Why the Latino vote is a growing problem for Democrats

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A series of recent polls indicate that Latino voters, long a reliably Democratic bloc, are becoming more Republican ahead of the November midterms.

A Republican Senate aide heralded the numbers from a Marist survey last week showing 52% support for the GOP among Latinos, and just 39% support for Democrats, while a progressive writer voiced skepticism about the results of just one poll.

And while it’s a good rule to look at aggregate polling data rather than just one survey — especially one like the Marist poll, which has a huge margin of error and a small sample size — the numbers are generally in line with a larger shift: Latino voters are trending away from Democrats.

“If you look at things like the Texas local elections, the New Jersey elections, Nassau County elections, the Virginia elections, they all point to Hispanics not just not snapping back but continuing to get more Republican in relative terms than they were before,” said David Shor, a leading political data analyst on the left, at a recent panel hosted by the Citrin Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of California, Berkeley.

A sign in Spanish points the way to an early voting location in Phoenix ahead of the 2020 presidential election.
A sign points the way to a voting location in Phoenix ahead of the 2020 U.S. presidential election. (Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images)

Shor was ticking off the different electoral contests that have taken place since the 2020 presidential contest, when Hispanic support for Joe Biden was 8 points lower than it had been for Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016, to 63% from 71% four years earlier.

That trend is continuing, said Mike Madrid, a Republican consultant from California who has worked for the anti-Trump Lincoln Project. Madrid told Yahoo News that “there is absolutely a rightward shift” among Hispanic voters.

“I've looked at it very, very closely. The shift has been happening for some time,” Madrid said. He said that Hispanic voters in California and Arizona have bucked this trend but that it shows up everywhere else in the country.

And, he said, it’s as much a class issue as it is anything else.

“The largest divide in America is the education divide. Democrats are rapidly consolidating college-educated voters and Republicans are consolidating non-college-educated voters,” Madrid said.

“The Democrats are not helping their case. The problem is they're becoming an out-of-touch, elite party. ... The Republicans are winning this by default. They haven't figured anything out. They're focusing on their white non-college-educated base, and they're gradually getting Latino voters.”

Shor echoed this point in his opening remarks at the panel in California. “I don't think it's a coincidence that the two groups of people that we've really lost ground with are working-class white voters over the last six years and Hispanic voters,” he said.

Voter information guides in English and Spanish at a Long Beach polling station during the California gubernatorial recall election in 2021.
Voter information guides at a Long Beach polling station during the California gubernatorial recall election in September 2021. (Bing Guan/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Shor argued that “the Democratic Party has become much more liberal” since 2012, and “over the last four or five years, liberals have for the first time become the dominant faction in the Democratic Party.” From 2012 to 2019, the Pew Research Center found that the share of Democratic voters who identified as liberal went from 37% to 47%, and the share of Democrats who identified as moderate or conservative went from 57% to 49%.

Among other commonalities, working-class white voters and Hispanic voters tend to be more religious and less likely to identify as liberal, Shor said.

The increasing alienation of Hispanic voters from the Democratic Party stems from several factors, according to those who have studied the issue.

Inflation is a top concern for many Hispanics, according to a March survey by Axios/Ipsos, and the Marist poll showed a 2-to-1 advantage among Latinos for Republicans over Democrats on who can better address the rise in prices. Americans generally also give Republicans the upper hand when asked which party can improve the economy and reduce crime.

In 2020, Hispanics moved toward then-President Donald Trump based on his push to reopen the economy during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a study done at the end of 2021 by Equis Research, a three-year-old polling and research organization focused on Hispanic Americans.

Equis also found that Democrats were not responding to attacks on their candidates in Spanish-language media, especially in places like Miami and South Texas. Republican ads calling Democrats "socialists" were particularly effective.

Latinos vote at a polling station in El Gallo, a Los Angeles restaurant, in 2016.
Latinos vote at a polling station in El Gallo, a Los Angeles restaurant, in 2016. (David McNew/Getty Images)

“Republicans didn't turn off the Miami sound machine after 2016. They turned it up. They didn't stop talking about socialism,” said Stephanie Valencia, co-founder and president of Equis. “There's a media ecosystem of online media influencers, along with Spanish-language AM radio, and some conservative TV” that creates “an echo chamber of messaging.”

Democrats ran $15 million worth of TV ads in the last month of the 2020 election, but they still aren’t countering this echo chamber effect in Miami, Valencia told Yahoo News.

“There is no voter in South Florida that remembers any of those ads, but they're still probably tuning in to that radio station that's suggesting Joe Biden is not president,” she said, referring to Trump’s baseless conspiracy theory that the 2020 election was illegitimate.

But working-class voters of all stripes have been alienated as well by the language that Democrats use, according to a recent study conducted by YouGov on behalf of Jacobin magazine, a socialist publication.

“Blue-collar workers are especially sensitive to candidate messaging — and respond even more acutely to the differences between populist and ‘woke’ language,” the study of 2,617 voters in five swing states found. “Primarily manual blue-collar workers, in comparison with primarily white-collar workers, were even more drawn to candidates who stressed bread-and-butter issues and who avoided activist rhetoric.”

A Hispanic man turns in his ballot at a polling station in Ventura County, California.
A Hispanic man turns in his ballot at a polling station in Ventura County, Calif. (Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

“Progressives do not need to surrender questions of social justice to win working-class voters, but certain identity-focused rhetoric is a liability,” the YouGov/Jacobin study also concluded. “Potentially Democratic working-class voters did not shy away from progressive candidates or candidates who strongly opposed racism. But candidates who framed that opposition in highly specialized, identity-focused language fared significantly worse than candidates who embraced either populist or mainstream language.”

While the study did not specify the “specialized, identity-focused” language likely to turn voters off, strategists in both parties have pointed to the phrase “defund the police,” which some Democrats embraced in 2020, and the use of the term “Latinx.”

Progressives have promoted the use of "Latinx" because "Latino" is a gendered word that technically refers only to Hispanic men. But only about 4% of Hispanics prefer the term, and even among Democrats, there has been a backlash against it. Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., has forbidden his staffers to use the term.

Madrid said the use of "Latinx" perpetuates the impression among many Hispanics, especially those in the working class, that Democrats are out of touch with their concerns.

“It’s like, gas is $6 a gallon in California, and you're talking about what?” he said.