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‘Latinos aren’t naturally liberal or conservative’

Northwestern historian examines the complicated political dynamics of a growing voting bloc

The Hispanic Republican, by Geraldo Cadava
Hispanics are the largest group of minority voters in the U.S.

“Why have Hispanics continued to support the Republican Party, even President Trump’s Republican Party?” “How has the Republican Party built a Hispanic base to withstand attacks by leaders who devalue them?” Northwestern University professor Geraldo Cadava seeks to answer these questions in his new book, “The Hispanic Republican: The Shaping of an American Political Identity, From Nixon to Trump” (Ecco, May 2020).

Hispanics are the largest group of minority voters, and by 2050 they are expected to represent a third to a half of the total U.S. population. Many have argued that the future success of the Democratic and Republican parties depends on cultivating their loyalty, Cadava writes.

“Politicians need to take Hispanics seriously as political actors, instead of taking their votes for granted. Both Republicans and Democrats have called Hispanics ‘natural’ Democrats, or ‘natural’ Republicans,” said Cadava, associate professor of history in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. “But I don’t think political identity or partisanship are natural at all. I think political identity is developed over time, in conversation with family, in particular places, as part of an individual’s and community’s sense of what’s right and wrong in the world. Part of why I wanted to write the book is to show that Hispanics have had serious ideas about politics for a long period of time.”

Cadava said Hispanics have become loyal Republicans because of a nexus of beliefs about U.S.–Latin American relations; the United States as the protector of freedom in the world; market-driven capitalism as the best path toward upward mobility; and a contrarian identity politics.

The majority of Hispanics vote for Democrats. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won the Latino vote against Trump (65% to 29%); and Barack Obama won the Latino vote against Mitt Romney (71% to 27%); and four years earlier against John McCain (67% to 31%).

Yet and still, Cadava said, talk of overwhelming support for Democrats dismisses a third of the Latino population, which translates into millions of voters, and misses the point.

“Hispanic Republicans and the Republican Party haven’t sought support from a majority of Hispanic voters,” Cadava said. “Their goals have been to erode the idea that Democrats have a monopoly on their votes, and to win enough Hispanic votes to win elections. Sometimes they’ve sought to neutralize Hispanic support for Democrats only by encouraging Hispanics to stay home.

“Most people assume that Hispanics vote for Republicans either because they’re Catholic or Cuban, or Catholic and Cuban. That’s part of the story, but not the whole story. Some of the characters in this book did indeed explain their support for the Republican Party as the natural result of their Catholic faith. But Hispanics have also argued that Catholicism was the root of their progressivism, especially with respect to labor rights and social justice.”

Even though Trump launched his presidential campaign with a tirade against Mexican immigrants, Cadava said he had a 50% approval rating among Hispanics in early 2019, during the government shutdown, higher than when he took office. But that same poll showed that more than half of Hispanics would definitely vote against him in 2020.

Cadava said he’s been thinking a lot about the present moment – the impact of COVID-19 and the George Floyd protests on Trump’s Hispanic support.

“Trump’s Hispanic supporters were confident that he’d do even better in 2020 than he did in 2016, when he won a surprising 28 percent of the Hispanic vote,” Cadava said. “Trump’s main argument was that the economy was working for Latinos better than it had ever worked for them before. Unemployment was low, home ownership was up, median incomes were up and financial deregulations that stifled Latino business owners had been slashed. 

“But I think COVID and BLM protests have the potential to shake things up for Hispanic Republicans, as they have for many Americans. Latinos, including the business owners who Trump courted, were really hurt by COVID, and while many Hispanic Republicans believe in ‘law and order,’ I think they’ve been forced like at no other point in the past 50 years, to consider the impact of policing in their own communities. I’d also add the Supreme Court’s DACA decision as something that’ll weigh on their minds.” 

Said Cadava: “Latinos aren’t naturally liberal or conservative. They aren’t naturally anything. Their complex histories have given them good reasons to be Democrats, but also good reasons to be Republicans.”

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