Latinos are the new swing voters: What are Democrats going to do about it?

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Latinos are not a monolithic group; they are as diverse as the country itself. And, increasingly, Latinos are swing voters. Democrats must understand this or they will risk continuing to lose voter share from the largest and fast-growing ethnic minority in the country.

Much has been said about the Latino vote in last Tuesday’s gubernatorial election in Virginia. Pollsters and analysts are immersed in a precinct-by-precinct analysis to better understand how Latinos voted there, but two competing exit polls demonstrate just how much more we need to learn about Latino voters.

A Fox News/AP exit poll found that Republican Glenn Youngkin won Latino voters 55 percent to 43 percent, which would be a tectonic shift from where Latinos were just one year ago, when Joe Biden beat Donald Trump among Latino voters 61 percent to 36 percent. But these numbers are based only on exit polling conducted on Election Day, which represented only around one-third of the votes cast in the 2021 election.

Exit polling from Edison Research seems to be a much better match. It shows Democrat Terry McAullife winning 66 percent of Latino voters, versus 32 percent for Youngkin. These numbers include those who voted early and by absentee ballot.

In 2020, Latinos were a big part of President Biden’s wins in Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico and Virginia. Latinos also came out for both the Democratic candidates in Senate runoff elections in Georgia earlier this year, giving Democrats control of the Senate. 

But Latinos also provided former President Trump with his margins of victory in Florida and Texas. According to one analysis, Trump also shaved off some Latino support across the country in places where the Democratic advantage was more robust. In the Rio Grande valley of Texas and in Miami-Dade County in Florida, normally Democratic strongholds, Latinos swung towards Trump. 

Whatever the exact numbers, the trendline is clear: The Democratic Party is losing Latino voters and needs to speak directly to the issues they care about most. Latinos were devastated by the pandemic. Latinos were three times as likely to be infected and hospitalized and twice as likely to die from the COVID-19 as the rest of the population. 

At the same time, they were concerned about what shutdowns would do to their already pulverized businesses. They want leaders to show them how they will get the economy back on track, how they will keep their communities safe, how their kids can have a top-notch education, including college, without the burden of crushing student debt. They want a hopeful, aspirational idea of what their lives can be like in America. They want nothing less than the American Dream.

Immigration reforms remains a priority to them as well. But Trump was able to win over some Latinos, especially Latino men, despite taking a hardline stance on immigration. Trump stressed economic opportunities, religious freedom, the right to life and the rule of law. Democrats can counter with better ideas about the economy and jobs, prosperity and education for all Americans. 

The lesson that Democrats must take from Virginia is that they cannot assume Latinos will support Democratic candidates moving forward. Democrats will have to earn the Latino vote, and looking towards 2022, Hispanics must be wooed or, in political parlance, persuaded, if they are to be part of the Democratic coalition. 

We saw in Virginia a lot of white suburban and independent voters swing back towards the Republican Party. If this holds, Democrats will have to diversify their voter pool to win.

Politics is about addition, and there are many Latino voters Democrats can add to their ranks who will help the party keep and expand its majorities. That is, if the party can swing it. 

Maria Cardona is a longtime Democratic strategist, a principal at Dewey Square Group, a Washington-based political consulting agency, and a CNN/CNN Español political commentator. Follow her on Twitter @MariaTCardona.

Tags 2021 Virginia gubernatorial election donald j trump Donald Trump Glenn Youngkin Hispanic and Latino Americans in politics Hispanic/Latino vote Joe Biden Swing vote Terry McAullife Voting in the United States

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