AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Come election time, California has been firmly in the blue column for the last two decades. But it also has the largest statewide population of eligible Latino voters in the country. So if you want to know what's going on with those voters, you have to head West. And it's worth stopping by the Sacramento office of Mike Madrid.
MIKE MADRID: Mike Madrid - look, I'm a Latino Republican in California. That's probably the least listened to political voice in America right now.
CORNISH: OK, ignore that part.
MADRID: But it's also the future. It's also the future.
CORNISH: And you hear this a lot because the number of eligible Latino voters has grown at one of the fastest clips of any other group over the last eight years. But the turnout rates, not so hot. And Mike Madrid knows this. He's a GOP consultant in California. He grew up in a family of Catholic Democrats from Mexico and switched to the Republican Party in the Reagan '80s. These days, Madrid says it's been tough going for guys like him.
And the party's apparent nominee Donald Trump isn't helping.
MADRID: I co-direct the USC-LA Times poll. And I see cross tabs showing that Latinos have an 87 percent negative impression of Donald Trump. Those are extraordinary numbers - I mean, jaw-dropping. You could test Malaria or the Zika virus and it's probably not going to hit 86 percent. I mean, those are huge numbers.
CORNISH: We'll come back to Madrid in a moment. But first, let's recall how Donald Trump reintroduced himself to Latino voters when he kicked off his presidential campaign last year.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
DONALD TRUMP: When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best. They're sending people that have lots of problems. And they're bringing those problems with us. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.
CORNISH: Trump has since run on a platform of fighting illegal immigration with mass deportations and a U.S.-Mexico border wall. His talk about winning over Latino voters has been met with skepticism. Witness the awkward picture of him eating a taco bowl that he tweeted out to mark Cinco de Mayo. Now, Democrats see the spike in the number of Latino voters in California and think Trump is doing them a favor.
Look back to this period in 2012 and 157,000 Latinos had registered to vote in the state. This year, it's nearly 384,000, and the majority are Democrats. Now, we don't know for sure whether the uptick is because of Trump. Knock on enough doors and talk to enough Latino voters and eventually, you will hear his name, says Annie Dobbs Kramer.
ANNIE DOBBS KRAMER: Yeah, we were just walking door-to-door...
CORNISH: She's an activist with the North Bay Organizing Project.
DOBBS KRAMER: You know, we're here to talk about the election and just talk about voting. And she immediately responded, like, girls, get out here. You're registering to vote. We can't let Trump win.
DOBBS KRAMER: So, they were like, OK, all right. We're registering folks to vote. I've also - yeah, I actually have heard a few people talk about the fear of Trump.
CORNISH: We found Dobbs Kramer at a planning meeting of volunteers in Santa Rosa, a community about 60 miles north of San Francisco.
DOBBS KRAMER: So this Saturday, we are having a walk from 2 to 4 p.m.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Who's going to come? One, two three...
CORNISH: The thing is, they focus on local issues, rent control, for example. One of their newest volunteers, Maria Dominguez, runs a daycare center in nearby Roseland. This year, she's gone from passive voter to full-blown activist.
MARIA DOMINGUEZ: One of my families who lives with me, they don't have any documents right here. But two of their families are already planning to move to Mexico because they're afraid of Trump. They said if Trump wins, we have to leave the country. And there's a kind of fear people is taking from that.
CORNISH: Her 17-year-old daughter Rosa Rios jumps in.
ROSA RIOS: However, I would like to thank Trump for making us realize how important our vote is because that actually woke up my senior class. And they're like, oh, OK, I'm ready to vote.
CORNISH: Rosa Rios is what our political consultant Mike Madrid would consider a missed opportunity for Republicans. She's also among the newly registered Latino voters entering the electorate in an atmosphere that feels, to Madrid, as bad as the early '90s when California was embroiled in a fight over a ballot initiative known as Prop 187. It aimed to prevent undocumented immigrants from using public services.
And while most of the measure was found unconstitutional and thrown out in court, Madrid says it marked a turning point.
MADRID: Then Governor Pete Wilson, a Republican, campaigned largely on the fact that this was a symbolic message to Washington that the people of California had had enough with its inability to solve the border problem, the border crisis. So regardless of whether it was constitutional or not, the people of California were sending a message.
CORNISH: And it became a message also to the people within California, specifically Latino voters, right?
MADRID: It became a message to everybody but particularly to the Latino community.
CORNISH: And what was that message?
MADRID: Well, you're not welcome here, essentially. And that has lasted for a generation. And the great irony is there are voters in 2016 that were not alive during the 1994 campaign. So they have no historical experience with it. And just as those memories are fading back into the rearview mirror of, you know, our political history here in California, we have the emergence of a new candidacy in terms of Donald Trump.
CORNISH: Now, the question is not whether California is in play come November. It's whether Latino voters in key battleground states, like Florida, Nevada and Colorado, will follow suit, registering and then voting at higher numbers. So it helps to look at multigenerational households like that of the DeJesus family in Oakland. Forty-nine-year-old Maria DeJesus is a mother of five, including toddler Zoe, giving her a little trouble here as we sit down to talk.
ZOE DEJESUS: (Crying).
CORNISH: DeJesus is another face behind a statistic, the 13 percent increase so far this fiscal year in the number of immigrants who've applied for naturalization over a year ago. Her household includes another new voter, her 19-year-old son Ever.
EVER DEJESUS: I guess I'm going for Bernie Sanders 'cause I go to college.
CORNISH: Ever DeJesus goes to San Francisco State University. And as it's gone for much of this election season, there is a generational divide in this house. Maria DeJesus is not going for Bernie Sanders. Originally, she'd had high hopes for a Republican.
MARIA DEJESUS: (Speaking Spanish).
CORNISH: She says she's always preferred a Spanish speaker. Originally, she had high hopes for a Republican who's no longer in the race.
M. DEJESUS: (Speaking Spanish).
CORNISH: She has to think for a moment. Then she remembers...
M. DEJESUS: Marco Rubio.
CORNISH: Marco Rubio. Now that Rubio's dropped out, she says she's voting for Hillary Clinton.
M. DEJESUS: (Speaking Spanish).
CORNISH: She says, "the person I don't like is Mr. Trump."
M. DEJESUS: (Speaking Spanish).
CORNISH: She calls him the discriminator. But Maria DeJesus doesn't want to vote out of fear. And Mike Madrid, our Latino Republican consultant, doesn't want his party to further alienate this rapidly growing and diverse group of voters over immigration. He still sees a glimmer of hope in the 29 percent of newly registered Latino voters in California who are listed as nonpartisan. But...
MADRID: When you have somebody attacking a community on these issues, none of the issues matter. None of our generational issues matter. None of our cultural or country-of-origin issues matter. All we are hearing is you're not wanted here. And that has a coalescing effect - a very rare convalescing effect in politics.
CORNISH: And frankly, his gig, the one he jokingly called the least listened to political voice in America, it's a little lonely.
MADRID: Yeah, it is lonely. But I think sometimes that's part of being - I think maybe we need more lonely actors in the American stage - fewer followers, maybe, and more leaders who are willing to stand up and say, look, the Republican Party is wrong. And, look, a lot of Latino politicians are wrong. You both need each other to be successful.
CORNISH: And the first test of turn out for these Latino voters comes soon. The California primary will be on June 7. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.