Democrats and Republicans each have a narrative they tell themselves about how to build a long-term, stable majority after decades of agonizingly close elections. Both stories depend on winning over the nation’s Latino voters.
Realignment is the great GOP hope — the forecast that millions of Latino voters, particularly blue-collar voters and young men, will switch allegiance to the GOP, much as many blue-collar white voters have done. That theory got a boost after the 2020 election, when former President Trump shocked many Democrats by significantly expanding the number of Latino votes he won, compared with his fairly poor showing in 2016.
With the midterm elections coming down to the final weeks and key elections appearing extremely close, the question of where Latino voters will land is once more at the forefront of both parties’ hopes and fears.
The possibility of a large-scale shift of Latino voters to the GOP has strong appeal to a triumphalist streak among many Republicans (“See, we really do represent the majority”), an apocalyptic streak among many Democrats (“We may be in power now, but doom lies just in front of us”) and a hyperbolic streak in the media (“Historic voter shift seen.”)
For all that, however, the evidence remains equivocal.
The nation’s swing vote
“The party that wins the multi-ethnic working-class vote will be the dominant party in American politics,” says Mike Madrid, a longtime California-based Republican expert on Latino voting patterns.
“The Democratic Party has a problem with the working-class part,” he adds. “The Republican Party has a problem with the multi-ethnic part.”
Madrid’s line neatly encapsulates the challenges the two parties have faced over the last several elections.
Democrats have hoped for years that they could replicate nationally the dominance with Latino voters that they’ve achieved in California and, to a lesser extent, in Arizona.
In both states, years of Republican campaigns that attacked immigrants alienated a generation of Latino voters. In California, that has caused the Republican Party to dwindle to near irrelevance in statewide elections. In Arizona, Latino support was key to President Biden‘s 2020 victory and is central to Sen. Mark Kelly‘s hopes of defeating his Republican challenger, Blake Masters.
Outside of those two states, however, the Democratic experience with Latino voters has been more complicated. Rather than a story of dominance, it’s part of the broader tale of the party’s struggle to hold on to working-class Americans even as it grows increasingly dependent on the support of college-educated white voters, whose economic interests sometimes diverge from those of the working class and whose interest in pocketbook issues often takes second place to issues of culture and identity.
Among blue-collar voters who are white, Democrats have steadily lost ground since the 1990s. That trend culminated in Trump’s victory in 2016, in which he took nearly two-thirds of non-college white voters, allowing him to narrowly win Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania — and the White House.
Another trend took place in that same period and also reached a peak with Trump’s 2016 campaign — a nativist shift in the GOP that saw its voters increasingly oppose immigration and, often, immigrants and their families.
President Reagan in 1986 signed a broad immigration reform law that provided amnesty to millions of people who had entered the country illegally. President George W. Bush took strongly pro-immigration positions and proposed legislation that would have further rewritten the nation’s immigration laws. The defeat of that legislation in the Senate in June 2007 marked the first major victory of the immigration-restriction movement and displayed its growing strength among Republican conservatives.
Trump famously opened his 2016 campaign with a blast against Mexican immigrants, some of whom he labeled as rapists. He then started his presidency with a travel ban on people from seven Muslim-majority countries and tried to hold on to his congressional majority in 2018 with dark warnings against immigrant “caravans.”
Voter attitudes toward race and immigration were the strongest predictors of who voted for Trump in 2016, and those issues have remained the ones that most strongly motivate core GOP voters, repeated studies have found.
Not surprisingly, that approach seriously dampened Republican efforts to appeal to immigrant voters or their children. In 2004, Bush won around 40% of Latino voters. In 2016, Trump won only 28%, according to a detailed study of the electorate by the Pew Research Center. Two years later, the Republican share of the Latino vote in the midterm election fell to 25%, Pew found.
Democrats rejoiced in the 2018 results, believing they were back on the path toward a durable majority coalition forged by combining overwhelming backing of voters of color with a majority of white college graduates — all groups that are expanding their share of the nation’s population.
The 2020 results put a damper on those hopes. Biden won, largely because he performed several percentage points better among blue-collar white voters than Hillary Clinton did four years earlier (33%, compared with 28%, according to Pew’s data), key to winning back Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. But even in losing, Trump picked up ground among Latinos, winning nearly 4 in 10 of their votes.
Trump’s gains were especially impressive among blue-collar Latinos: Biden won that group, but by a far smaller margin (14 points) than he did among Latino voters with a college degree (39 points).
Analysis after the election by Equis Research, which specializes in studying Latino voters, suggested that many Latinos associated Trump with economic prosperity and Biden with COVID-related economic shutdowns.
Trump also significantly shifted his rhetoric, switching from the anti-immigration message of 2016 to a law-and-order one in 2020 that focused the attention of his mostly white backers on Black protesters, rather than Mexicans. That shift may have removed a barrier that had kept more conservative Latino voters from siding with the GOP.
The rebound in Latino support in 2020 helped Republicans capture a number of congressional seats, including several in California, and left the Democrats with a much smaller majority than they had hoped. And it led some Republican strategists to proclaim that the GOP was on the verge of turning into a broad-based working-class, populist party, despite the reality that their party’s voters remained 85% white, compared with just over 60% for the Democrats.
