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The new reality about Latino voters that Democrats must accept

The Latino surge for Republicans in the Trump era is real. Democrats need to adjust.

A man wearing a “Latinos for America First” T-shirt at a campaign event for congressional candidate Monica De La Cruz on October 10, 2022, in McAllen, Texas.
Allison Dinner/AFP via Getty Images
Christian Paz is a senior politics reporter at Vox, where he covers the Democratic Party. He joined Vox in 2022 after reporting on national and international politics for the Atlantic’s politics, global, and ideas teams, including the role of Latino voters in the 2020 election.

Among the questions that stumped strategists, journalists, and pundits in the aftermath of the 2022 midterm elections — one in which Democrats surprisingly overperformed — was one big mystery: What happened to the much-hyped “red wave” of Latino Republican voters that was supposed to realign American politics?

In the wake of Donald Trump’s success with Latino voters in 2020, analysts expected a continuation of the same in 2022. But early clues suggested a more complicated picture. Republicans won Latino voters for the first time in 15 years in Florida; close races in the Southwest ended up tipping toward Democrats; and most of Texas’s majority Mexican American border districts did not flip.

Half a year later, we have even more answers — and they confirm something that some establishment Democrats and many party operatives need to wrestle with: Republicans did make gains in 2020 with Latino voters, those gains did stick in 2022, and they could still grow in 2024.

In other words, Democrats did better than expected in 2022 despite signs that their Latino support could continue to erode — signs they can’t afford to ignore heading into an election year.

Last week, Equis, a progressive research organization focused on understanding Latino voting trends, released a 130-page midterm postmortem analyzing the “Trump-era shift” of Latinos to the right in battleground states like Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Nevada, and Wisconsin.

What they found: Republicans held on to the gains they made since 2016 (the recent low point of GOP Latino support) but did not exceed their 2020 high point (aside from Florida, which stands out as the national exception in all of this analysis). Democrats, meanwhile, didn’t do worse than they did in 2020 (and managed to improve in places like Arizona and Pennsylvania).

It’s a nuanced portrait but one in which Democrats may have more to be worried about. The hangover of the 2020 rise in Latino support for the GOP even after the Trump years still haunts many Democratic Party officials, strategists, candidates, and campaigns. Some seem unwilling to accept that a new Latino political landscape has emerged, one that requires a different campaign strategy and platform from what we saw in the last presidential election.

Equis’s report shows that despite the unique political environment of 2022 (high inflation, gas price shocks, and an unpopular president), Democrats were able to out-campaign and outspend Republicans to win competitive elections — but still weren’t able to push beyond the new baseline of Republican Latino support (about 40 percent). Meanwhile, Republicans failed to turn out Latino voters who sided with them on the issues. It’s those nonvoters that should worry Democrats looking ahead.

“Those who didn’t vote in 2022 are the biggest wildcard this next cycle,” Equis’s team writes. “Swing Latinos still seem to default to [Democrats] but are open to individual Republicans, with greater support possible when there is a major shift in the issue environment, imbalanced campaigning, or a weakening of identity bonds.”

These findings are important for the parties, their candidates, and their supporters to understand just how much the electorate and political environment have changed since the start of the Trump years. Some in the Democratic apparatus have questioned how real the Latino shift is and how much of Democrats’ losses can be ascribed to “misinformation” (spoiler alert: not much). A better picture of just how fluid these voters are can help Democrats fashion a new playbook — one that sees a much bigger role for persuasion than past campaigns.

How Latinos voted in 2022

The Equis postmortem is the third analysis of its kind that the progressive research firm has published to try to explain how Latino voters behaved in major elections. The first two, released in spring and winter of 2021 respectively, confirmed the rightward shift of Latino voters after the 2020 election, despite debate over where those shifts happened and how big they were.

The new report confirms much of what the Democratic data firm Catalist, another reputable source for election analysis, found earlier this year, and it matches the trends reported in exit polling from last year.

