Since the 2020 election, there has been a significant re-evaluation of Latino voters' partisan leanings and policy preferences. These voters — long assumed to be a permanent part of the Democratic coalition — supported Pres. Trump in larger numbers than expected. A "post-mortem" report, released this week by Equis Research, a Democratic-aligned Latino research organization, titled "The American Dream Voter," found that while voting behavior among white, Black, and Asian voters remained relatively stable from 2016 to 2020 (neither shifted more than three points more Democratic or Republican) the Latino vote shifted a substantial 8 points; from 71 percent Democratic in 2016, to 63 percent Democratic in 2020. A shift that Equis described as "big movement among a small subset of people."
Moreover, recent evidence suggests that this shift wasn't just a one-off. A recent post by Center for American Progress Fellow Ruy Teixeira (co-author of "The Emerging Democratic Majority," a 2002 book that argued that a rapidly diversifying America would benefit Democrats), highlighted ten recent examples of Democratic decline among Latino voters, including GOP Glenn Youngkin's success with these voters in Virginia and the steep drop in approval ratings for Biden among Latino voters in both national and statewide surveys.
So, why have Democrats been bleeding support from Latino voters? Some, like Teixeira, argue that "Democrats have seriously erred by lumping Hispanics in with 'people of color' and assuming they embraced the activism around racial issues that dominated so much of the political scene in 2020, particularly in the summer." Others think high-profile political figures like Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have served to brand the Democrats as the party of "socialism." Others argue that Trump was better trusted on the economy, especially among Latino men. Groups like The Third Way point to the education gap, similar to that among white voters.
Ultimately, Equis concludes, "Latinos do not fit neatly into this country's typical frameworks for race or partisanship." As such, there's no easy answer for why Latinos have become less consistent Democratic supporters.
Using a number of research tools, including post-2020 election survey work in key states, the 2020 Nationscape dataset, Election Day eve polling, and 2019-2020 polling and focus groups, Equis makes a number of interesting assessments; undercutting some of the conventional wisdom and supporting others.
1. Socialism attacks worked, but who it worked best with might surprise you.
When asked what concerned them more, Democrats "embracing socialist/leftist policies" or "Republicans embracing fascist/anti-democratic policies," 42 percent of 2020 Latino voters, picked Democrats/socialism, while 38 percent picked Republicans/fascism. Among Florida Latinos that gap was even larger. By a 10 point margin (43 percent to 33 percent), Florida Latinos were more concerned about Democrats/socialism than Republican/fascism.
The theory has been that recent immigrants from socialist/communist countries (Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua) drove that perception. But, it was actually those who were farthest away from the immigrant experience who were more sensitive to this argument. Or, as the Equis report put it: "There isn't a drop-off as Hispanics become assimilated— it is the opposite."
Among immigrants, an Equis model predicts that 45 percent were more concerned about Democrats "embracing socialist/leftist policies" than they worried about Republicans' accommodations to anti-democratic/fascist behavior. But, the concern about Democrats espousing socialist policies grows with each successive generation. Among children of immigrants, almost half (49 percent) were more concerned about Democrats and socialism, and by the 4th generation, it rises to 60 percent.
2. The economy/COVID were more important than immigration. But don’t assume that means that Latinos supported Trump’s record or rhetoric on the issue.
It's not that immigration is unimportant to Latino voters. But, in 2020, the issue wasn't as important to these voters as it was back in 2016. In 2016, 39 percent of Latinos said immigration was a top issue. In 2020, the salience of that issue had dropped 23 points to just 16 percent. This was true even in states with large Latino communities. In Arizona, Nevada, Florida and Texas, the importance of the immigration issue declined from 2016 by 24 to 32 points.
Not surprisingly, the economy and COVID became much more important in 2020. In states like Arizona, Texas and Nevada, concerns about the economy among Latino voters grew by 13-18 points from 2016.
In fact, Equis found that among voters they identified as Democratic or independent and who voted for Trump, 32 percent put the economy as their top issue, while 34 percent listed COVID. Just 9 percent identified immigration as a top issue in their vote. "Ultimately, support for Trump on the economy and COVID and the intersection of the two (i.e., his focus on reopening the economy) stick out as major drivers of his vote among Latinos."
But, don't assume this means that Latino voters support many Trump/GOP immigration policies. For example, just 49 percent of Latinos in the post-mortem polling approved of Trump's policy of reducing immigration, compared to 66 percent who approved of the way he pushed to reopen the economy.