“We have a lot of Latino voters who are on the fence,” said Carlos Odio, the co-founder of Equis. “They’re in flux.”
Polling so far doesn’t show continued GOP gains beyond what the party achieved in 2020, but neither does it show a Democratic resurgence, Odio said.
The uncertain voters tend to be strongly motivated by economic concerns. “They’re ideologically more conservative” than other Latino voters, “but they have not seen themselves in the Republican Party. They believe the Democrats care more about people, but they want to be reassured that Democrats share their values around respect for work.”
Even if they may agree with Democratic positions on issues such as gun regulation or abortion, “they want to hear that Democrats are going to prioritize economic concerns” and “lowering the cost of living,” he said.
“Latinos are Americans, and Americans are split,” he said.
“There’s a large chunk of the Latino electorate that is conservative and would be Republicans, but the Republicans shoot themselves in the foot,” he added. If that stops, “you could see them make some serious gains.”
Debate night L.A.
— U.S. Rep Karen Bass and real estate developer Rick Caruso battered each other with charges of misbehavior and inauthenticity during an hourlong debate Wednesday, the latest rhetorical escalation in the once relatively genteel campaign for mayor of Los Angeles. As James Rainey, Julia Wick, Benjamin Oreskes and David Zahniser reported, the veteran Washington lawmaker pilloried the businessman as being out of touch with overwhelmingly Democratic L.A., because of his previous Republican registration and financial contributions to antiabortion politicians. Caruso, in turn, depicted Bass as a hidebound member of a failed political class that has been ineffectual at curbing the city’s homelessness and crime — the two issues voters say are their top worries.
— The same evening, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva and retired Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna held a heated, often antagonistic, debate in which they traded barbs over their records in law enforcement and their ability to lead the nation’s largest sheriff’s department. As Alene Tchekmedyian reported, Villanueva painted his opponent as someone who would be a “puppet” for the county Board of Supervisors, which controls the Sheriff’s Department’s budget, and Luna accused the sheriff of spewing falsehoods about his tenure in Long Beach and blamed him for causing the bitter relationships Villanueva has with other county leaders.
The latest from Washington
— Raymond Dearie, the special master picked to review more than 11,000 records removed by the FBI from former President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate last month, has set out his plan of action, with a tight schedule and the intention of wrapping up the record review in late October, Sarah Wire reported. Dearie gave Trump’s lawyers until Sept. 30 to listing any items that they do not believe were on Trump’s property when FBI agents searched it on Aug. 8. Trump and his allies have alleged that the FBI planted evidence during its search, but his lawyers have not made that argument in court, where they could be punished for making false statements.
— Russian President Vladimir Putin “shamelessly violated” the United Nations charter by invading Ukraine, Biden said during his annual address to the U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday. As Eli Stokols reported, Biden told the assembled world leaders and diplomats that Russia’s and China’s standing as two of the five permanent Security Council members is undermining the U.N.’s ability to fulfill its mission.
— Also at the U.N., President Ebrahim Raisi of Iran accused the West of maintaining a double standard on human rights. As Tracy Wilkinson reported, Raisi attempted to deflect international outrage over the death last week of a 22-year-old woman in the custody of Iran’s so-called morality police. They reportedly arrested her for failing to completely cover her hair. Her death has sparked widespread demonstrations in Tehran and other cities.
The latest from California
— When it came to Democratic politicians, Tom Girardi called them by their first names, and their campaigns called him for money. The now-disgraced Los Angeles attorney was a major party donor for decades who poured millions into local, state and national races even as his financial situation grew dire. In the last decade, he defaulted on a series of high-interest loans and was forced to liquidate his stock portfolio, yet he and his wife still doled out more than $2 million to the national Democratic Party and individual candidates, election filings show. As Harriet Ryan and Matt Hamilton reported, a Times review of contributions and law firm financial records raises questions about whether Girardi used clients’ funds to make his political donations.
— Want to follow the money coming into this year’s major statewide races? Check out the Times’ Elections Money Tracker. In the race for state controller, for example, which appears to be the most competitive statewide contest, the two candidates on the November ballot have raised a combined $7.4 million for their candidate committees. About 57% of that amount went to Republican Lanhee Chen.
— Architects of the effort to legalize pot in California made big promises to voters. But six years later, California’s legal weed industry is in disarray with flawed policies, legal loopholes and stiff regulations hampering longtime growers and sellers, Patrick McGreevy reported in the latest installment in The Times’ series on the problems of California’s cannabis industry. Despite expectations that it would become a model for the rest of the country, the state has instead provided a cautionary tale of lofty intentions and unkept promises.
— Also on the topic of pot, the state has new deadlines to dismiss and seal many cannabis convictions under a law signed this week by Gov. Gavin Newsom. As Kiera Feldman reported, the new law followed a Times investigation that found that tens of thousands of Californians still have felonies, misdemeanors and other cannabis convictions on their records despite a 2018 law that required the state to clear such convictions. Many counties have moved at glacial speeds, and some superior courts haven’t fully processed a single case, The Times found.
— Rep. Nanette Diaz Barragán (D-San Pedro) has been privately talking to members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus about becoming its next chair, Nolan McCaskill reported. The 36-member group is currently led by Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Coachella), but the caucus chairs usually serve only a single two-year term. Barragán is the group’s No. 2 leader.
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