Equis’s report breaks down three ways to understand what happened with Latino voters in battleground states last year: the issues dominating the national conversation (inflation, abortion, immigration, democracy), the way candidates campaigned, and the brand strength of the two political parties going into and emerging from Election Day.

It also identifies what might be the two most important types of Latino voters for campaigns to think of going into 2024: the swingy, “highly conflicted” voter, who supports Democrats on some issues and Republicans on others; and the non-voter, who might have only voted in 2020 or who voted in 2020 and the 2018 midterms but sat 2022 out.

Those first three factors — issue environment, campaign efforts, and party brand — explain why the support for both parties remained stable from 2020 to 2022. Republicans may have had an edge on inflation and the economy, but they failed to turn it into actual votes. Meanwhile, Democrats managed to not just turn out those voters who trusted Democrats with the economy, but also convince those who were divided in their trust to pick Democrats at the voting booth.

Democrats also won big with voters primarily concerned with abortion and the future of democracy. And, outside of Florida, Democrats also won more swing Latino voters: those “highly conflicted” voters who are less engaged with politics, less ideological, and have low allegiance to either party.

This all happened as Democrats outspent and out-campaigned Republicans (again, everywhere except for Florida), and as Democrats continued to be seen as the party that “cares about people like you” and was “better for Hispanics.” Issue selection and candidate quality mattered hugely. In Arizona, Sen. Mark Kelly won over a significant number of conservative and moderate Latinos, while his rival Blake Masters just got more unpopular as he became better known.

In Nevada, meanwhile, Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto outspent her Republican opponent Adam Laxalt, despite his significant investments in Spanish-language media throughout most of the campaign, and picked the more effective issues to highlight (gas prices and health care costs over Laxalt’s focus on crime).

“What sticks out among conflicted voters is what sticks out across every kind of ‘swing’ voter,” the report reads. “The enduring sense that Democrats care more and are better for [Hispanics/Latinos] ... [seems] to win out even as Republicans gain ground on other dimensions.”

This Democratic brand proved resilient everywhere except Florida — and this data point is emblematic of just how difficult it will be for statewide Democrats to be competitive in a state that feels less like a true battleground with each passing year. Among all kinds of Florida’s Latino voters in 2022, but especially among non-Cuban Americans and Puerto Rican Latinos, Democrats were viewed less favorably than they were outside of the state. That negative brand should give national Democrats pause when deciding just how hard they should try to contest the state in 2024.

The 2022 lessons for 2024? Persuasion matters.

But amid the good news for Democrats holding their own in 2022 (beyond Florida) are warning signs about what looms in 2024 and potential clues as to how the party should approach that election.

Those voters who sat out 2022 will be among the majority-makers for 2024. They hold mixed values (likely to trust Republicans on inflation but perceive the party negatively on abortion and as favoring the rich), and may now be tilting toward Republicans. Equis’s post-election polling shows Republicans have a big advantage with 2020 voters who sat out the midterms, and plenty of room to grow with GOP candidates who aren’t Donald Trump.

Should those 2020 voters who sat out 2022 vote in 2024, they would break for a Republican 54 percent and 34 percent for Biden, according to Equis. Adding to these early warning signs is a recent Axios-Ipsos/Telemundo poll further showing erosion in the positive branding and allegiance Democrats have enjoyed from most Latinos, driven mostly by economic and public safety concerns. This all means that even if Trump is the nominee, he could still improve on his 2020 showing.

This analysis is only the latest contribution in a long-running debate in Democratic politics: whether turnout or persuasion will win elections. The turnout camp suggests that there’s an untapped well of voters out there; Democrats just need to find them and get them to the polls. The persuasion side argues that Democrats need to convince uncommitted voters and those loosely affiliated with the GOP to cast a ballot for them.

The Equis report notes both are important, but comes down firmly on the latter side. Those 2022 non-voters and the “highly conflicted” swing voters who ended up backing Democrats are persuadable voters who need to be engaged early on and who might not hold the same views on key issues that Democrats might assume from their generic base of voters.

For Equis, that means 2024 might create different imperatives for presidential and down-ballot races — but both kinds will have to put a bigger emphasis on persuasion.

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