Given the widely recognized demographic trajectory of the state, the political attitudes of Latino voters in Texas remains one of the topics most likely come up in any and all discussions of the state’s electoral future. The approach of a recent article in The Conversation by Stella Rouse and Shibley Telhami with the highly clickable title “How Latinos Really Feel About Trump” got us thinking about the Texas-specific answers to some of the questions raised by the authors about Latinos nationally.
Rouse and Telhami set out to fact check Donald Trump’s claim in a January 2019 Tweet that “my poll numbers with Latinos has [sic] gone up 19%, to 50%,” with the authors concluding that “Latinos have relatively negative attitudes towards President Trump and his immigration policies,” making to it “hard for us to see a path for Trump to be competitive among Latinos in the 2020 election without reaching across partisan lines, something that we believe is unlikely to happen.”
In Texas, this glass is about a third full for Republicans rather than two-thirds empty, as Rouse and Telhami (to reasonable ends) portray the national data. To explore how Latino voters “really feel” about the current president in the partisan setting of Texas requires a closer look at the attitudes of the Latino voters who have helped maintain Republican electoral hegemony in the state – including Donald Trump’s 2016 collection of the state’s 38 electoral votes. The central question in Texas is not the straw man scenario of Trump successfully competing for the majority of Latino votes. Rather, it is whether there are signs that Trump’s presence as the national GOP figurehead erodes the partisan allegiances of Latino Republicans, who make up a critical piece of the GOP vote coalition in Texas even if they are a (numerical) minority partner. We looked in University of Texas / Texas Tribune Polling data for the patterns of party identification among Texas Latinos and at the attitudes of Republican and non-Republican identifiers among them toward the President’s signature issue – immigration – and its potential to alienate Latino Republicans from him and/or his party.
Texas data illustrate that a substantial cohort of Latino Republicans, whose attitudes differ sharply from their more numerous counterparts, remains a substantial political asset for Texas Republicans seeking to maintain their dominant partisan advantage in state elections. While Latino support for Trump may not be high enough to guarantee Trump’s reelection in the context of a closely divided national electorate, Latino Republicans, and their continued support for Trump, provide a crucial source of electoral support in the Texas electorate as currently constituted for the GOP incumbents that essentially run state government.
About the data
In the most recent University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, conducted in February 2019, 272 respondents out of our 1200 person sample identified as Hispanic, which produces an overall margin of error for that group of +/- 5.94 percentage points. Respondents were given the options of taking the poll in English or Spanish. When broken down further, into Latino Republicans and non-Republican Hispanics, we end up with approximately 80 Latino Republicans (producing a margin of error of +/- 10.96%) and 191 non-Republican Latinos (producing a margin of error of +/- 7.09%). While these margins of error are large, the differences in attitudes between the two groups are, in most cases, so starkly differentiated that there is little chance that the differences are a result of sampling error.
Latino Republican identification
Roughly 30 percent of Latino registered voters identify with the Republican Party in Texas, and this figure has been consistent across a range of attitude measures, where we have regularly witnessed at least 30 percent of Latinos taking traditionally ‘Republican’ positions when faced with attitude questions where the partisan sides (and thus the cues to voters and poll respondents) are obvious.
Immigration and the wall
The differences between different partisan groups of Latinos couldn’t be more stark when we look at questions probing attitudes on immigration topics that are manifest in current politics.
In the February 2019 poll, while 67 percent of non-Republican Latinos ‘strongly opposed’ erecting a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, 63 percent of Latino Republicans expressed ‘strong support.’ Looking back at the October 2018 UT/TT poll (which had roughly the same partisan and racial distribution as the February 2019 poll), 65 percent of Latino Republicans either ‘somewhat’ (22 percent) or ‘strongly’ (43 percent) agreed that ‘undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States should be deported immediately.’ Among non-Republican Hispanics, 76 percent disagreed either somewhat (32 percent) or strongly (44 percent). Thinking about legal immigration, 61 percent of Latino Republicans said that the U.S. is currently allowing too many people to immigrate here, compared to only 27 percent of non-Republican Hispanics.
