In the wake of the 2020 election, Democratic strategists are worried — very worried — about the future of the Hispanic vote. One in 10 Latinos who supported Hillary Clinton in 2016 switched to Donald Trump in 2020.
Although the Hispanic electorate is often treated as a bloc, it is by no means a monolith. It is, in fact, impossible to speak of “the Hispanic vote” — in practice it is variegated by region, by country of origin, by ideology, by how many generations have lived in the United States, by depth of religiosity (and increasingly denomination), as well as a host of other factors.
From 1970 to 2019, the number of Latinos in the United States increased from 9.6 million to 60.6 million, according to Pew Research. The number is projected by the census to reach 111.2 million, or 28 percent of the nation’s population, by 2060.
Public Opinion Strategies, which conducts surveys for NBC News/Wall Street Journal, provided me with data on presidential voting from 2012 to 2020 that show significant Republican gains among the roughly 30 percent of Black and Hispanic voters who self-identify as conservative.
From 2012 to 2020, Black conservatives shifted from voting 88-7 for the Democratic candidate to 76-17. Black conservative allegiance to the Democratic Party fell by less, from 75 percent Democratic, 9 percent Republican to 71 percent Democratic, 16 percent Republican.
The changes in voting and partisan allegiance, however, were significantly larger for self-identified Hispanic conservatives. Their presidential vote went from 49-39 Democratic in 2012 to 67-27 Republican in 2020. Their partisan allegiance over the same period went from 50-37 Democratic to 59-22 Republican.
The 2020 expansion of Republican voting among Hispanics and Asian-Americans — and to a lesser extent among African-Americans — deeply concerns the politicians and strategists seeking to maintain Democratic control of the House and Senate in 2022, not the mention the White House in 2024.
The defection of Hispanic voters, together with an approximately 3 point drop in Black support for Joe Biden compared with Hillary Clinton, threatens a pillar of Democratic competitive strength, especially among Black men: sustained high margins of victory among minority voters whose share of the population is enlarging steadily.
The increased level of support for the Republican Party among minority voters has raised the possibility that the cultural agenda pressed by another expanding and influential Democratic constituency — well-educated, young activists with strongly progressive views — is at loggerheads with the socially conservative beliefs of many older minority voters — although liberal economic policies remain popular with both cohorts. This social and cultural mismatch, according to some observers, is driving a number of minority voters into the opposition party.
Joshua Estevan Ulibarri, a partner in the Democratic polling firm, Lake Research, argues that a substantial number of Latinos do not view themselves as people of color, reject a political alliance based on that bond and “want to be seen as white or as part of the mainstream.”
Ulibarri emailed me to say that he believes that “Hispanics see what white America has done to Black America, and the backlash leads to more G.O.P. votes.”
In shifting their vote from Democratic to Republican, Ulibarri contends, “it is not just partisan identity they are shedding, but also some racial identity as well.” In the past, “they may have been conservative and Latino, but you were Latino first and the way you were treated as a group and discriminated against trumped some ideology. Now, less so.”
The Democratic Party, Ulibarri said, is responsible in part for the losses it has suffered:
It is not just conservative men who have drifted away from Democrats. More and more younger people are identifying less with my party not because they are Republican or conservative, but because Democrats do not keep their word; Democrats are weak. And who wants to align with the weak?
Ian F. Haney López, a law professor at Berkeley, who wrote about the danger to the Democrats of Hispanic defections in a September 2020 Times oped, expanded his argument in an email on the Lake Research study of Hispanic voters, which found most Latinos fell into three categories.
The first, roughly a quarter of the Hispanic population, is made up of those who self-identify as people of color, according to the study, “as a group that, like African Americans, remains distinct over generations.”
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- Jason Cherkis writes that “along with increasing social mobility and addressing inequality, raising the minimum wage has the potential to lower the country’s suicide rate.”
- Chye-Ching Huang argues that one of the best ways for the president to pay for ambitious policies “and help honest taxpayers” is to restore the funding the I.R.S. needs “to effectively battle tax cheats.”
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The second, roughly a third, are Hispanics who see themselves “as a group that, like European Americans, over generations become part of the American mainstream.” By a margin of 38-14, “this cohort is almost three times as likely to believe that ‘people of color who cannot get ahead are mostly responsible for their own situations,’ ” according to the report.
The third Hispanic constituency, nearly three in ten, is made up of “bootstrappers” who “perceive Hispanics, not primarily as people of color or as white ethnics, but as a group that ‘over generations can get ahead through hard work.’ ” These voters tend to be “slightly more conservative regarding race, class, and government, and are the most likely to be Republican.”
The Lake Research survey produced an unexpected result: Latinos were more sympathetic than either white or Black voters to Republican “dog whistle” messages.
The dog whistle messages tested by Lake Research included:
Taking a second look at illegal immigration from places overrun with drugs and criminal gangs, is just common sense. And so is fully funding the police, so our communities are not threatened by people who refuse to follow our laws.
We need to make sure we take care of our own people first, especially the people who politicians have cast aside for too long to cater to whatever special interest groups yell the loudest or riot in the street.
