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Illustration of Spanish-language voter badges and signs representative of both parties. Gabriella Trujillo for Vox

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Democrats lost ground with Latino voters in 2020. Will the midterms be worse?

Republicans are slowly winning over Latino voters. Democrats may not have learned from their 2020 mistakes.

Part of The power and potential of Latino voters, from The Highlight, Vox’s home for ambitious stories that explain our world.

As politicians, pollsters, and pundits sliced and diced the results of the 2020 election for Big Thoughts, the Latino vote came in for its fair share of attention. States with large Latino populations were among the battlegrounds — Arizona, Nevada, Florida — and Latinos were in the midst of a run of years in which thousands of young people, native-born and naturalized, “aged in” to voting eligibility every week.

Trump and down-ballot Republicans did a few percentage points better with Latino voters in 2020 than in 2016. Distracted, as they sometimes can be, by a bright shiny object, reporters began talking about a strong Latino “shift” toward the GOP, the surprising appeal of President Trump for Latino voters in places like the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, and “ominous” portents for Democrats. Less interesting to much of the commentariat was whether losing the Latino vote nationally by more than 30 points was really that much of an accomplishment for Trump. Even with smaller margins than Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden still posted a 21-point victory among Latinos.

The 2020 Latino vote nationwide was the largest ever, growing by about 30 percent compared to the 2016 elections. With a median age 10 years younger than that of the country overall, many of those 16 million Latino voters were young, including first-timers aging into the voting population. For all the hand-wringing over shrinking Democratic margins in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, Latino voters helped pull Joe Biden over the finish line in Arizona, helped pull Wisconsin back into the win column for Democrats, and tipped Georgia into the blue column for the first time since 1992. Even in Florida, closely watched by politics junkies for its staunchly Republican Latino voters in Miami-Dade County, Biden won the Latino vote.

There were undeniably some bad signs for Democrats. The Latino vote was stronger for Republicans than expected in South Florida, as the party and popular GOP politicians made a strong bid for Cuban American voters, and wooed a growing Venezuelan population by slamming Democrats as socialists unduly sympathetic with governments in Havana and Caracas. And in Nevada’s congressional districts, where the late Sen. Harry Reid made sure the state party had strong outreach to large and growing Latino residents, Democratic candidates won, but not by the overwhelming margins seen in earlier races.

You’ll get no points from me for pulling out the cliched observation that American citizens who trace their ancestry to the Spanish-speaking nations of the hemisphere are “not a monolith.” They never were and never will be. However, more than a half-century after the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 threw open the doors to the world by ending Europe-centered immigration quotas, it is more accurate to observe that “nobody’s a monolith.” Not African Americans. Not Asian Americans. Not Roman Catholics. Not Protestants, Muslims, or Jews. Not urban- or suburbanites. Thus, there are all kinds of ways to look at more than 60 million American Latinos, who, like the country itself, have had a rough ride for the past few years.

That context is key to figuring out what to expect, politically, from Latinos in 2022, when the question will be whether agreement on policy can be more motivating than frustration with how things are going in the moment.

Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart is betting frustration will win out. Speaking to me as he drove to an event in his South Florida district last month, he cited energy costs, inflation, public safety, and public schooling as issues driving Latino voters to give Republicans a chance.

“All of these things are basically directly caused by the policies of the Democrats who control Washington. The American people are wise to that,” Diaz-Balart told me. He added that Democrats will get little love in vehicle-dependent Florida for the recent easing of gas prices. “People say, ‘Well, the war in Ukraine hasn’t helped.’ And that hasn’t helped, but it started before that. It’s directly tied to the policies of this administration.”

“We do hear people’s frustration,” said Matt Barreto, a Democratic pollster, political scientist, and co-founder of the research group Barreto-Segura Partners. “But when people talk about this ‘shift,’ we don’t really see any evidence of that when we ask people substantive policy questions.”

Barreto’s data suggests that while Democrats have cause for concern, they may not have reason to panic. He cites continued Latino support for the Affordable Care Act, overwhelming support for gun legislation, and opposition to the Supreme Court’s recent abortion decision as helpful to Democratic candidates, particularly because “Latinos are still, on balance, when you ask them policy questions, much more progressive.”

So how will Latinos vote in 2022?

