choice. In our poll, 70% of Latino registered voters say they are “almost certain” to vote this November. However, cross-tabulation analysis reveal significant variations in turnout. For example, among people who think DHS Secretary Nielsen should resign, 75% say they are certain to vote. Among respondents who believe she should not resign, 65% are certain to vote. Among people who strongly oppose the new public charge rule, 78% are certain to vote, while among those who do not have strong feelings on the public charge rule, only 62% say they are certain to vote. The intention to vote this November is strongest for respondents who oppose Donald Trump’s immigration policies. Taken as a whole, the results suggest that running an anti-immigrant campaign in districts with sizable Latino populations will backfire on Republicans as immigration remains a personal and emotional issue for a majority of Latino voters.

Methodology: On behalf of NALEO Educational Fund, Latino Decisions interviewed 503 Latino registered voters nationwide from September 26–October 8, 2018. This wave carries of margin of error of 4.4%. Each week a fresh sample of 250 registered voters will be added and combined with the previous 250 interviews to create a rolling average of 500 for each week, consistent with most tracking polls methodology. Respondents were randomly selected from Latino Decisions partner web panels and confirmed to be registered to vote. The survey was self-administered and available in English or Spanish at the discretion of the respondent. Data were compared to the best-known estimates of the U.S. Census Current Population Survey (CPS) for demographic profile of Latino registered voters and weights were applied to bring the data into direct balance with Census estimates.


Adrian D. Pantoja, Ph.D., is Senior Analyst at Latino Decisions and Professor of Politics at Pitzer College.