The receptivity of Hispanics to such messages led Haney-López to conclude that “those Latinos most likely to vote Republican do so for racial reasons.”
What matters most, Haney-López continued, “is susceptibility to Republican ‘dog whistle’ racial frames that trumpet the threat from illegal aliens, rapists, rioters and terrorists.”
Julie Wronski, a political scientist at the University of Mississippi, offered a distinct but similar explanation for the increased Hispanic support for Republicans.
“What may be changing is how certain ethnic and nationality groups within Hispanics perceive themselves with regards to their racial and ideological identities,” she wrote by email:
If Latinos perceive themselves more as white than as a person of color, then they will react to messages about racial injustice and defunding the police as whites do — by using their ideological identity rather than racial identity to shape support.
Wronski reports that
there is also a burgeoning line of research on the role of skin tone among non-Whites. Nonwhites who perceive themselves as having lighter skin tone feel closer to whites and tend to be more conservative than their darker-skinned peers.
Wronski made the case that conservative Hispanics who voted Republican in 2020 are not permanently lost to the Democratic Party:
Identifying as a conservative and supporting conservative policy positions are not the same thing. This is especially true for economic issues, such as unemployment benefits and minimum wage. If you know that a group of Latinos tend to be symbolically conservative and economically liberal, then you can make appeals to them on the shared economic liberalism basis and avoid pointing out diverging views on social issues.
Marc Farinella, a former Democratic consultant who helped run many statewide campaigns in the Midwest and is now at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy, wrote in response to my inquiry that the fraying of Hispanic support is emblematic of a larger problem confronting Democrats:
American politics in recent decades has become increasingly democratized. Historically-marginalized groups have been brought into the political process, and this, of course, improves representation. But democratization has also, for better or for worse, been highly disruptive to our two-party system.
Traditionally, “party leaders tend to support centrist polices and candidates; they are, after all, in the business of winning general elections,” he continued:
However, the ability of party leaders to set the party’s priorities and define its values has been eroded. They must now compete with activist factions that have been empowered by digital technologies that have greatly amplified their messaging.
As a result, Farinella wrote,
It’s now less clear to general election voters precisely what are the Democratic Party’s values and priorities. Last year, Republicans succeeded in exploiting this ambiguity by insisting that the messaging of certain leftist activist factions was an accurate reflection of the Party’s policy positions and, by and large, the policy positions of most Democratic candidates. As far left activists compete with Democratic Party leaders to define party values and messaging, the centrist voters needed to achieve a durable majority will remain wary about Democratic desires for dominance.
On the other hand, according to Farinella, “the lunacy currently underway within the Republican Party” could prove to be the Democratic Party’s ace in the hole:
A party that demands fealty to a single demagogic politician, condones or even embraces loopy conspiracy theories, recklessly undermines crucial democratic norms and institutions, and believes the best way to improve its electoral prospects is by making it more difficult to vote is not a party destined for long-term success. If the Republican Party continues on its current path, center-right voters might decide that their only real options are to vote Democratic or stay home.
Farinella acknowledged that “this might just be wishful thinking.”
Ryan Enos, a professor of government at Harvard, is concerned that liberal elites may threaten the vulnerable Democratic coalition:
The question for parties is whether members of their coalition are a liability because they repel other voters from the coalition. For Democrats, this may increasingly be the case with college-educated whites. They are increasingly concentrated into large cities, which mitigates their electoral impact, and they dominate certain institutions, such as universities and the media. The views emanating from these cities and institutions are out of step with a large portion of the electorate.
Many of these well-educated urban whites don’t “seem to appreciate the urgency of the struggles of middle and low-income Americans,” Enos continued:
Most of them support, in theory, economically progressive agendas like minimum wage increases and affordable housing, but they don’t approach these issues with any urgency — even Covid relief and environmental protection take a back seat to a progressive agenda focused on social issues.
Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster, whose firm, North Star Opinion Research, has studied Hispanic partisan allegiance, wrote in an email that Latinos are far more flexible in their voting than African-Americans:
As a general rule, about 50 percent of Hispanics vote fairly consistently for Democrats, 25 percent vote for Republicans and the remaining 25 percent are up for grabs.
In the Latino electorate, Ayres said, “many are sensitive to charges of socialism because of their country of origin. Many are sensitive to law-and-order issues. And many are cultural conservatives, as Reagan argued years ago.”
As a result, Ayres continued,
When white liberal Democrats start talking about defunding the police, the Green New Deal and promoting policies that can be described as socialistic, they repel a lot of Hispanic voters. In other words, most Hispanics, like most African-Americans, are not ideological liberals.
The current level of concern has been sharply elevated by a series of widely publicized interviews with David Shor, a 29-year-old Democratic data scientist whose analyses have captured the attention of Democratic elites.
In brief, Shor makes the case that well-educated largely white liberals on the left wing of the party have pushed an agenda — from “socialism” to “defund the police” — far outside the mainstream, driving conservative and centrist minority voters into the arms of the opposition.
