In January of this year, organizers of the first Women’s March on Washington, D.C., organized a mass rally entitled “Power to the Polls”—in Las Vegas, Nevada. The event promised to take the anti-Trump fervor of Women’s March participants across the country into battleground congressional races. This second Women’s March came on the heels of Democrat Doug Jones’s victory in the December 2017 Senate race in Alabama, which has led to both high hopes and intense speculation about the Democrats’ 2018 prospects.
Was that triumph a one-off outcome due to a spectacularly bad Republican candidate—you don’t often get to run against a credibly accused child molester—or is there a new opportunity to make progress in some of the reddest states in America? The most optimistic analysts have suggested the latter, with some finding inspiration in the Jones campaign’s massive mobilization of the black vote, obtained in part through innovative grassroots approaches pioneered by younger African American organizers.
We wish the best of luck to those working in the South, but there’s also another grassroots play worthy of consideration: seriously mobilizing Latinos in the Southwest. After all, while many still focus on the narrow losses in Rust Belt states like Michigan and Wisconsin, Hillary Clinton lost by just 4 percentage points in Arizona, her bid significantly boosted by the community organizers who were working to defeat the re-election of notoriously anti-immigrant Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. For that matter, Texas and its 38 electoral votes received scant attention from the Clinton campaign and still came within single digits of flipping blue.
Given such results, it is perhaps no surprise that this year’s national Women’s March was not held in the nation’s capital but in Nevada, a swing state with a statehouse and Senate seat in play in 2018. But as in Alabama, winning the Southwest will require a fresh approach to mobilizing voters of color. For Latinos, that means recognizing a key fact: While roughly 300,000 Latinos become naturalized citizens every year—a trend to be applauded and encouraged—there are nearly 900,000 already citizens who turn 18 each year.
So as much as we need to support those working to mobilize “New Americans” upset about the anti-immigrant policies of the Republican Congress and White House, the real prize to be won is the millennial vote, especially in places like Texas. This year’s Texas primary saw an 87 percent increase in Democratic voter turnout over that in the 2014 primary. This surge was due in large part to a growing electorate that is younger, more female, and more diverse.
Like others their age, these young voters of color are Trump-weary and media-savvy. In July 2017, for example, 15 young women decked out in pastel-colored quinceañeradresses and tiaras staged a protest against SB4, a “show me your papers” anti-immigrant bill then pending in the Texas legislature, on the steps of the state capitol. They performed choreographed dances to “Somos Más Americanos” (“We are more American”) by the Mexican band Los Tigres del Norte and “Immigrants (We Get the Job Done)” by Nuyorican Lin-Manuel Miranda. The protest was equal parts Latino pride, girl power, and performance art, and was aired on media reaching an estimated 50 million Americans, including 6.5 million views of an MTVNews Facebook post covering the protest, making it one of the most viewed videos of the month on the youth-targeted network. As the young women held their fists high in the air, they chanted, “We are brown and beautiful, and we won’t back down because we are Texas.”
Most of the young women, like 17-year-old protester Maggie Juarez, weren’t yet old enough to vote—but they soon will be. Within the Lone Star State, half of all those under the age of 19 are Latino—and nearly a fifth of the nation’s Latinos who are aging into voting hail from Texas. As evidenced by the quinceañera-themed protest, immigration is important, partly because over half of Texas Latino youth have at least one immigrant parent. But the economy, education, and racial justice matter, too, with the last increasingly salient because young Latinos know that the dog-whistle politics of the past have been replaced by the Trump bullhorn of white supremacy.
Capturing these young voters of color is critical for progressives in Texas and beyond—but such a development cannot be assumed. Latinos may vote progressive in Texas (one analysis of the 2016 election in Texas found that just 18 percent of Latinos cast their ballots for Trump), but a plurality see themselves as independent. According to a survey by the Pew Research Center, 44 percent of Latinos and 51 percent of Latino millennials identified themselves as independents. These numbers have encouraged efforts backed by the Koch brothers, like the Libre Initiative, which are trying to make inroads into the Latino vote in such key states as Texas, Arizona, Nevada, and Florida. To combat these forces, progressives need to harness the power of young progressive voters of color by investing in grassroots efforts to engage young people and build a homegrown movement.
One such example was the Bazta Arpaio campaign in Arizona, which attracted legions of Latino youth, including 18-year-old Elisa Ávalos, who aptly summarized what was motivating her and her peers: “We should not be living in fear because he [Arpaio] is in office. … [H]e should be serving the community, not fighting against the community.” Organizers knocked on doors, organized at schools, and held rallies and block parties to get the vote out.
At Jolt, an organization one of us heads in Texas, members represent a full spectrum of millennial Latinos, including Dreamers, children of immigrants, and fifth-generation Texans. What they share aside from their ethnic identity is that most have never volunteered for a political party or a candidate.
