Opinion: Are Latino voters really defecting in droves to Republicans? Not according to our data

FILE - In this May 25, 2016, file photo, a man holds up a sign for then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump before the start of a rally at the Anaheim Convention Center, Wednesday, May 25, 2016, in Anaheim, Calif. Republicans are holding onto a steady share of the Latino vote in the Trump era. With a president who targets immigrants from Latin America, some analysts predicted a Latino backlash against the GOP. But it hasn't happened. Data from AP's VoteCast survey suggests Republicans are holding on to support from Latino evangelicals and veterans. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)
A supporter of Trump's first presidential campaign holds up a sign before a rally at the Anaheim Convention Center. (Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)
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A widespread and misleading story about the Latino vote has taken hold in the media. It goes something like this: Latinos used to be monolithic base voters for Democrats, but now they are fracturing and increasingly fleeing to Republicans.

As longtime practitioners of Latino voter outreach, we’re skeptical of this herd narrative, and we have data to support our misgivings.

Read more: Opinion: Biden's struggle among Latino voters is real. Here's why and what he can do about it

Our community is dynamic, diverse and fast-growing. It includes primarily English-speaking, fifth-generation Mexican Americans, many of whom are proud veterans of our armed forces or lifelong union members; recently naturalized, largely Spanish-speaking Mexican and Central American immigrants, especially in the West and Southwest, for whom economic opportunity, education, healthcare and immigration policy are particularly important; large Puerto Rican and Dominican populations in the ever-critical battleground state of Pennsylvania; and long-established families and recently arrived refugees from Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua who live in Florida and care deeply about democracy.

It’s hyperbole to say that Latinos have traditionally been a Democratic Party base vote in the way that, for example, African Americans are. Black Americans typically vote for Democrats about 9 to 1; the Latino vote for Democratic presidential candidates is considerably less lopsided, about 2 to 1, with significant variations depending on the candidate.

In 2004, for example, George W. Bush won close to 40% of the Latino vote, helping him carry Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Florida and Virginia. Just eight years later, Barack Obama won more than 70% of Latinos’ votes, flipping five of those states.

Read more: Op-Ed: Latino voters are still in search of a working-class agenda

We have long argued that as a growing electorate with record numbers of first- and second-time voters, Latinos respond to both persuasion and mobilization campaigns — that is, efforts to win them over as swing voters and to turn them out as base voters. When Democrats invest early and heavily in communicating a message about hope, optimism and the American dream, Latinos support Democrats, and Democrats win.

In 2020, Biden won Latino voters by a 2-1 margin, which proved critical to his victories in Arizona and Nevada. While some Latinos moved toward Trump in South Florida and South Texas, the reports of Democrats hemorrhaging Latino voters have been greatly exaggerated.

The same myth was propagated in 2022: GOP operatives proclaimed that a majority of Nevada’s Latino electorate would vote Republican and send Adam Laxalt to the U.S. Senate. The actual result was the opposite: Nearly two-thirds of the state’s Latino voters supported Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto’s reelection and helped Democrats expand their majority in the Senate.

What about today? How are the parties’ positions on inflation, abortion, gun violence and the fate of democracy playing among Latinos?

A recent poll of 3,000 Latino voters by UnidosUS suggests it’s Republicans who are struggling with this demographic:

  • Only 25% of Latinos say they believe that the Republican Party cares a great deal about their community, down from 35% in 2022.

  • Seventy-one percent of Latino voters think abortion should be legal, putting them at odds with Republicans on the issue.

  • Latinos trust Democrats over Republicans on healthcare nearly 4 to 1, not surprisingly given Trump’s determination to undo Obamacare.

  • Across 19 policy issues, including the economy, inflation, small business, healthcare, abortion, gun violence, education and immigration, Latino voters have more confidence in Democrats by double-digit margins.

The poll also found that immigration is still important to this electorate. Latino voters strongly favor a path to citizenship for Dreamers and other long-present immigrants; favor better, more orderly, humane policies on asylum and other forms of legal immigration; and oppose cruel mass deportations.

Trump and other Republicans, meanwhile, are promising to end birthright citizenship, create detention camps and deport 12 million immigrants with no path to citizenship. Their positions could serve to make immigration more salient to Latino voters. Demonstrating a contrast with the GOP’s xenophobic rhetoric and record on this issue would help Democrats pick up critical votes, according to an Immigration Hub poll of Latino voters in battleground states and congressional districts.

What, after all, has Trump or his party proposed to lower costs for Latino families, increase their access to affordable healthcare, reduce gun violence in our communities, protect our rights and democracy, and respect our contributions to our country?

Latino voters are the fastest-growing electorate in America, and Biden and his party need to emphasize their strengths on the issues that matter to them. Democrats have a significant advantage among Latinos. They should use it. 

Maria Cardona is a Democratic strategist and former communications director for the Democratic National Committee. Matt Barreto is a professor of political science and Chicano studies at UCLA, the president of BSP Research and a Democratic Party advisor.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.