In other words, had the spotlight leading into Election Day been focused on family separation (just 28 percent of Latinos support), or even 'building the wall" (just 39 percent support), instead of the economy/COVID, Trump's success among Latino voters may have been more modest.
Even so, in 2022 and 2024, these voters will be judging Biden/Democrats' immigration policy, not Trump's. And data from states like Texas paint a pretty bleak picture for Democrats. Just 29 percent of Latino voters in a recent Texas Tribune poll approve of Biden's job on handling immigration at the Mexican border.
3. Black Lives Matter protests and "defund the police" rhetoric polarized the Latino electorate both for and against Biden/Trump.
Many Latino voters, goes one theory, were turned off by anti-police rhetoric they heard in the wake of the murder of George Floyd last summer. Calls to 'defund the police' and protests that often turned violent were a significant factor in Trump's success with Latinos, especially those along the southern border of Texas.
But, Equis' Carlos Odios argues that the data doesn't support this connection. "If the protests following the Floyd murder and ensuing calls to "Defund the Police" moved Latino voters toward Trump, as conventional wisdom now holds, you'd expect to see a change in the trajectory of vote choice around the time of those protests," he writes. However, "week-to-week data show some Latinos had started moving toward Trump before Floyd's murder, and the trend did not appreciably accelerate or spike up during the protests that followed."
While many Latino voters may have been drawn to Trump's "law and order" messaging, Equis cites evidence that both Clinton 2016 voters and new voters (those who didn't vote in 2016) were more interested in "racial inequality" than "crime and safety."
In other words, while many (already conservative/Republican) Latino voters were turned off by the protests, many (especially newer voters) were inspired by them.
This new data helps answer some of the "why's" on the 2020 Latino vote. But, what about now? What accounts for Biden's sluggish support with Latino voters today? A recent fivethirtyeight.com analysis, for example, found that while support for Biden has dropped among all three racial and ethnic groups, "the drop among Hispanics — from the high 60s to slightly below 50 percent — marks Biden's most precipitous decline."
When I asked Odio of Equis to explain the drop in support, he told me "2020 hasn't ended! If anything, the dynamics and debate of last year have been amped up by rising prices and the COVID malaise and how those are filtered through the social media fog."
In 2020, a majority of Latino voters approved of Trump's policies on the economic stimulus (77 percent), vaccine development (74 percent), reopening the economy (66 percent) and living "without fear of COVID” (55 percent). In other words, wrote Odio, "the debate over whether to prioritize the economy or public health in the middle of COVID — a debate that became, for some, about the value of hard work and the American Dream — eclipsed the issues that held some Hispanic voters back from supporting Trump in 2016, giving these formerly hesitant Latinos the 'permission' they needed to embrace Trump's re-election."
Given how important COVID and the economy remain today and that perceptions of Biden's performance on those issues has fallen significantly over the last few months — it makes sense that Latino voters would feel more negative about Biden today as well.
I sat in on a handful of focus groups conducted by progressive organizations in late November of Latino surge and swing voters and heard these concerns first hand. Many mentioned rising costs and frustration with the mixed messages about COVID. Many expressed pessimism about the future. "What isn't there to be worried about right now," said one younger male Latino swing voter. "I haven't felt the celebration of Thanksgiving," said one middle-aged Latina Democratic "surge" voter. "We have the same salaries, but the cost of living is increasing."
And, while many of them personally knew someone who had lost or job due to COVID, many also had a negative perception of the 2021 COVID stimulus legislation, feeling like it went to people who didn't need or deserve it. "There were people who needed the stimulus, like those who were unemployed," said one older Latina swing voter. "But they gave money to everyone, including those who didn't need it. And, now we are all paying for it because everything is going up."
The good news for Biden/Democrats is that many of these voters also believe that the rise in prices and supply chain challenges directly results from the pandemic, not Democratic policy. Moreover, only a handful of these voters were openly hostile in their opinion of the president. They weren't as angry as they were disappointed.
As the Equis post-mortem and the recent Latino focus groups have revealed, it's impossible to lump "Latino" voters and "Latino issues" into one simple category. But, it's also true that the issues that most concern these voters, are also the ones that cut across race or ethnicity; the economy and COVID. The less confident they are in Biden's handling of both, the harder it will be for Democrats to turn these voters out or to win them over.