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How Latino voters could make a red wave redder

Will Trump’s gains with Latino voters in 2020 translate to GOP votes in 2022?

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Michelle Budge, Deseret News

At the margins, and in key states like Florida, Texas, Arizona and Nevada, Latino voters appear to be swinging right — a statistical thread emerging from the chaos of the 2020 and 2021 elections that is now dominating headlines as the midterms near. 

Recent polling and GOP primary turnout seem to suggest that former President Donald Trump’s gains among Latino voters in 2020 has endured. This has delighted Republicans who are predicting the end of Obama’s multiracial coalition, even as Democrats insist the 2020 uptick was merely an aberration spurred on by a pandemic economy in free fall. Either way, Latino voters are positioned to play a key role in determining the outcome of the U.S. Senate and gubernatorial races in Arizona and Nevada, which are some of the closest — and most closely watched — races in the country.

Latinos make up more than one-fifth of eligible voters in these two purple states where a “red wave” is expected to wash over this November’s midterm elections. Incumbent Democratic Sens. Mark Kelly, of Arizona, and Catherine Cortez Masto, of Nevada, have found themselves fighting for their seats as they face Republican opponents Blake Masters and Adam Laxalt in toss-up races that will likely determine which party wins a Senate majority. Likewise, the gubernatorial contests in Arizona and Nevada, which feature experienced Democratic officials running against Trump-endorsed political outsiders, are also in a dead heat.

Jorge Bonilla, director of the Latino branch of the Media Research Center, says the renewed focus on Latino voters this election cycle is motivated by a worry that the Hispanic community, once thought of as a pillar of the Democratic Party’s “coalition of the ascendant,” could change the tide in favor of Republicans in an already stormy year for Democrats. 

“Any further ebb in the Hispanic community would be catastrophic for Democrats. So, that’s why there is this inordinate focus on the Hispanic community,” he said.

In 2020, former President Donald Trump received 6% more of the Latino vote than Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney had in 2012. This represented an 8% increase from Trump’s first run for president, narrowing the 39 percentage-point gap that had existed in the Latino vote between Hillary Clinton and Trump in 2016, to a 25 percentage-point split in 2020, with Trump coming away with 36% of the Latino vote compared to President Joe Biden’s 61%. 

The shift was felt most heavily in majority-Latino districts in Florida and Texas, two already solidly red states. But there was also a notable surge in Republican support among Latinos in Arizona and Nevada, where Biden won by only 0.3 and 2.4 percentage points, respectively. The most populous county in Arizona, Maricopa County, experienced a 64% increase in Latino votes for Trump, while the most populous county in Nevada, Clark County, experienced a 51% increase from 2016.

This trend seems like it will translate to the 2022 midterms, according to a recent CNN poll, which shows the incumbent Democratic senators of Arizona and Nevada have both lost support among Latino voters compared to their last elections. 

Increased favorability toward Republicans among Latino voters is likely due to the state of the economy, according to a recent New York Times/Siena College poll. The survey of Latino voters, one of the largest since the 2020 election, showed that economic issues were more than twice as important as other issues among Latino voters in deciding which party to vote for. Though a majority of Latino voters said they were more likely to vote for a Democratic candidate in the midterms, and agreed more with Democrats on issues like immigration and climate, they were evenly split on which party they agreed with more on the economy, with Latino voters under 30 actually favoring Republicans on the issue 46% to 43%. 

These results were mirrored by an extensive survey of over 100,000 Latino voters performed by UnidosUS, the largest Latino civil rights organization in the country, and Mi Familia Vota, a civic engagement organization focused on Latino outreach. The survey found that Latino voters strongly agreed that inflation and the rising cost of living were the most important issues that elected officials needed to address. 

“I think the economy has a lot to do with more favorable views of Republicans, generally among all voters, and that tends to be the case with Latino voters as well,” said Clarissa Martinez de Castro, vice president of the Latino Vote Initiative at UnidosUS.

Though inflation and a struggling economy almost always tend to favor the party out of power in elections, economic concerns might be drawing Latino voters to the Republican party for another reason, too. 