In the summer of 2020, Shor told New York magazine,
following the emergence of “defund the police” as a nationally salient issue, support for Biden among Hispanic voters declined. We raised the salience of an ideologically charged issue that millions of nonwhite voters disagreed with us on. And then, as a result, these conservative Hispanic voters who’d been voting for us despite their ideological inclinations started voting more like conservative whites.
In Shor’s analysis:
As Democrats have traded non-college-educated voters for college-educated ones, white liberals’ share of voice and clout in the Democratic Party has gone up. And since white voters are sorting on ideology more than nonwhite voters, we’ve ended up in a situation where white liberals are more left wing than Black and Hispanic Democrats on pretty much every issue: taxes, health care, policing, and even on racial issues or various measures of ‘racial resentment.’ So as white liberals increasingly define the party’s image and messaging, that’s going to turn off nonwhite conservative Democrats and push them against us.
In an interview March 3, also with New York magazine, Shor noted that “I don’t think a lot of people expected Donald Trump’s G.O.P. to have a much more diverse support base than Mitt Romney’s did in 2012. But that’s what happened.”
Robert M. Stein, a political scientist at Rice, argued that the 2020 shift to the right among Hispanic voters was driven more by a surge of new voters than by increased ideological voting. Stein wrote by email:
Accompanying the Hispanic shift to Trump and the Republican Party was an increase in Hispanic voter turnout in Texas and in other states with significant Hispanic populations i.e., Florida, Arizona and New Mexico. There is evidence, at least in Texas that a significant portion of new Hispanic voters over 2016 occurred among registered Hispanic male voters over 45 who had not voted in 2016 and 2018. Moreover, it was these older male Hispanics who voted for Trump and down ballot Republicans at significantly greater proportions than all other Hispanics.
These new voters
remembered how strong the economy was before Covid-19 and associated Trump’s candidacy and re-election with a return to a strong economy and their own economic prosperity. Evaluating these new older Hispanic voters through the prism of ideology or even race may be premature or simply wrong.
Bruce Cain, a political scientist at Stanford, replied to my query by pointing to developments over the long term:
We have known for decades about the social conservatism of Black voters (e.g., they voted against gay marriage when it was on the California ballot) and Latinos (e.g., they voted for Arnold Schwarzenegger in the recall election even though Cruz Bustamante was on the ballot). What has changed is that the Democrats have become the secular party since Jimmy Carter and the Republicans the religious party. Nonwhite social conservatism kicks in with LGBTQ, transgender bathroom issues and the like.
What is newer, Cain continued, “is the rise of Antifa and the boldness of progressivism.” Cain pointed out that
Now we have Democratic candidates calling themselves democratic socialists, a term which I doubt any but a few voters could define. In addition, the progressive wing has put forward proposals for expansions of spending and government for Medicare for all, free tuition for college, new forms of political correctness and the like, and eagerly embrace unworkable ideas like defund the police.
The real point, Cain concluded, “is that Democrats set themselves up for losses if they do not pay attention to the realities of public opinion.”
I asked a top Democratic strategist — who declined to speak for attribution at the request of his employer — about the argument that as “white liberals increasingly define the party’s image and messaging, that’s going to turn off nonwhite conservative Democrats and push them against us.”
The strategist contends that the argument that “Democrats are alienating voters with their cultural liberalism” is off base. Shor and others, he says,
take for granted that the defecting voters are getting their view of the Democrats from Twitter. In fact, they aren’t. If you look at Democratic advertising in 2020, for example, you’ll see that the overwhelming proportion of Democratic ad spending was not about culturally left issues, and neither Biden nor most congressional or senate candidates ran that way. What’s true is that Fox et al and G.O.P. advertising consists almost entirely of attacking Democrats for being culturally liberal and out of touch or advocating socialism.
His point is well-taken, but that may not matter. Conservative attacks claiming that the Democratic Party has become the home of out-of-control leftists would not work if the party were not in some way susceptible to such critiques.
More important, insofar as the Republican Party is successful in using this critique to peel away minority voters from the Democratic Party, the more Republicans will claim that their party is not just the party of the white working class but that it is the party of a multiracial working class — despite an economic record that resoundingly refutes any such notion.
If such a claim nonetheless gains traction, it will devalue a core, if long distressed, Democratic asset: that it stands for American workers and against their bosses. That image has taken a beating in recent decades, but still resonates among many voters, as reflected in polling that continues to show a Democratic advantage on such questions as “which party better represents people like me.”
In most places, the decline in Democratic support from minority constituencies in 2020 was more than made up by Democratic gains among white voters, especially college-educated whites of both sexes and, more surprisingly, among non-college white men.
A Brookings analysis conducted by William Frey, a senior fellow there, showed that Biden won a smaller percentage of minority voters in the key states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan than Hillary Clinton did in 2016 when she lost all three.
Despite this drop in minority support, Biden carried all three states with gains among white voters.
Can Democrats count on a continued increase in support from white voters without Trump on the ballot (or with him on it, if he runs in 2024)? It’s hard to say, but Democratic strategists certainly don’t want to find themselves having to rely on it.
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