Thursday, Jun 08, 2023

How Republicans and Democrats are missing the mark with Latino voters

How Republicans and Democrats are missing the mark with Latino voters

Strategists, pollsters and advocacy groups say both parties continue to treat Latino voters like a monolithic group

In the 2022 midterms, Latino voters reinforced their power as the second-largest voting bloc in the United States.

These voters, who account for nearly 35 million people, or 14%, of the US voting electorate, both tilted the balance for Democrats in key battleground state Senate races in Pennsylvania, Arizona and Nevada and secured a Republican hold in Florida. Since 2018, the number of Latino voters has grown by nearly 5 million people, accounting for more than 60% of newly eligible voters.

But Latino strategists, pollsters and advocacy groups say both parties are still missing the mark. They argue Democratic and Republican campaigns continue to treat Latino voters like a monolithic group, failing to contact and reach out to voters early and invest in ads grounded in what communities themselves care about. As Latino operatives ascend the ranks in independent political action committees and campaigns, that’s steadily changing. But those who plan to continue with the status quo could make or break party election results in 2024.

Beyond politics

Campaigns need to take a page from independent groups, according to Latino political strategists, pollsters and voter mobilization groups. They said political parties need to build trust with voters, listen to what they care about and use that data to tailor culturally relevant messaging to different communities in different states.

According to the 2022 Midterm Election Voter Poll, a comprehensive exit polling of thousands of voters led by the African American Research Collaborative and other groups, nearly two-thirds of Latino voters voted with Democrats. Even as Republicans gained ground, the data shows that there wasn’t a drastic shift in Latino voters’ support for political parties.

But that doesn’t mean the party will maintain its popularity.

“Hispanic voters are sending a message to both parties: they see their own values and policy positions align with the Democratic side but the message to Democrats isn’t so much that they are treating it as a bloc. They are neglecting it,” Clarissa Martinez de Castro, vice president of the Latino vote initiative at UnidosUS, says.

Meanwhile, De Castro says that if Republicans want to maintain and grow Latino support they need to realize they’re “radically out of step with what Latinos want”.

As the number of Latinos in the United States nearly doubled in the last two decades, strategists say reaching out and contacting Latino voters, and uplifting Latino consultants who are mindful of the electorate’s nuance, will be key to critical elections.

“We’re outpacing everyone,” Colin Rogero, a Democratic strategist and partner of the political consulting firm 76 Words, says. “There’s no choice. If you want to win campaigns in the future, the Latino electorate has got to be a significant portion of who you are targeting and communicating with.”

But Chuck Rocha, a longtime Democratic political strategist focused on Latino voters and founder of Solidarity Strategies, says that the lack of diversity in the ranks of political consultants – and the predominant whiteness – frames how Latino voters are often seen.

“When you start talking about ‘the Latino vote’, there aren’t Latinos in the room to make the corrective,” said Rocha, a former senior adviser to Senator Bernie Sanders in his presidential bid. He argued that the political strategies from consultants have not adjusted to speaking to Latino voters in culturally or regionally specific ways, despite the fact that these voters have been the fastest growing group within the American electorate for decades.

That work, however, was on display from independent advocacy groups that supported Democratic candidates, and civic mobilization organizations that focused on galvanizing Latino voters, Rocha said. They invested in showing up in communities, even during off-election years, and built trust over time. He pointed to Nevada, where super Pacs and groups like the Culinary Workers Union and Somos Votantes canvassed neighborhoods across the state and spent millions of dollars in ads that specifically targeted Spanish-speaking voters.

“Our universe wasn’t just reaching Democrats. We were reaching eligible voters. It was about turning out Latinos to vote,” Cecia Alvarado, executive director of Somos Votantes’ Nevada division, says.

Issues and immigration patterns

Claudia Lopez, who volunteered with the Culinary Workers Union and voted for the first time in Nevada’s midterms. She frequently heard about the rising costs of rents in Las Vegas and heard fears of being evicted. That focus became a centerpiece of the union’s messaging in the weeks ahead of the election.

“I care about a change in a good way. I don’t care who’s elected. I don’t care who wins I just want it changed for the for the better,” she told the Guardian in October.

Lopez’s perspective – caring less about party politics and more about candidates’ actions – reflects a common thread among Latino voters, said Gabe Sanchez, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and vice president of research at BSP Research.

“Because so many Latinos are first-time voters and US born with foreign born parents, you don’t have the same party loyalists,” Sanchez says. “A lot of people describe party politics like sports in the US. I just don’t think that fits the majority of Latino voters.”

María Teresa Kumar, president and CEO of Voto Latino, says that there is a generational divide: Latino voters are, on average, younger than the rest of the electorate, consisting of people who are newer to the country as immigrants and migrants compared to other voters of color.

