HOUSTON — For years, political analysts have debated whether this longtime Republican state would shift blue if Latinos — frequently overlooked by national campaigns and often disenfranchised from the electoral process — would meet their full potential at the polls.
Now, with record-shattering early voter turnout across Texas, Latinos are casting ballots in higher numbers than ever before and polls show the state has become a battleground in the presidential race. But pollsters, analysts, and canvassers see signs of hope and warning for Democratic nominee Joe Biden with a voter bloc that’s crucial to his success not just in Texas but across the country.
In the Sun Belt, Biden is trying to assemble a multiracial coalition of voters in fast-growing suburbs and urban centers such as Houston and Phoenix that have seen drastic demographic change in recent years. The numbers look promising for him in Texas, which President Trump won handily four years ago. More than 9.6 million ballots have been cast, exceeding the state’s total votes in the 2016 presidential election, and Democrats believe that could offset high turnout from rural parts of the state where energy for Trump remains high.
“Somebody pressed the fast-forward button on the state,” said Albert Morales, senior political director of the polling firm Latino Decisions. “We did not anticipate it being in play this early.”
Yet every Republican presidential candidate since Bob Dole in 1996 has swept up about a third of the Latino vote nationwide — and some polls have Trump holding steady or performing better with Latinos since 2016, particularly among working class men. In rural South Texas, which is largely working class and Latino, turnout has lagged, and some take that as a positive sign for Trump.
“Our energy and enthusiasm is higher,” said Allen West, chairman of the Texas Republican Party.
With more than 32 million registered voters, Latinos are expected to be the largest group of voters of color nationwide in the presidential election. While Republican Cuban Americans in South Florida tend to dominate national political discourse, the Latino electorate is diverse, with origins in a wide array of countries, including El Salvador, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Colombia, as well as the US territory of Puerto Rico.
In the Southwest, the vast majority of Latinos trace their heritage to Mexico. But Latino voters have long been a lower political priority in Texas, with national campaigns coming into Latino neighborhoods late in the election cycle, if at all. Although Latinos make up 30 percent of people eligible to vote in Texas, only about 20 percent do.
This year, the energy has bubbled from both camps, though neither Biden or Trump has campaigned in the state. But Biden’s running mate, Kamala Harris, held three events there on Friday.
Nowhere has the tension and enthusiasm over this presidential election been more palpable than in Harris County, the nation’s third largest by population with an estimated 4.7 million residents. It is home to Houston, and roughly 1.4 million ballots have already been cast there, some in the early hours at one of several polling locations open 24 hours on one day last week.
Outside an early voting center here Friday, Angelica Razo, state director of the Latino voter group Mi Familia Vota, warmed up a crowd of volunteers for an appearance by rapper Common, saying, “We know that the communities that have historically gone overlooked are part of this historic turnout — they are changing Harris County, they are changing Texas.”
“I can’t say that we’ve been to too many places where I’ve seen, Black, brown, white, Muslim people [together],” Common told the cheering volunteers. “It just brings joy to my heart to see it.”
Texas doesn’t have affiliated registration, and polling in the state is notoriously difficult, so knowing which party is benefiting from the early voting is difficult. But political organizers and canvassers said that much of the high turnout here and across the state has been driven by Latino voters frustrated with the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak and the ensuing economic downturn. Many also have watched Republican efforts to roll back the Affordable Care Act with concern and attribute an increase in racial and ethnic hatred toward Black people and Latinos to Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric and approach to immigration.
The number of young voters in particular has reached levels never before seen, with a younger generation of Latinos coming of age under hardline immigration policies that have made their families’ lives more difficult, all while fearing a rise in school shootings and warming global temperatures.
The potential gains for Biden come even as he struggled to win over Latino voters since the Democratic primaries, in which he lost that vote to Senator Bernie Sanders.
And, still, enthusiasm for Trump continues. In the final days of early voting, Trump trains roamed the city and the state, with supporters in trucks and other vehicles waving Trump-Pence flags. One caravan on Friday surrounded a Biden bus outside of Austin carrying campaign surrogates on an interstate, forcing the cancellation of some campaign events. Another Trump group on Thursday circled a community center blasting music and shouting into a PA system. It included Vietnamese Americans fearing a takeover of “socialist Democrats” and Latinos concerned about corruption.
As emotions hit a fever pitch, Liz Hanks, 39, and her 3-year-old daughter walked away uneasily. “It’s so contentious that you can’t even have a normal boring political rally,” she said, as in the background someone yelled at the dispersing crowd, “I am a Latina. I am not oppressed.”
Republican Latinos are a small but vocal minority. Here, in what has been called the Latino Bible Belt, Trump’s warnings of socialism don’t stir as much support for the president as strong opposition to abortion among Latino evangelicals and conservative Catholics. Many also believe Trump would do better for small business and the economy. Racism — though they had experienced some themselves — was not at the top of their minds, neither was immigration.
“What I see is a lot of them are first generation American citizens ... maybe another generation, they will think critically,” Hope Cruz, 64, a retired business owner, said of Biden supporters at a school parking lot in Fort Bend County, a suburb of Houston, where the Biden bus and Trump train stopped next. It was once solidly Republican, but now is becoming more politically mixed. And she and other Trump supporters tried to counter the event by blasting Cuban salsa and waving giant Trump-Pence signs in front of military utility vehicles.
Tensions have risen as Republicans appear to be losing some of their grip on the state. Beto O’Rourke’s close race against Republican Senator Ted Cruz in 2018 ignited Texas Democrats’ longstanding quest to draw in new voters. This year, the high early vote counts come despite — or maybe because of — Texas Republicans' efforts to make it harder for people to register to vote and to vote, they said.
Just last year, after a 2018 midterm in which Latinos doubled their numbers at the polls, the Republican state officials tried to purge tens of thousands of people from its voter rolls based on flawed Texas drivers' license data. In the midst of the pandemic, Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican, refused to expand vote by mail options and limited the number of ballot drop boxes to one per county, even in sprawling Harris County.
And legal analysts expect the state to be a hotbed of litigation from Republicans contesting vote tallies after Election Day. The state Supreme Court on Sunday blocked an effort by state Republicans to throw out 100,000 ballots in Harris County because they were cast curbside at official drive-through voting locations.
If Texas goes blue or comes close, national political campaigns might want to pay more attention to Latinos in Texas than in Florida next time, Morales said.
“Anything within O’Rourke’s margin or anything close to that is a win to me,” Morales said. “It changes the political landscape of the country at least for a generation.”