Let me drag you back to middle school by asking you to think of Latinos in the 2022 election like a geometry proof. Begin with this set of givens:

  1. While broadening their geographic footprint across the country, Latinos are concentrated in the nation’s largest metropolitan areas.
  2. They were hit disproportionately hard by the Covid-19 pandemic, both in infection and death. They were also disproportionately represented, and thus exposed, in jobs deemed “essential work,” in health care, food processing, and public transportation.
  3. The flash recession that accompanied the pandemic clobbered Latino families, especially in light of their heavy concentration in construction, hospitality, and food service.
  4. While Latino unemployment soared in 2020 and ’21, it had fallen to just 4.5 percent in August.
  5. Latinos, like other Americans, vote at lower rates in midterm elections.
  6. Latinos as a population are younger, more urban, have fewer years of schooling, and earn lower wages than Americans as a whole, while posting very high rates of workplace participation.
  7. Because of the higher percentage of new voters, young voters, first-time voters, and Spanish language-dominant voters, it costs parties and activists more per head to turn out a Latino voter on Election Day than a Black or white voter.

What do you get from that? An election season that will test each party’s organizing power, party identification among Latino voters, and the power of messaging, as big measures of economic performance are worrying but improving. Will a nurse in the South Bronx, a storekeeper in Los Angeles, and a high school guidance counselor in El Paso look back at a few months of positive news from Biden World, or back at two years of a very bumpy time in the life of the country, with Democrats in charge in the Oval Office, the US House and Senate?

It’s impossible to answer that question until November’s results are in. But we can think through what to expect.

Maria Teresa Kumar, president and CEO of the online voter registration organization Voto Latino, said her data supports the idea that Latinos are less concerned about what Democrats have done for them lately and more concerned about how things have been going for the past few months. Voto Latino opinion researchers’ polling found strong support among Latinos for infrastructure spending, the child tax credit, and responding to climate change. After the mass killing in Uvalde and the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs, Kumar said Voto Latino found 81 percent of Latinos in red states favor reforming gun ownership laws, and 68 percent want to keep abortion legal.

The problem, Kumar charges, is that Democrats have tended to make this deep well of potential voters an afterthought. Like other activists, Kumar said the party shows up with money and organizing muscle very late in the cycle, every cycle, and that’s long been good enough. Now that Republicans are in constant contact, it is critical that Democrats invest more and earlier, especially with a sizable share of the Latino electorate discouraged enough to stay home. She has no doubt the Democratic electorate is much larger than the Republican among Latino voters, but that will make no difference if Democrats stay home and Republicans continue to work harder to turn out their vote.

Former DNC official Ivan Zapien, who headed the party’s Hispanic Business Council, concedes that the tides have moved in the Republican Party’s direction during this cycle because Biden’s first year-and-a-half in office has been tough. He also gives the GOP credit for building grassroots outreach, an attempt to take advantage of Democratic campaigns’ tendency to take Latino voters for granted. Zapien concludes that while the fundamentals do look bad for his party, every rule of politics he’s grown up with has been broken in the last seven years, leaving the country and its voters in unprecedented territory. “Anybody who tells you who’s going to show up to vote with this three-ring circus of a political environment can’t be telling you the truth. Nobody knows who’s going to show up to vote.”

As in many campaign years, volatility will tell the story. The lingering effects of the pandemic, the highest inflation in 40 years, and two-thirds of Latinos agreeing with the overall US majority that the country is on the wrong track make for an unquestionably difficult midterm season. Barreto said bad times have strengthened the GOP’s hand.

“What Republicans are trying to sell Latinos right now is ‘things aren’t going great for you.’ It’s not an unreasonable argument to make, strategy-wise, when you’re a minority party. You just say, ‘Things aren’t great. Let’s change.’”

But he adds that Republicans haven’t said much about what they would propose instead. He continues to believe, and his numbers back up the idea, that the Latino vote is still heavily Democratic, at about 70/30. He told me he expects more realignment stories if the Republicans do a better job turning out their 30 percent than Democrats do turning out their 70 percent in specific races, “but I still haven’t seen a ton of evidence that they are going and convincing people to change their minds and become Republicans.”

Ronnie Lucero wants to disprove that through his efforts to advance Republicans’ inroads with Latinos nationwide, but especially in discrete, targeted voter segments. As chair of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly (RNHA), Lucero told me messaging has to be precisely targeted in places as different as border districts and center-city Los Angeles. The Republican message has a better shot with that share of the Latino voting population open to a pitch built around “faith, family, freedom, opportunity for entrepreneurship, small government, less taxes, [and] equal opportunity for all.”

Lucero said the party is betting on patiently getting the message out, not just between now and November but for years to come. He admits that Democrats have a long-term organizing advantage and an advantage among the young. The Republican National Committee said it has opened more than 30 community centers across the country, “third place” spaces between work and home, open for community meetings, events, and forums featuring candidates and elected officials.

