Marcos Bretón

Opinion: Latino power is more retail than political, for now

Donald Trump, who has ownership interests in the Miss Universe and Miss USA pageants, poses in 2013 with Miss USA Erin Brady. Several Latin countries have dropped out of the Miss Universe pageant to protest Trump’s remarks about immigrants from Mexico.
Donald Trump, who has ownership interests in the Miss Universe and Miss USA pageants, poses in 2013 with Miss USA Erin Brady. Several Latin countries have dropped out of the Miss Universe pageant to protest Trump’s remarks about immigrants from Mexico. Associated Press file

The news of Donald Trump getting dumped by Macy’s, NBC Universal, Univision and Televisa is a story that seems to indicate the growing power of Latinos in America.

Trump, the billionaire real-estate magnate, TV star and Republican presidential hopeful, has lost millions in business deals for trashing Mexico, Mexicans and immigrants during a June speech in which he announced his candidacy.

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” he said. “They’re sending people that have lots of problems ... They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”

Widespread condemnation of his comments arrived around the same time as new U.S. Census Bureau numbers that show Latinos are now the largest ethnic group in California, comprising 39 percent of the population. This seemed to be further proof that Trump picked the wrong group to alienate.

“We will do more than tweet about our indignation,” the actress America Ferrera said in a statement directed at Trump. “We will silence you at the polls. We will vote and use our growing position in U.S politics. Our fellow Americans who understand and value our contributions will join us. We know there is nothing that scares you more.”

Even though he would never admit it, Trump and others should fear a Latino backlash – but not the kind that Ferrera so proudly asserts.

Focusing on the numbers, it is clear that Latino purchasing power is a force in American culture – one that caused those big companies to move away from Trump for fear of offending customers. But Latino power at the ballot box is not nearly the force Ferrera would like to believe it is – or as conventional wisdom would have us believe in the wake of Trump’s public shaming.

Latinos have certainly made strides since the first pioneers began breaking barriers of elective office almost a half-century ago. And they may become a force in politics one day because of their sheer numbers. But right now? It’s more wishful thinking than reality backed by hard data.

California has the largest percentage of Latino immigrants, Latinos and Latino voters of any state, but the percentage of Latino voters dropped in the last election. The numbers show a mostly young community increasingly disconnected from the American political process.

“The state of participation in the Latino community is not good,” said Mindy Romero, founder and director of the California Civic Engagement Project at the UC Davis Center for Regional Change. On Wednesday, Romero will present data showing that the 2014 election was a troubling one for voter turnout in general – but particularly for the Latino community.

Latinos were only 15.4 percent of California voters in 2014, Romero said. Of course, voter turnout was awful in 2014 – it’s usually lower for all groups during midterm elections. But in the previous midterm cycle, Latinos were 16.7 percent of voters.

“There is nothing in the data that shows these numbers will bounce back,” Romero said.

Meanwhile, the number of Latino elected officials in California remains low compared to the proportion of Latino residents. Mike Madrid, of GrassrootsLab, an organization that studies political trends, will present a report to the California Latino Legislative Caucus on Thursday that paints another troubling picture.

Among the findings that Madrid will produce: There are nine California counties with majority Latino populations, but only one – Fresno – has government that equally represents its residents.

“Latinos are not showing up,” Madrid said. “It’s not just happening in cities like Woodland, (for example). It’s happening everywhere.”

The news in other states also defied conventional wisdom of surging Latino political power. “In the Texas race for governor, Democrat Wendy Davis won the Latino vote 55 percent to 44 percent but lost the election to Republican Greg Abbott,” wrote Jens Manuel Krogstad and Mark Hugo Lopez for the Pew Research Center.

“In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott won re-election despite losing the Hispanic vote to Democrat Charlie Crist by a margin of 38 percent to 58 percent, according to the state exit poll. That’s a marked decline from 2010, when 50 percent of Hispanics voted for Scott, and from 2006, when the Latino vote was split 49 percent to 49 percent between the two parties,” Krogsad and Lopez wrote.

Romero and Madrid both point to poverty as a reason why Latino voter participation is so low. It’s a young population, and young people in general have been staying home on Election Day. There are institutional barriers, such as a registration process that could and should be simpler and more accessible. The numbers of nonaffiliated voters are rising, and those voters tend to vote less.

Still, many Latino communities are thriving, and many young Latinos are engaged in their communities and churches and schools. But they don’t vote, and the implications of that are not good.

“How low can voter participation be to call it a democracy?” Romero asked.

One could argue that the weakness of Latinos at the polls has played a role in the failure of President Barack Obama – and of his Republican predecessor – to pass immigration reform even though it is an important issue to Latinos across the board.

So where is the muscle? Trump, who on Friday seized on the tragic killing of a young Bay Area woman – allegedly by a Mexican national – to amplify his half-baked stance on border control, knows because he's felt it in pocketbook, as companies cut ties with him to curry favor with Latino consumers.

The Nielsen Company recently published a study showing that the average age of Latinos in America is 27, meaning they have more years of prime purchasing power than any other group.

But if these consumers don't find their ways to the polls, they will never realize their true power to affect change.