Part of The power and potential of Latino voters, from The Highlight, Vox’s home for ambitious stories that explain our world.
As we’ve covered throughout this edition of The Highlight, Democrats and Republicans recognize the urgency of appealing to the burgeoning Latino electorate. And both are still grappling with their recent successes and shortcomings with Latinos — even as they scramble to harness their potential in the upcoming midterms.
Some common theories emerged across all of our reporting for this project: Republicans feel they have a solid strategy to keep eating into Democrats’ margins of victory with Latino voters, as they did in the 2020 election. And Democrats have a few ideas on how to course-correct — primarily by working harder to earn the support of a bloc many in the party acknowledge they’ve taken for granted.
We asked politicians, strategists, and political scientists from across the political spectrum for their analysis of what their parties have done right and wrong with those voters, and what they should do next. Below are their theories, as described in interviews and emails with Vox staff.
What Republicans are doing better than Democrats
Giancarlo Sopo, Republican | @GiancarloSopo
Communications strategist and founder of Visto Media
The Republican National Committee’s Hispanic outreach in recent years has been strong — it made great investments in community centers across the country and they made very smart personnel decisions.
While Democrats draw Latino talent from liberal organizations, Republicans attract Hispanic staffers and advisers with diverse backgrounds from communities across the country. This dichotomy helps explain why Republicans are demonstrating far greater cultural fluency and sophistication in their Hispanic outreach than the Democrats.
It also helps explain why Republicans have a better grasp of where most Hispanics are at this moment. Positioning the GOP as the party of economic prosperity — while, concurrently, the Democrats were shifting away from Clintonian “pro-growth” messaging to a Piketty-inspired focus on income inequality and racial equity — is smart when you consider that from 2010 to 2019, the Hispanic poverty rate dropped by about 40 percent and Hispanics led the country in the creation of new small businesses.
In politics, you have to meet people where they’re at, not where you want them to be or where you think they are. Hispanics are upwardly mobile, hard-working, and ambitious. We don’t view ourselves as “victims” in this country — on the contrary. Polling shows that Hispanics believe in the American dream and that this is the best country in the world.
To be clear, there is still room for improvement in our Hispanic outreach. The biggest mistake Republicans make with Hispanics is not engaging us. For instance, the GOP was unlikely to ever win the 2021 California recall, but the effort could have made inroads with Hispanic voters with an eye toward the future with modest investments. That was a missed opportunity.
Democrats need to get over their 2020 hangover
Ruben Gallego, Democrat | @RubenGallego
U.S. Representative, Arizona’s Seventh District
Democrats get into these loser mentalities. It freaking drives me nuts — just kind of circling the drain like, “Oh, man, we suck. We suck.” No, we won, accept the fact that we won [in 2020]. Governing is hard. We’ll have to govern. Maybe [moderate Democratic Sens.] Sinema and Manchin are screwing us now. But one or two more senators and we’re in a different territory.
Even with this thinking that we’ve lost the Latino vote. Everyone calm the fuck down. We didn’t lose the Latino vote. We didn’t win by as much. That’s the difference. We’re not losing the Latino vote. We’re not winning it by as much as we want to.
Now, could we do better? Absolutely. So let’s work on it, right? But let’s not doom ourselves into this, “Oh, man, we’re not going to win, and therefore we’re just not gonna invest anymore.” And then we’re just gonna really fail. Because guess what? If you’re not gonna invest in Latinos to get you over the hump and African Americans and Asian Americans, are you going to really go back to white voters that have not voted Democrat? I still think it’s important to talk to them, but you can’t give up on Latino voters. Because if you do, your task only gets harder and harder.
Democrats can win on policy if they invest in telling Latinos where they stand
Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, Democrat | @CristinaNextGen
President, NextGen America
People always ask me: “Are Latinos Republicans or Democrats?” and I say, “We’re neither. We’re poor.” And I say that whoever invests in our community and speaks to our pain and power will win our vote.
We are the ethnic group that is the least likely to go to college. Pre-Covid, 60 percent of us were making under $15 an hour. We are the ethnic group in many states with the highest number of people that are uninsured. The policies and positions that Democrats have taken address the greatest amount of pain for the greatest number of Latino families, which is why they overwhelmingly vote for Democrats.