“The end game is to make sure people that typically don’t vote Republican, especially the Hispanic community, are aware of what our policies are and what our message is,” Lucero said. For one thing, Lucero wants to push back on the idea that all Republicans favor complete bans on abortion. He said there is a mainstream Republican position that goes down well with many Latino voters, seeking limits but stopping well short of banning terminations.

Instead of worrying about editorial boards and endorsements, Lucero, the RNHA, and newly recruited Latino Republican candidates are present at neighborhood dances and annual car shows. It is a more effective way to target young voters than spending heavily on broadcast ads, with the advantage of face-to-face encounters. “Because if they can start talking to our candidates in person,” Lucero said, “they have a different perception of who our people are.” Rep. Mayra Flores (R-TX), he said, took advantage of such centers in her successful special election run for an open Texas seat this summer.

The Republican National Committee commissioned a growth and opportunity report after the 2012 election, in which Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney 71-27 among Latinos. They realized they had to more closely mirror Obama’s volunteer model, the neighborhood team leader programs, and focus on making inroads into minority communities. RNC chair Ronna McDaniel has backed up the declared intention with money, like the funding to open the community centers, a more robust online presence, and a greater investment in research. The resulting data is made available to Republican candidates at every level. There’s money and staff for programming at the community centers, citizenship training classes, and voter registration programs. At the very least, it forces Democrats to spend money in safe districts. Over time, it may make what were once safely Democratic districts more competitive.

RNC officials point to Florida, where aggressive voter registration drives, especially among Latinos, have erased Democratic registration advantages. They point to the gubernatorial race in Virginia, where Republican Glenn Youngkin won just a year after Biden won the state by 10 points. In 2020, Donald Trump outperformed his 2016 showing among Virginia Latinos, and some polls indicate Youngkin improved on that margin. The party says it sees great potential in Nevada, where more Latinos are registering as Republicans, as poles for a future Republican Big Tent with plenty of room for Latinos inside.

Voto Latino’s Kumar faults Democrats for internalizing the story that the Latino vote is swinging right, and blames reporters for continuing to spread it widely.

“Reporters aren’t curious enough to know where Latinos really are. Donors read the headlines and are discouraged. So there really is a disconnect between what we’re seeing in the field, the opportunities we’re seeing in the field, versus what people are writing about that goes around and influences the donors that fund the work that needs to get done,” she said.

Instead of learning the lessons of 2020, Kumar said, Democrats seem to be making the same mistakes again by underinvesting and waiting too late in the cycle to begin voter registration drives. “I can tell you the appetite to fund registration is minimal.” Republicans, she said, are talking to Latino voters constantly.

There is every indication Republicans are spending heavily, and will lean heavily on social issues and culture war spurs like sex education in schools and transgender issues, on top of general pessimism about the economy, to make their pitch.

Democrats can take some comfort in the fact that a younger-than-average Latino voting population supports legal access to abortion, same-sex marriage, the right to organize, and raising public school quality. Capping the price of insulin is a popular policy in a community plagued by high rates of diabetes. An emphasis on social issues may not boost Republican support among Latinos, broadly speaking, but it may help turn out Republican-leaning, Mass-attending, and Evangelical Protestant Latinos.

Obituaries for the Democratic majority among Latino voters can’t be written around a midterm race, even though some analysts will attempt it if the trend-lines from 2020 continue and Republicans grow their share of Latino voters. If Latino voters over-perform and drag Democratic Sens. Mark Kelly (AZ), Raphael Warnock (GA), and Catherine Cortez Masto (NV) over the finish line, while giving Marco Rubio a near-death experience in Florida, will the DNC finally learn the right lesson from the experience — that it must pay attention and invest in its Latino advantage?

Republicans concede there is a Democratic Party advantage among Latino voters. However, by chipping away at that long-term advantage, Latino-majority districts are moved from Democratic blowouts to competitive districts, and in the dwindling number of purple districts, 5 or 7 points of a Democratic candidate’s Latino majority wrestled into the GOP column can move a lean-Democratic seat to a lean-Republican one.

In September and October, watch inflation. Watch workforce participation. Watch income growth. Watch gas prices. A sense that the Biden administration and the Democratic Congress are making steady, if unspectacular, progress may be enough to get sidelined Democratic voters to the polls and slow any intentions to give a local GOPer a second look. Which will mean, if nothing else, that I can write an updated version of this story two years from now, as Republicans once again predict that Latino voters are ready to come their way.

Ray Suarez has had a more than 40-year career in print, radio, and television news. He is a visiting professor in the department of political science at NYU Shanghai, and host of the KQED radio program and podcast World Affairs, the Economic Hardship Reporting Project podcast Going for Broke, and the Evergreen Productions podcast The Things I Thought About When My Body Was Trying to Kill Me. You can read and hear some of his recent work here.