Millennial Latinos are being drawn to organizations like Bazta Arpaio and Jolt because they dive head-first into organizing with a message that leverages the power of Latino culture, instead of running away from it. While many progressive organizations in Texas have focused on public safety for non-Latino and immigrant communities in an attempt to win the debate on immigration, Jolt organizers instead speak directly to young Latinos with messages like “SB4 wants to make being brown and undocumented a crime,” and “brown is beautiful, we are Texas.” In the words of Daniela Rojas, a 23-year-old Dreamer who is a Jolt activist: “I came to Jolt because I was tired of seeing my community attacked and feeling alone. Here I met a bunch of other people like me—and the work is fun.” In just one year, Jolt has built a team of hundreds of young Latinos who are registering voters, organizing to defend Dreamers, and recruiting their peers to vote for candidates who stand up for immigrants, people of color, and the LGBTQcommunity.
Jolt’s best recruiting tools, however, are parties and cultural protest events, where young people like Rohas come to get their nails painted with brown-power fists and images of Frida Kahlo, have “DACANow” buzzed into their head by a local barber, register to vote, get their picture taken in front of murals painted by other young Latino artists, and screen-print a Trump resistance T-shirt. At Jolt, staff and volunteers spend as much time thinking about how a protest or event will make young Latinos feel empowered as they do thinking about how the event will serve as a catalyst to build the organization’s ranks, or to educate and turn out young Latino voters.
This line of messaging and organizing has broken through the national political noise, triggering requests from young Latinos across Texas who want to join Jolt and the fight. Similarly, the Bazta Arpaio campaign reached its target audience with the message: “For everyone who’s tired of Arpaio’s abuses, 2016 is the year we end his reign and prevent Trump’s rise.”
In short, to win the young, we need to go bold, not bland.
Movements matter because they can set the moral and political tone of a country. But ultimately, movement momentum must be translated into electoral power. That was the shortfall of the Obama presidency: The groundswell for hope and change was eclipsed by a Tea Party upsurge that helped Republicans capture nearly a thousand state legislative seats. The antidote to that dynamic is not to drift to the center but to capture the already animated anti-Trump coalition and to activate those Obama voters—younger, more diverse, and more liberal—who sat out the 2016 elections.
The possibility of that kind of progressive turnaround is illustrated by the arc of the state of California. In the early 1990s, the Golden State looked much like red-state America today: agitated by anti-immigrant sentiment, strained by the economic distress of deindustrialization, and riddled by political polarization (few remember that Rush Limbaugh actually got his bombastic start in talk radio in Sacramento just prior to that era of unease). Today’s California is very different, of course: protecting immigrants against federal overreach, raising (not cutting) taxes to provide services, and tackling disparities in education and the labor market.
Getting there was a matter of demographic change, to be sure, but it was also the result of a great deal of work to change the electorate. Efforts by groups like California Calls lured new and occasional voters to the polls by combining community organizing with electoral mobilization—a strategy called “integrated voter engagement.” Such efforts have been crucial to winning state ballot measures to hike taxes on the well-off in both 2012 and 2016, and “de-felonize” drug use, effectively freeing many from state prison, in 2014.
Young people have been an important part of this change. Between 2004 and 2014, 18- to 24-year-olds constituted only about 3.6 percent of the voters in the state’s June primary elections (primary elections are a better marker of engagement, since this is usually where newer voters and some progressive constituencies—people of color and the young—slack off). In 2016, however, that same age group comprised 7.5 percent of all the votes cast—more than a doubling of the historic trend (and not entirely attributable to the Bernie Sanders surge among the young).
The slightly older group of millennial voters—critically important to the election of Obama—is fast becoming the largest and most diverse voting bloc in the country. In Virginia, for example, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ralph Northam beat his Republican opponent by 39 percentage points with voters under age 30. And if Democrats want to take the Southwest, they will need to harness the power of young voters of color in those states, too.
And what a lock that could be on national politics! After all, Texas—which will be majority Latino by 2030—holds 36 congressional seats and 38 Electoral College votes. Once we add in Arizona (11 electoral votes) and California (55 electoral votes), the Latino vote could have the power to help deliver close to 40 percent of the electoral votes needed to win the White House, despite the fact that Latinos currently make up just 18 percent of the U.S. population.
But getting there will require new strategies and a new focus. Political analysts have frequently labeled the Latino vote a “sleeping giant” and wondered what it would take to fully move it into action. And although the Trump threat is generating a whole new pan-Latino unity—nothing like stripping DACArecipients of their protections to persuade voters that a lot is at stake—trolling the coloniasof Texas and the barriosof California with traditional get-out-the-vote tactics will not be enough.
For while the Latino vote may have been sleeping, there’s a whole new generation of activists who are already “woke.” They are not likely to pin their hopes, however, on one party or political leader. Instead, they may find inspiration from young people like 17-year-old quinceañeraprotester Maggie Juarez, who showed more courage and leadership than many of Texas’s legislators when she opposed SB4 by saying: “We will resist through drawing on the power within our communities; we will resist through celebrating our families and our culture. We will resist through standing in unity and showing that we are not going to back down.”
Now the question is whether progressives and the Democratic Party will invest in young people of color like Maggie, who have the power to redraw the American political map.