The shift [toward Republicans] that you have seen is because Democrats take the Latino vote for granted. They need to invest their resources in reaching the Latino population about where they stand on the policies that most Latinos care about.
The other thing Democrats need to do is invest in young Latinos in particular. The most common age for a white American is 55, for an African American, it’s 27. And for Latinos, it’s 11. So much of our voting power is being realized in young, new voters. That’s a whole population that Democrats can win, but they’ve got to spend the time and money reaching that electorate, and can’t just assume it’s going to come to their side.
The No. 1 reason Latinos say they don’t vote is that no candidate ever contacted them and they didn’t know who to vote for. The data is very clear that there is underinvestment. So there’s a cyclical problem with the Latino population: Campaigns and candidates don’t invest in them because they don’t vote, and round and round we go.
I’ll give you an example: In South Texas, which is considered to be a very traditional Latino population, Bernie Sanders won the 2020 Democratic primary because he spent millions of dollars and time and energy with volunteers, going out and reaching the Latino population. ... Then in the general, Trump did make major gains because the Republican Party spent time and money reaching out to Latino voters.
I don’t see it as a bad thing that a portion of the population in our community is up for grabs. I think it’s up to elected officials and the parties to make sure that they’re spending the time and money on our community that we deserve.
Treat Hispanic voters like “normies”
Ruy Teixeira, Democrat
Nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of the forthcoming book, “Where Have All the Democrats Gone? The Soul of the Party in the Age of Extremes”
Democrats would be well-served with this population by moving to the center on a variety of socio-cultural issues, from crime and immigration to ideological approaches to race and gender, assuring voters that, in fact, everyone’s free to believe what they want to believe. … We’re a patriotic party. We believe America is fundamentally good, not a racist country, and just generally do a lot of signaling that, “hey, we get it, we understand you’re normie voters, we understand what you want. We understand what you’re comfortable with.” And we as Democrats are willing to draw some lines in terms of the necessity for public safety, in terms of security for the border, in terms of the necessity to keep ideology out of the schools. We are a tolerant party, but we are not intending to push ideology to the extent that it affects your kids or your community or your safety.
I think that would be well-received among most Hispanic voters, especially Hispanic working-class voters. That’s really what they want. They want upward mobility, they want safe communities, they want their kids to get a great education, they want good health care.
Which brings me to another point that the Democrats should be emphasizing: what they’re doing on health care. I think an unfortunate thing about the reconciliation bill is, though it included some health care stuff, that’s getting lost in all the coverage of the climate. Climate is a low-salience issue for voters as a whole, definitely for Hispanics … even though Hispanics, like most other voting groups, are generally supportive of doing something about climate change. But in the real world, when inflation is hitting them as it is, real wages are continuing to go down and health care is even more of a problem, [Democrats should] at least emphasize the things that are a material benefit and solve real problems that Hispanic voters, particularly working-class voters, have.
3 keys to Republicans’ further gains with Latinos
Lorna Romero Ferguson, Republican | @LornaRomero
Campaign strategist and owner of Elevate Strategies
For Republicans to continue to make gains with Latinos, I think there are three key strategies moving forward. First, we need to continue to recruit more Republican Latinos to run for office. Representation matters for any minority group. There is a different level of motivation and engagement when someone running for office is from your community, understands your culture and upbringing, and has a similar origin story as you. …
Second, hire more Latinos as advisers to campaigns and as official staff. Latino staffers provide critical insight and experience for community engagement. A diverse staff can better inform candidates and elected officials about effective messaging strategies and help avoid any cultural missteps (i.e. first lady Jill Biden and breakfast tacos).
Third, Latino outreach should be a consistent strategy deployed in non-election years. In order to build strong and meaningful relationships, Latino outreach cannot be an afterthought during a campaign, or something done just to “check the box.” To gain real traction, outreach efforts and relationship building must be done year-round.
I believe Republicans will make gains this year in certain states but nothing seismic nationally. It will take time to continue to build support, but Republicans are making a real effort by opening Latino outreach field offices and building a grassroots network to inform voters about the Republican Party platform. It may not yield huge results this election cycle, but the party is investing in the infrastructure, and it will be a game changer for future elections.
Li Zhou contributed reporting to this story.