And Sanchez found that two-thirds of Latino voters under age 40 supported Democrats compared to 60% of Latino voters over that age. That will play a key role in the upcoming presidential race as campaigns attempt to figure out how to court young voters and make sure they turn out.

Kumar said her group addressed this in the midterm by investing in registration in eight battleground states in 2020, registering 650,000 voters. But she said that campaigns did not invest in the same way because Democratic donors and campaigns internalized the idea that they were losing Latino support to Republicans.

“For politics, it’s important to think about the issues that are driving individuals and the life experiences they are having in pockets that were once not Latino,” Kumar says.

“We are a holistic fabric of all these aspirations, wants and needs but if we are living in a society where our policy issues are not being met that allow our children to thrive, it doesn’t matter if I like arepas or pupusas if I have a politician enacting bad legislation if I have a politician say ‘I can’t invest in you because you’re not a monolith.’”

Matt Barreto, a political science professor at UCLA and co-founder of BSP Research, notes that in public opinion polling, Latinos often express shared culture, values, language and customs but politically, they vary depending on the political environment they live in.

The 2022 Midterm Election Voter Poll, which Barreto worked on, found that Latino voters described sharing similar issues of concern: cost of living, gas prices, reproductive rights, healthcare costs and gun violence. But when broken down by Latino voters in states polled, those issues vary depending on the state, with the consensus concern over the economy.

Midterm results

The midterm results offer a roadmap of how parties approached different Latino communities.

Carlos Odio, co-founder of EquisResearch, a data firm focused on Latinos, wrote on Twitter that Republicans failed to make the projected “Latino red wave” a reality.

In key races in Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, Michigan and Pennsylvania, Latino voter support for Democrats played a significant role. In Arizona, where two-thirds of Latino voters supported Senator Mark Kelly, he capitalized on an already influential long-term investment in Latino voter outreach by grassroots groups to capture wins in Maricopa and Pima counties.

“In Arizona, it’s a dual community effort,” Sanchez said. “They’ve been working with these communities and building trust. It’s not something you can just do when the election cycle happens.”

Alvarado, of Somos Votantes, said the group spent $14m on digital, TV and radio ads and voter outreach such as canvassing neighborhoods in support of Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto, the first Latina in Congress who narrowly won re-election.

Alvarado, the daughter of Costa Rican immigrants who moved to the US as a teenager, says that without Latino voters, “you don’t win elections in Nevada”. In the state, 64% of Latino voters supported Cortez-Masto over Republican Adam Laxalt, according to the 2022 Midterm Election Voter Poll.

In Colorado, where the Latino population has grown 72% since 2000, Sanchez worked with the Latino Victory Fund to survey Latino voters about their concerns, particularly in rural areas. That influenced voter outreach efforts and aided in Yadira Caraveo becoming the first Latina to be elected to Congress from the state.

In New Mexico, Rogero, who worked with Democratic campaigns in several states, says his team worked with Democratic congressman-elect Gabe Vasquez’s campaign against Republican incumbent Yvette Herrell to invest heavily and early in Spanish-language ads, particularly in the district’s southern region, framed around Vasquez’s upbringing. That, Rogero says, was key to “not lose a majority” of Latino voters in the state’s largest Latino district, Vasquez edged out a win, and flipped the seat by just over 1,000 votes.

Florida represented an outlier, where Latino voters made a shift toward supporting Republicans, with the largest gains among Cuban and non-Puerto Rican voters, allowing incumbents Governor Ron DeSantis and Senator Marco Rubio to win re-elections by wide margins. But Baretto points out that the strategy remained the same: Long-term investment from Republicans in Florida in English and Spanish ads targeting Latinos since 2020.

Rogero, who grew up in south Florida and worked on several races in the state, argued that Democrats’ losses there were a “direct reflection of investment”, He pointed to the recent loss by Democratic incumbent Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, the first South American immigrant elected to Congress, against former Miami-Dade county mayor Carlos Giménez. In that race, Powell became one of the few Democrats nationally to outperform Biden among Latino voters, crediting voter outreach, ad investment, and door-knocking.

“I don’t think the [Democratic] national infrastructure, the donors, the major party committees understands Florida because it’s a complicated place,” Rogero said. “Miami is not a lost cause. It’s just Republicans have been spending a lot of money there where Democrats have not.”

That investment strategy among Latino voters could become important in the Georgia runoff between Senator Raphael Warnock and Republican candidate Herschel Walker, where the Latino population is on the rise. While white voters largely supported Walker and Black voters overwhelmingly supported Warnock, Warnock captured 67% of Latino voters, according to exit polling.

Somos Votantes, the national Latino mobilization group that supported Cortez-Masto in Nevada, announced it would invest $2m in the runoff.

“It used to be that one side would neglect it and would take it for granted, and the other one would just simply ignore it,” Clarissa Martinez de Castro of UnidosUS says. “We’ve seen signs of progress of more outreach happening. But I think there’s still some way to go.”

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