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Latino voters are shifting right: Here’s how Democrats can bring them back

Salon owner Alejandra Moran tapes flyers to a door as part of a campaign to get voters to the polls by La Colmena, a community-based organization working with immigrant workers, in the largely Hispanic community of Port Richmond in Staten Island, N.Y., Friday, Oct. 23, 2020.
(AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
Salon owner Alejandra Moran tapes flyers to a door as part of a campaign to get voters to the polls by La Colmena, a community-based organization working with immigrant workers, in the largely Hispanic community of Port Richmond in Staten Island, N.Y., Friday, Oct. 23, 2020.

One of the major takeaways from the 2020 election was that Republicans had gained ground with Latino voters, a once reliably Democratic voting bloc.

Feeling disillusioned with Democrats’ approach to the economy and alienated by the party’s leftward movement on certain cultural issues, Latino voters supported Donald Trump — and down-ballot Republican candidates — at a much higher rate in 2020 than in 2016.

Trump gained approximately 8 percentage points with Latino voters between 2016 and 2020, according to a post-election report by Catalist. Even though Joe Biden still won Latino voters by 25 points, this marked a substantial decline from Hillary Clinton’s 39-point advantage in 2016. 

The rightward shift of Latino voters in the last election helped Trump comfortably win Florida and Texas, and cost Democrats crucial House seats in both states. The 2020 election solidified Florida’s status as a lean-Republican state, no longer a swing state, and made clear that Texas, which appeared to be trending bluer, would remain a GOP stronghold. 

Now, with less than six weeks until the 2022 midterm elections, the Democratic Party is contending with a daunting truth: The erosion of support for the party among Latino voters in 2020 was not an anomaly.

A recent New York Times/Siena poll finds that Democrats’ current lead among Latino voters in the generic ballot is nearly identical to Biden’s margin of victory with this group in 2020, which political analyst Nate Cohn aptly described as being “nearly catastrophic for Democrats.”

While the majority of Latino voters are still more likely to vote Democratic (56 percent) rather than Republican (32 percent) this year, margins are what matters in elections, especially when Democrats are defending razor-thin majorities in Congress. 

Put another way, the difference between Democrats winning the Latino vote by 25 points versus 30 or 35 points could be the difference between two or three Senate seats — which could decide control of the upper chamber — as well as a handful of crucial House seats. 

In the highly competitive Senate races in Arizona and Nevada, Latino voters will comprise roughly one-fifth of the electorate this year. In both states, Latino support for Democratic candidates appears to be even weaker than 2020 levels, per FiveThirtyEight’s analysis of recent polling and exit poll data.

In Arizona, though Democratic incumbent Mark Kelly is favored to win his Senate race against Republican Blake Masters, Kelly’s current 12-point polling lead among Latino voters is much narrower than his approximate 30-point margin of victory with this group in 2020. 

With respect to Nevada’s Senate race, the Democratic incumbent, Catherine Cortez Masto, and Republican Adam Laxalt are locked in an even tighter contest. Though Cortez Masto leads among Latino voters by 19 points, this is 7 points narrower than Biden’s advantage with this group in 2020. Further, a large share of Latino voters in Nevada remain undecided, and undecided voters generally tend to split for the out-party in a midterm election. 

To note, exit poll data does not reflect the actual results, and other public polls have shown both Kelly and Cortez Masto with a somewhat stronger Latino voter advantage.

That being said, recent polling suggests that national Democrats are making some of the same mistakes with Latino voters this year that they did in 2020.  

While Republicans are largely campaigning on economic issues, namely the cost of living, as well as public safety, Democrats are generally running on social and cultural issues: abortion rights, climate change and defending democracy. 

As a result, even though Democrats lead the generic ballot by 24 points among Latino voters overall, the party only leads by 2 points on the economy. 

Though most Latino voters agree with the social positions Democrats are campaigning on — including abortion — this group is twice as likely to prioritize “economic issues such as jobs, taxes, and cost of living” (54 percent) over “societal issues such as abortion, guns, or democracy” (25 percent). 

While Latino voters are not a monolith — and hold divergent views on critical issues — generally speaking, the Democratic Party’s focus on cultural issues at the expense of economic ones has played a major role in alienating this group as a whole since 2016.  

Per Nate Cohn’s subgroup analysis of the Times/Siena poll, Latino voters who have recently defected from the Democratic Party tend to be working-class voters who largely prioritize basic economic issues like the cost of living and taxes above social concerns like climate change or abortion — and as such, don’t feel that the Democratic Party’s platform aligns with their priorities. 

At the same time, the leftward movement of Democrats’ economic agenda has put the party at odds with the economic ethos of these voters, who embrace the concept of the “American Dream” and are averse to redistributing wealth, high taxes and government handouts, Equis Research’s 2020 post-mortem indicates. 

Realistically, we know that only a handful of progressive Democrats fully embrace such a left-leaning economic platform. However, it is clear — based on the fact that more than 40 percent of Latino voters are unfamiliar with the Inflation Reduction Act — that the Democratic Party is, once again, failing to communicate an economic message that resonates with these voters. 

In addition to the economy, Democrats are also underperforming with Latino voters on two other major issues: crime and policing and illegal immigration. Compared to their 24-point lead in the generic ballot overall, Democrats lead by just 6 points on crime and 9 points on illegal immigration. 

In 2020, Republicans were able to win down-ballot races in South Texas by speaking directly to Latino voters about these highly salient issues — which fall in the general category of public safety and personal security — and driving home their “law and order” pitch.

At this point, it seems that the rightward shift of Latino voters in 2020 was no aberration.  

This trend appears to have sustained itself during Joe Biden’s presidency and now threatens to upend Democrats’ ability to build winning coalitions in 2022, 2024 and beyond.

Douglas E. Schoen is a political consultant who served as an adviser to former President Clinton and to the 2020 presidential campaign of Michael Bloomberg. He is the author of “The End of Democracy? Russia and China on the Rise and America in Retreat.” Zoe Young is vice president of Schoen Cooperman Research.

Tags 2022 midterm elections Catherine Cortez Masto Democratic Party Donald Trump Economy of the United States Hillary Clinton Joe Biden Latino voters Mark Kelly Politics of the United States

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