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As Democrats go hard left, Hispanics head to the center

This growing voter group will be in play for both parties next year

Hispanic voters could become an important part of the Republican coalition if the party focuses on the economy and jobs, Winston writes.
Hispanic voters could become an important part of the Republican coalition if the party focuses on the economy and jobs, Winston writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The 2020 election was a surprise on many levels. President Donald Trump got much closer to reelection than most pundits predicted. The blue wave turned out to be a figment of the media’s and Democrats’ imagination. And Republicans did far better than expected down ballot and across the country. 

There have been plenty of autopsies done by partisans and academics, and plenty of interesting takeaways from the election, particularly on what happened with Hispanics and why. The answer is ideology. Today, Hispanic voters tend to be slightly center-right, ideologically, and closer to independents at a time when the Democratic Party is heading further and further left.

In one post-election report, a consortium of Democratic groups acknowledged what they called “campaign misfires” in the way Democrats engaged Hispanic and Latino voters. 

Specifically, the report says, “Latino and Hispanic voters were broadly treated as get-out-the-vote targets rather than audiences for persuasion.” It went on to say, “Campaign messaging didn’t always reflect the different values and priorities of urban Hispanic voters vs rural Hispanic voters, much less account for what would persuade Hispanic men in the Rio Grande Valley, oil and gas workers in New Mexico or Latinas in South Florida.”

In a recent New York Magazine interview, Democratic pollster David Shor weighed in on his party’s performance in the 2020 election. Based on the interview, it appears that Democrats continue to interpret 2022 in the context of demographics, race and class and less about voters’ belief systems and positions on issues. 

Give him credit: Shor does recognize that white liberal elites are pushing the party to the left and alienating certain voter groups, including Hispanics.

“We’ve ended up in a situation where white liberals are more left wing than Black and Hispanic Democrats on pretty much every issue: taxes, health care, policing, and even on racial issues or various measures of ‘racial resentment,’” he told the magazine. “So as white liberals increasingly define the party’s image and messaging, that’s going to turn off nonwhite conservative Democrats and push them against us.”

That’s not exactly what the progressives in the party want to hear. But failing to understand the electorate is a sure way to lose elections.

Shifting politics

So what do we know about Hispanic voters? For one, Republicans are gaining ground with them, especially in key districts like the Miami-area seats won by María Elvira Salazar and Carlos Gimenez last fall. 

From 2016 to 2020, both Trump and congressional Republicans improved among Hispanic voters. Trump went from 28 percent to 32 percent of the Hispanic vote, while congressional Republicans improved from 32 percent to 36 percent. Some Senate Republicans did even better with Hispanics in the November election, notably David Perdue (43 percent), Thom Tillis (42 percent) and John Cornyn (42 percent).

From the exit polls, we also know that, contrary to popular belief, the majority of Hispanics are not Democrats. In the 2020 election, party ID among Hispanics was 48 percent Democrat, 20 percent Republican and 32 percent independent, presenting a real opportunity for Republicans going forward.

The data also shows that ideology is one of the driving factors behind Hispanics’ positioning in the middle. Forty-three percent of these voters, according to the exit polls, self-identified as moderates, the largest group, followed by conservatives at 32 percent and liberals at 25 percent. By comparison, Democratic self-identification broke down as 46 percent liberal, 43 percent moderate and 10 percent conservative, meaning Democrats identify as liberal over conservative by 36 points.

But ideologically, that’s not where independents and Hispanics are. Overall, independent voters identify as conservative over liberal by 14 points; Hispanics identify as conservative over liberal by 7 points.

The more moderate viewpoints of many Hispanic voters in contrast with Democratic liberals is reflected in their views on key issues as well. In our June 7-10 Winning the Issues survey, Hispanic respondents told us that jobs and the economy were their biggest concern by far, at 36 percent, outdistancing the next two issues, immigration (14 percent) and health care (8 percent). 

Not a monolith

Democrats’ error in the last election was putting their focus on getting Hispanics to the polls, assuming their views were in sync with the party’s ideology and issue positions. But it’s important to remember that their strategy was focused on turnout, as if the Hispanic or Latino vote was monolithic. These voters, however, much like female voters, have subgroups that vary significantly. 

Cuban Americans in Florida are not necessarily in tune ideologically with Mexican Americans in California. In making assumptions, understanding these subgroups is essential to get a more accurate picture of what is a complex community. 

A poll done last fall found that while liberal Democrats, who currently define their party, supported socialism over capitalism, 44 percent to 36 percent, Hispanics disagreed, supporting capitalism 47 percent to 28 percent. In a political environment in which the economy will remain the dominant issue in 2022, progressives are likely to put the Democratic president and his party at odds with a significant number of Hispanic voters on the issue most important to them.

With the battle over the two parties’ spending plans in full swing, our June Winning the Issues survey also asked voters what would do more to get the economy moving:  increasing government spending or reducing taxes on business. Overall, voters chose reducing taxes, 46 percent to 30 percent. Hispanics picked reducing taxes, 44 percent to 33 percent — again, closer to independents, who did so by 46 percent to 22 percent, and far from Democratic voters, who supported more spending, 52 percent to 25 percent. 

What is becoming more and more evident is that Hispanic voters will be in play for both parties next year. Democrats have to stop assuming all minority voters, especially Hispanics, are on board the progressive train, nor will an effective GOTV effort assure victory.

Republicans have to understand that Hispanics, by and large, are not conservatives — at least not yet — but they are centrists behaving more like independents than Democrats and are open to a center-right economic message. If the party focuses on the economy and jobs, this is a growing voter group with the potential to become an important part of the Republican coalition.

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, as well as an election analyst for CBS News.

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