How Dems can reverse losses among Latino voters

President-elect Joe Biden
President-elect Joe Biden
Alex Gakos/Shutterstock
President-elect Joe Biden’s margin over President Donald Trump likely will be notably lower among Latino voters than fellow Democrat Hillary Clinton’s performance in 2016.

How Dems can reverse losses among Latino voters

They need a message that combines both race and class.
November 17, 2020

By the time the popular vote is fully tallied, President-elect Joe Biden’s margin over President Donald Trump likely will be notably lower among Latino voters than fellow Democrat Hillary Clinton’s performance in 2016. Commentators have explained away that shift with a focus on regional phenomena, including massive shifts in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley and Florida’s Miami-Dade County. Viral Twitter threads described the very real differences among Latinos in the United States but at the risk of obscuring the truth that Latinos moved towards the GOP all over the United States. 

While President Donald Trump’s biggest gains among Latino voters were indeed in South Texas and South Florida, Biden lost ground in Latino areas from greater Phoenixand Houston to Lawrence and Holyoke, Mass. The largest Democratic losses in Latino vote share have come in America’s most heavily Latino counties.

These losses extend to New York City, even if one makes generous assumptions about Biden’s vote totals from mail-in ballots still being counted. Democrats have a problem with Latino voters, and they need a new message to fix it. 

Consider the discrepancy between Clinton’s vote share and Biden’s in heavily Latino districts, across different boroughs that capture diverse cross-sections of Latinos by income, geography, heritage and, as applicable, proximity to the immigrant experience. In 2016, in the 84th state Assembly District in the South Bronx, Clinton won the two-party vote – the Democratic nominee’s vote share on the Democratic and Working Families Party lines, and Trump’s share on the Republican and Conservative lines – by 90 percentage points. This year, if one takes the tabulated in-person results, assumes every absentee ballot is counted, assigns absentee votes based on party registration and assumes unaffiliated voters break 5 percent more Democratic than in-person votes, Biden would win the two-party vote in the district by 76 percentage points. Using the same methodology, in the 86th Assembly District in the Bronx, Clinton won the two-party vote by 90 points, whereas Biden will win it by 70 points; in the 39th AD in Queens, Clinton won the two-party vote by 68 points, while Biden will win it by 52 points; in the 72nd AD in Manhattan, Clinton won the two-party vote by 86 points, while Biden will win it by 70 points.

Perhaps the pushback to discussion of Trump’s improved performance among Latino voters was intended to protect the community from scapegoating for a potential Biden loss, when Latinos still supported Biden far more than white voters did. 

But understanding what happened, and why – and how Democrats can reverse the trend – is essential to building a progressive majority. 

One part of the answer is a growing gender gap between Latino and Latina voters. In 2016, according to onestudy of validated voters, Latinas voted for Clinton by a 41-point margin, and Latino men voted for her by 29 points. According to a pre-election Telemundopoll, the respective margins were 52 points and 9 points, yielding a 43-point gender gap.

In addition to sexism – a pervasive factor common to every ethnic and racial group – some of this gender gap may be related to the related educational attainment gap and the Democrats’ declining vote share among Americans without a college education. Women of every racial or ethnic background are more likely than their male counterparts to attend college, but the gap is biggest in the Latino community. Biden led by 45 points in a pre-election Pewpoll among Latinos with college degrees and 30 points among those without.

In addition, “Latino or Hispanic” is an ethnic category, not a racial one, and thus liberals must not assume that all Lations identify as people of color. In one survey, only a quarter of Latinos identified as people of color. Latinos who specifically identify as white are more likely to vote for the Republican Party, with the probability of white identification growing with each succeeding generation. In addition, Latinos are more likely to marry someone of another race or ethnicity than almost any other group, with higher rates among U.S.-born Latinos; this trend leads to decreasing Latino identification over time. Lastly, Latino evangelicals are a growing share of the country, and they favored Trump in pre-election polling.

Part of the 2020 vote shift is also Trump-specific: while hosting The Apprentice, Trump, portrayed there as an exemplar of wealth and success, had exceptional ratings among Black and Latino viewers. Substantial shares of voters of color, and most Americans overall, have a positive approval rating of Trump’s handling of the economy, even during the pandemic. And this election did not center nearly as much on immigration as did 2016.

The Biden campaign, which invested a record $20 million in targeted advertising toward Latinos this cycle, could not control all of these factors. So how can Democrats compensate for them in the future? 

They must try a new approach, beginning with messaging. Law professor and author Ian Haney López worked with the progressive think tank Demos to conduct large focus groups testing racial fear messaging, race-silent economic populist messaging, and explicitly racial equity-focused messaging. Across racial lines, racial fear messaging – the kind Trump excels at – outperformed the other two, in large part because even communities of color have internalized negative stereotypes foisted upon them, thus leading to battles creating scarcity and tiers of perceived worthiness. 

Racial equity-focused messaging is in vogue among national Democrats, audible in Biden’s speech on racial equity in the COVID-19 economic recovery. However, López finds that this rhetoric may drive up pessimism about the future and skepticism about the interest of white Americans in reducing racial inequities among communities of color, and it performs poorly among white voters. Economic populist messaging of the sort Sen. Bernie Sanders deployed frequently in 2016, while outperforming the racial equity message, still lagged behind the racial fear messaging.

But “race-class” messages, which argued that a wealthy, well-connected few used race to divide the working class against itself, and called for working people of all backgrounds to fight for a future for the many, tested morepositively across racial lines than anything else, including racial fear messaging. The race-class framework acknowledges the inescapable realities of systemic racism, but charts a shared, inclusive path forward. Aspects of this approach are audible in Sanders’s “Bernie’s Back”rally in 2019 and then-Sen. Barack Obama’s “Yes We Can” speech in 2008. While this approach may seem counterintuitive to activists and advocates, who are high-information and often well-educated voters, what appeals to activists is not necessarily what appeals to swing voters.

Winning back Latino voters requires more than dutifully reciting focus-grouped language; the Democratic Party must internalize the nuances of diversity and range of Latino identity and message to us accordingly. Latino voters are essential to Democrats’ majority in the House of Representatives, which runspartly through swing districts in blue states, and to the Electoral College map in Nevada, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Georgia. And Democrats would need wider margins among Latino voters in Texas and Florida to put those states in play. 

Democrats cannot afford to continue to bleed voting groups that are less college-educated and have substantial rural populations, as they have with white and, to a lesser extent, Black voters. The party must face reality and work to win back Latino voters.

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Pablo Zevallos
is a law graduate and Upper West Side Democratic activist. The views expressed here are strictly his own.
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