A multiyear survey of tens of thousands of Latino voters performed by the research firm Equis, concluded that the surge in Latino support for Trump in 2020 was likely caused by his change in rhetoric from focusing on immigration to focusing on ending pandemic lockdowns and opening businesses back up. This new economy-oriented language removed an obstacle that had made voting for Trump uncomfortable for many Latino voters, giving them “permission” to vote Republican. The study found that the biggest shift rightward was seen among women, non-college educated, and foreign born individuals, which are typically the groups within the Hispanic community most likely to vote Democratic. 

One additional conclusion of the study was that the Latino vote is “swingier” than commonly assumed. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, according to Bonilla, because of the diversity that lies beneath the label “Latino.” The term refers to anyone of Latin American descent, which could include people from more than 30 countries. And though 60% of Latino-Americans trace their roots back to Mexico, hundreds of thousands of others can claim Puerto Rico, Cuba, Colombia, or another country in Central and South America, as their ethnic home.

“It’s very hard to place persons of such disparate origins into a single box,” Bonilla said.

Despite the recent attention given to Latino swing voters, this tendency is far from new, Martinez said. “We’ve been talking about this swing element of the Latino electorate for at least 20 years and the need for parties and candidates, therefore, to do a better job reaching out and engaging these voters if they want to win their support.”

In fact, when placed in historical context the increased willingness of Latino voters to come out in support of Republicans appears less like an indicator of a new trend, and more like a reversion to the mean, Martinez said.

“What you’ve seen in the last couple of cycles is Republicans regaining some of the ground that they had lost, particularly over the last decade, with these voters,” she said. 

Another factor that could complicate the narrative that Republicans are making inroads among the Hispanic electorate, is Latino voters’ stance on abortion access, Martinez said. “I think particularly in this cycle, we have seen some mistaken assumptions about Latino’s views on abortion,” she said, explaining that though the Hispanic community is strongly grounded in faith and family they tend to favor access to abortion by a large margin. 

For the first time in both Nevada and Arizona, abortion emerged as one of the top five issues in the wake of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, though half as many respondents considered it a top issue compared with inflation, according to the UnidosUS survey. Roughly 80% of Latino voters in both states said abortion should remain legal, regardless of their personal beliefs on the issue. And according to a Washington Post-Ipsos poll, Latino voters overwhelmingly prefer Democrats to handle access to abortion. 

But according to Victor Nieves, an active leader in the Hispanic conservative community, it is the economy, not social issues, that will be the deciding factor for most Latino voters in the midterms. This view is supported by a recent poll from The Wall Street Journal showing that economic pessimism overshadows abortion access as the primary issue motivating voters. 

“Joe Biden’s probably the best salesman when it comes to Hispanic outreach. Hispanic families are seeing a lot less money in their pockets, a lot less money in their paychecks,” Nieves said.

Last year, Nieves helped to launch the Hispanic Grassroots Alliance, a FreedomWorks initiative that aims to educate and mobilize Latino voters “to choose policies that work for all Americans.”

The group has since hosted multiple events in Arizona and Texas, including one at the border with now-elected Republican Rep. Mayra Flores. 

Flores made waves in June after defeating three opponents in a special election in a mostly Latino South Texas district, winning over 50% of the vote and flipping the seat for the first time since the district was created a decade ago. However, Flores is up for reelection on Nov. 8 in a redrawn district that is predicted to favor the Democratic candidate. 

Regardless of the outcome, Nieves is convinced that Trump’s and Flores’ success among the Hispanic electorate is a sign of things to come.

“I don’t think it’s a temporary thing,” he said. “I think this could be a generational difference if we outreach, we educate on the policies, and we do as much as we can to talk to these folks, to the Hispanic community, and talk to them, not as political people, but to talk to them as real Americans.”

And with the force of a “red wave” at their backs, even a reversion to the mean could make Latino voters the key swing vote that decides the fate of Democratic politicians in Arizona, Nevada, and across the country.