Swing states look to Latino voters — as turnout attempts get under way

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The writer is a contributing columnist, based in Chicago

For the first time in US history, one in seven eligible voters in this year’s presidential election will be Latino. And that could make all the difference in swing states such as Wisconsin, where the last two presidential contests were decided by razor-thin margins.

The Latino share of US eligible voters has nearly doubled since 2000, according to the Pew Research Centre. “It’s different this year than ever before,” Mike Madrid, veteran Republican strategist and author of an upcoming book, The Latino Century, told me. Wisconsin is hardly known as a bastion of Latino voting power, but “the Latino vote is now bigger than the African-American vote in Wisconsin”, he says.

The Latino vote has historically swung Democrat but they weren’t decisive nationally in the past, he says, “because the vast majority lived in three states: California, Texas and Florida. But now they will be decisive in [swing states such as] Arizona, Nevada and Wisconsin.” He says they could have a big impact in Georgia, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, too. 

Benjamin Marquez, political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says this “could easily tip the election in Wisconsin, where there are 187,000 eligible Latino voters that did not vote in the last election”. The 2020 presidential poll in the state was decided by just over 20,000 votes. “But the hard work is to get them out to vote.” 

“To vote or not to vote, that’s what I’m trying to decide,” a 49-year-old Mexican-American sporting a Harley-Davidson hoodie told me recently outside the El Rey grocery store in Milwaukee. He’s not alone: new census figures recently released show only about 38 per cent of eligible voting age Latinos voted in 2022. 

The shopper, who only gave his name as Jose, made no secret about how fed up he is with President Joe Biden, for whom he voted in 2020. “We’ve spent 20 years marching for change, but it hasn’t happened,” he says, expressing exasperation at the lack of immigration reforms such as work permits for long-term immigrants. He has even considered switching his vote to former president Donald Trump.  

Armando Rosales, 61, another Mexican-American shopper, says he is also considering a vote for Trump. “We need a leader with a strong hand,” he says, mimicking the doddering gait of an old man. Many voters worry Biden is too old for another term in office.

Christine Neumann-Ortiz, a Latina and executive director of Voces de la Frontera, an immigrant rights group that is trying to persuade voters such as these to turn out for the Democrats, warns Rosales and Jose of dire consequences for immigrants if Trump returns to office. Reluctantly, they both indicate they probably will vote for Biden. 

But Veronica Diaz, 48, another Milwaukee Mexican-American, is one of a substantial minority of US Latinos who are Republican. She told me by phone that she will vote for Trump, as she did in 2016 and 2020. “You may not agree with his personality, but I’d rather vote for someone who will make more jobs and keep us safe from other countries.” 

Republicans could make further inroads among Latinos, after around a third voted for Trump in 2020, says Madrid — although to a Pew report last week found nearly half of Americans would like to kick both candidates off the ballot. Currently, 52 per cent of Latinos support Biden, against 44 per cent for Trump. 

Hilario Deleon, chair of the Republican party of Milwaukee county, told me there’s no way his party will win in this overwhelmingly Democratic county: but if Republicans pick up even a few Latino votes, “that will help the rest of the state get [Trump] across the finish line”.

Biden outlined what’s at stake in a campaign visit to Arizona in March to court Latino voters there: “I need you badly . . . you’re the reason why — in large part — I beat Donald Trump [last time].” 

In the end, Biden’s fate in Wisconsin could come down to whether disgruntled voters such as Jose and Rosales go to the polls, or stay at home. Latino voters have the numbers to make a difference this year: no one knows yet if they will turn out to do so.

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