Latino Republicans still are more likely to take positions that are pro-immigration than are Republicans who aren’t Hispanic. For example, while 35 percent of Latino Republicans disagree with the proposition to deport all undocumented immigrants immediately, only half as many non-Latino Republicans (17 percent) disagree. However, the attitudes of Latino Democrats in the same immigration question are distinct from that of Latino Republicans, even allowing for the wide margins of errors in the subgroups. Hispanic Democrats are more than twice as likely to disagree with immediate deportation: 81 percent disagree, 50 percent strongly. (Compared to 74 percent among non-Hispanic Democrats –with an equal share, 50 percent, disagreeing strongly).
One area where we witnessed limited partisan differences was the question of whether Texas’ increasing racial and ethnic diversity is a cause for optimism or concern, with 52 percent of non-Republican Latinos and 43 percent of Republican Latinos saying that it is a cause for optimism (statistically indistinguishable given the large margins of error), and equal shares 31 and 33 percent saying that it is a cause for concern. This likely reflects a less lopsided difference between the two positions among Republicans overall (among whom 30 percent were optimistic, 43 percent concerned). But it is also plausible that Latinos, with more direct experience with an ethnic social identity in the United States, face this question differently than their non-Latino counterparts. The influence of social desirability bias may also have played unevenly here among different racial and ethnic groups.
And, of course, Donald Trump
While notable, the flashes of ambivalence among Latino Republicans as a group in some contexts involving immigration and diversity recede to the background when it comes to support for their partisan figurehead. When asked to rate the job the president is doing, 80 percent of Latino Republicans approve of Donald Trump’s performance, with 54 percent expressing ‘strong approval.’ Among non-Republican Hispanics, 68 percent ‘strongly disapprove,’ with another 10 percent disapproving somewhat in the latest polling. When asked what they intend to do come 2020, 71 percent of Latino Republicans stated that they will definitely vote to re-elect Donald Trump, while 77 percent of non-Republican Latinos said that they will definitely vote for someone else.
And at the intersection of Donald Trump and immigration policy, measured in the October 2018 poll, 79 percent of Latino Republicans said that they approved of Donald Trump’s handling of immigration and border security (55 percent strongly), with an additional 45 percent plurality saying that the Trump administration had not gone far enough in enforcing federal immigration laws. Among non-Republican Hispanics, 70 percent strongly disapproved of how the president has handled immigration and border security, with 68 percent saying that the administration had gone too far in enforcing immigration laws.
It has become belatedly commonplace to note that Latinos are not a monolithic group, and given the accumulation of data, partisanship is perhaps one of the most evident of the areas where this is true. Like their non-Latino fellow Republican partisans, as a group Latino Republicans display, albeit to lesser degree, punitive attitudes toward undocumented immigrants already in the United States, tend to think too many people are being allowed to legally immigrate, and, not surprisingly in light of these attitudes, approve of Donald Trump’s performance as president and more specifically of his performance on immigration and border security issues. These data illuminate exit polls that registered 30 and 35 percent of Latinos casting votes for Ted Cruz and 35 and 42 percent for Greg Abbott in his rout of Lupe Valdez in the 2018 election, not to mention the 34 percent of Texas Latino voters reported in 2016 exit polling to have voted for Trump.
Looking forward to 2020, these data suggest that efforts to shift the Latino electorate in a more Democratic (or anti-Trump) direction by persuasion is far less likely to be effective than adding more likely Democratic Latinos to that electorate. The political universe in Texas for the last two decades has anticipated a surge of Latino Democratic voters as a result of the relative increase in the Latino share of the population. The oft-discussed Democratic efforts to expand Latino voting in order to effect a partisan shift requires mobilizing lower-propensity voters likely to support Democratic candidates by virtue of their age and socioeconomic status. The difficulty of this task is evident in the continuing success of Republican efforts to maintain a sizable minority of the Latino vote share in the face of Democratic efforts to dilute the effect of Latino Republican voting by converting non-voters – or even less successfully, to persuade them to abandon their party.