El despertar! The awakening — or how this cycle might finally wake the Latino vote

San Antonio voters wait to cast their ballots at the Wonderland of the Americas Mall on Nov. 2, 2018, the last day of early voting. Photo by Robin Jerstad for The Texas Tribune

Walk into any Michoacán market or raspa shop in east Houston, south San Antonio, or west Dallas and you might find it abuzz with political chatter. Between bites of guisado and spoonfulls of mangonadas, the engagement of Latinx voters points to an emerging political force. This marks un nuevo día, a new day, in Texas politics. 

Pundits have long suggested the Latinx vote in Texas was a powder keg in Texas politics; strike the right political spark and it ignites an explosion. Yet, to date, the so-called sleeping giant has only slowly risen from its slumber. The numbers are potentially massive. Census Bureau projections suggest the Hispanic population will more than double its size from 2010 to 2015, to over 20 million people. Of the 9 million Hispanics added to the population of the United States since 2010, 2 million reside in Texas. Voter turnout has been sluggish though, as smaller percentages of Latinos have voted, compared to other Texans. Still, 2018 showed strong growth. Almost 2 million Hispanics voted in Texas in 2018, a jump of more than 800,000 from the lackluster turnout in the 2014 cycle. This represented a significant increase in the electoral vote share of the voting-age population, from 16% to 25%.

The 2020 election could accelerate these changes, transforming Texas politics in the process. In a statewide poll in which we partnered with the Center for Mexican American Studies at the University of Houston and Univision, including an oversample of Latinx registered voters, we found that Hispanics in Texas are as excited to vote as the rest of the state:  70% of Latinx Texans reported they were “almost certain” to vote in 2020, compared to 72% of all Texans. When asked if it was “more important to vote” in 2020 than in 2018, 71% of Latinx responded that it was, compared to 66% of all Texans.

Among young Latinx registered voters the enthusiasm is palpable: 56% of Gen-Z registered voters (18-22 year-olds as of 2019) said that they were almost certain to vote in the next presidential election and 66% of Latinx millennials (23-38 years of age as of 2019) said they will likely vote. More than a year before the election, vote-intention levels are comparable to those found closer to Election Day. In an October 2016 Center for Mexican American poll among Latinx millennials, 79% said that they were likely to vote during the presidential election. The future is coming quickly. By the time the 2032 election arrives, more than 5.7 million Latinos will be eligible to vote, increasing young Latinx voters by 1 million from the 2020 election. 

Why is 2020 the inflection point for Texas Latinx voters? First, President Trump is a liability for Republicans: 56% of Texans disapprove of his handling of the presidency, including 76% of Latinx respondents. Second, the racially motivated mass shooting earlier this year in El Paso may be a turning point for Latinos in Texas. In our CMAS-UH/Univision poll, 47% of Latinx respondents claimed President Trump’s language in speeches and on Twitter are responsible for the shooting; 71% agreed with this statement, compared to 29% who agreed that the El Paso shooter was a lone racist who was not influenced by President Trump. 

Texas Republicans have long counted on around a third of Latinos to support the Republican ticket. This is changing. In our CMAS-UH/Univision poll, 49% reported voting for a Republican for a major elected office in Texas at some point in their past, significantly higher than other states with large Latinx populations like Arizona, California, and New Mexico. However, President Trump’s approval among our oversample of Latinos was 24%, well below yields for U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (30%) in 2018. Republicans are losing the outreach battle:  only 22% of Latinx respondents claimed Republicans were “doing a good job” reaching out to voters like themselves, compared to 56% who said the same about Democrats. 

Immigration is — not surprisingly — where Texas Republicans and Latinx voters who lean Republican have major policy differences. Immigration is a wedge issue for Latinos with the Republican Party: according to the October 2018 Univerisity of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, only 19% of Hispanic Republicans strongly agreed that undocumented immigrants should be deported immediately, compared to 35% of all Republicans. On this issue, Latinos who identify as Republicans are slightly closer to Democrats than to Republicans. 

The key to winning the Latino vote? Like most Texans polled in our CMAS-UH/Univision poll, Latinx respondents reported that lowering the cost of health care and improving wages were the most important issues facing their community. Latinx respondents were more likely to say that stopping racism against immigrants and protecting immigrant rights were more important to the state than were all Texans together. In the wake of the violence in El Paso, 69% of Latinx respondents are worried about a mass shooting by white nationalists, compared to 50% of all Texans. Hispanic registered voters are also more likely to favor expanding background checks on all guns sales, red flag laws and banning assault rifles, and many blame access to these firearms as the primary cause of the El Paso shooting. 

The sleeping giant se está despertando, is showing signs of stirring. Population changes are causing a political realignment in Texas and Latinx are voters are at the forefront of that movement for now y hacia la futuro

Disclosure: The University of Houston has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Brandon Rottinghaus

Professor, University of Houston


Jeronimo Cortina

Associate director, Center for Mexican American Studies, University of Houston