Hillary Clinton may be having a hard time picking between all the paths to victory Donald Trump has paved for her. But the most obvious one may lie in Trump's spectacular unpopularity with Latino voters, in some ways the most important subset of the electorate. That's surely part of the reason why Clinton is considering a number of Latinos to serve as her running mate, including HUD Secretary Julian Castro, Labor Secretary Tom Perez, and, according to a big profile in Tuesday's New York Times, Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.).
Becerra, who has been an enthusiastic supporter of Clinton, is one of many politicians who looks like a strong pick, on paper at least. Handsome, smart, and experienced (he's been in Congress for 24 years), Becerra would seem to be a perfectly fine choice. And let's be honest: If Clinton is considering him, his ethnicity has more than a little to do with it. But how much would it matter to Latino voters, and to the eventual outcome of the election?
The first thing to understand is that vice presidential choices generally make little or no difference in how people vote, and the only cases where they have — particularly Sarah Palin and Dan Quayle — involved a poor choice costing the nominee votes. In other words, they can hurt you, but they may not be able to help you. But persuasion is only part of this story. If a Latino running mate could help increase turnout among Latino voters, that would be an enormous benefit to Clinton, even if that running mate wasn't changing the minds of people who were already voting.
How likely would that be? We can't be completely sure, since there's never been a Latino on a party ticket — and there's never been a candidate like Donald Trump. Trump's approval ratings among Latino voters are lower than dirt; for instance, in this recent Latino Decisions poll, only 9 percent of Latinos rated him positively, while 87 percent rated him negatively; they preferred Hillary Clinton over him by a margin of 76 to 11. For comparison's sake, Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney by 71 to 27, a blowout that everyone agreed helped doom Romney. If those numbers hold and turnout is even reasonably high among these voters in the fall, it could put swing states like Florida, Nevada, and Colorado completely out of reach for the Republicans.
But Latino Decisions pollster Sylvia Manzano cautions that even the spectacle of Trump won't be enough for Democrats to get the Latino vote out unless they also invest heavily in a grassroots organizing effort to register voters and push them to the polls. "Arizona is a good example that shows that demographics plus anti-Latino policy and rhetoric do not guarantee Democratic wins," she says. "After a famously antagonistic policy agenda (also characterized by bombastic talk and big personalities) and SB 1070 passed, [Gov. Jan] Brewer won re-election, and [Sheriff Joe] Arpaio wins re-election time and again. The state legislature became more Republican, and the GOP now holds all statewide offices. That happened as the Hispanic electorate grew."
Manzano also points to the parties' history in California as an object lesson, but not the one people usually draw. "I often hear people say that Donald Trump will lose because he is the 'Pete Wilson' in this election. People forget that [in 1994] Pete Wilson won (ugly ads and all), and his favored Prop 187 passed too. California turned blue a few years later, after extensive investment and organization by Democrats, grassroots groups, and others."
It's entirely possible that with two well-known personalities at the top of the party tickets, few voters are going to change their minds over the next six months. That would mean that the race turns on which side gets more of its voters to turn out. There is evidence that in some places, Latinos are registering to vote at unusually high rates; there is also anecdotal evidence of immigrants rushing to finalize their naturalizations so they can vote against Trump. It's clear that Trump, with his talk of border walls and deportations and his explicit appeals to white grievance, has done all he can to encourage Latinos to vote Democratic. But if Democrats want to seize the opportunity he has delivered to them, they still have to put in a lot of work.
A Latino running mate for Hillary Clinton might be able to aid in that cause, whether it's Xavier Becerra, Julian Castro, or someone nobody has thought of yet. But Clinton shouldn't assume those votes are already taken care of.