Election observers who were appalled by Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant comments about Mexico sending criminals and “rapists” over the US border might find some pleasure in the outcome of the Iowa caucuses, in which two sons of Latino immigrants emerged as possible Republican party nominees.

Together, Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Florida Senator Marco Rubio won more than half of the Republican votes: 28% for Cruz, and 23% for Rubio. Cruz successfully mobilized Iowa’s conservative Christian voters to come in first place in Iowa, ahead of Trump.  Meanwhile, Rubio, who came in third place, seems to have won the night as far as much of the mainstream press was concerned.  He has effectively been anointed the new candidate of a Republican establishment that is very unhappy with the prospect of either Trump or Cruz as their party’s nominee.

Yet it is far from clear that either of these candidates represents Latinos, or that they will have an easy time fixing the Republican Party’s serious problem with Latino voters. In 2008 and 2012, Latinos voted overwhelmingly for Obama (in 2012, he received 73% of the Latino vote), and a recent poll sponsored by the Spanish-language media company Univision,  indicates that Latinos as a whole continue to strongly lean Democratic. It also shows that Trump’s hostile comments have damaged their opinion of the Republican Party as a whole.

Nevertheless, Republicans remain hopeful that Latinos, many of whom hold conservative views on social issues, could yet be attracted to their party. And both Democrats and Republicans agree that they need to court this growing population of voters, who as a group are younger than the US population as a whole. Latino voters are seen as key to winning the presidency in 2016, and as necessary for building the parties’ strength in the future.


Ted Cruz speaking at the Iowa GOP’s Growth and Opportunity Party in Des Moines, Iowa on October 31, 2015. Photo by Gage Skidmore

The foreign-born population of the US has been rising steadily since the 1970s, and the majority of these newcomers are Latinos (sometimes called Hispanics), with countries of origin in South and Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean. There are about 55.4 million Latinos in the US (17.4% of the population) concentrated in the three most populous states: California, Texas, and Florida.  But according to Pew Research, Latinos have dispersed across the U.S., changing the social makeup of many communities.  This is particularly notable in smaller cities and rural parts of the country, where laborers, many of Mexican or Central American origin, have found jobs in agriculture, construction, and service work. The increased national visibility of Latinos is likely behind some of the anti-immigrant and anti-Latino feeling to which Trump has given voice.

The Role of Cuba

Both Cruz and Rubio’s conservative politics are derived to some extent from those of the Cuban-American community, for whom the Cuban Revolution and Fidel Castro’s rise to power in 1959 was a formative event.  For decades, the defining political issue for much of this community was the destruction of the Castro regime. Cruz and Rubio have, as a matter of course, both felt the need to contextualize their own conservative politics in relation to their families’ experiences in the Cuban Revolution.  Yet both have also aroused some controversy over their statements on this issue. In 2011, the Washington Post accused Rubio of deceptively presenting himself as the son of political “exiles” from the Castro regime, when in fact his parents came to the US in 1956, before Castro took power. Similarly, the Dallas Morning News found that Cruz conveniently avoided the fact that his father, Rafael Cruz, a conservative evangelical preacher, actually fought alongside pro-Castro revolutionaries, and came to the US in 1957 to escape persecution by the Batista regime (The elder Cruz soon after recanted his former allegiance and is now a committed anti-Castro anti-communist).

But it is unclear how much any of this matters. A Pew study finds that younger Cuban Americans and more recent immigrants from Cuba do not share the strongly conservative views of the exile generation, and they are likely to disagree with Cruz and Rubio about what was once the key issue among Cuban American voters: that of US relations with Cuba.  But it must also be remembered that Cuban Americans make up only a small portion of the total Latino population, many of whom identify much more closely with the experience of economic migration than with political exile. While there are only about 2 million Latinos of Cuban origin in the US, 34 million Latinos are of Mexican origin.


Marco Rubio speaking at the Iowa GOP’s Growth and Opportunity Party in Des Moines, Iowa on October 31, 2015. Photo by Gage Skidmore

For many of these others, Cubans are perceived as a somewhat privileged group. The Cuban exiles often came from the wealthy elites of Cuban society, and they also received special accommodations from the US government, some of which continue to benefit recent Cuban immigrants.  A law passed a few years after the Cuban Revolution is still in place that makes any Cuban national who has resided in the US for one year automatically eligible for permanent residency in the US, regardless of whether they first entered the US legally or illegally.

So while a good portion of the Republican base may love the idea of a Latino candidate talking tough about cracking down on illegal immigrants and further militarizing the Mexican border, as both Cruz and Rubio have done, this may sound very different to a voter of Mexican descent. For that voter, already insulted by Trump and stigmatized as an “illegal,” it may only be a reminder that American citizenship is easier for some Latinos to achieve than for others.

Though Cruz and Rubio may have made history in Iowa as the first Latino politicians to make credible advances toward the presidency, it seems unlikely that either candidate will win over the majority of Latino voters. More likely, the candidate who will best appeal to this increasingly important but diverse group will address the issues that the Univision poll has identified as their top concerns: jobs and the economy, education, and an immigration policy that favors a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. So far, most Latinos identify with the Democratic candidates’ views on these key issues, and they will likely to continue to do so, at least through 2016.

Susan Hegeman

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