Hispanics: The newest swing voter

As they move to the middle, can the parties adapt?

Republicans have a real opportunity to win the Hispanic vote, but only if they understand the issues that matter, Winston writes. Above, a voting sign is seen at a polling place in New York in August. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Republicans have a real opportunity to win the Hispanic vote, but only if they understand the issues that matter, Winston writes. Above, a voting sign is seen at a polling place in New York in August. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted October 5, 2022 at 6:00am

In my Roll Call column last June on the Hispanic vote, I closed with, “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.”

The point I was making then, that the Hispanic vote offers Republicans a real opportunity, especially when economic issues are driving voters, is even truer today with the economy in dire straits and the congressional midterms only weeks away. 

But it’s also important to understand one key point. Hispanic voters aren’t becoming Republicans as much as they are becoming independents and voting like independents. This change in Hispanic voters’ ideology requires both parties to do some strategic rethinking. 

As I’ve written many times, independents are not driven by the base issues, so often pushed by both parties. They don’t like partisanship. They want solutions to the economic problems affecting them and their families — and by extension, issues like education, health care and now the growing issue of crime. For this group, America is still a place of opportunity, a country that does much good in the world.

So, it’s not surprising that exit polls have shown that, ideologically, Hispanic voters are more closely aligned with independents than with Democrats, an ominous sign for that party long term. In fact, the 2020 exit polls found that the majority of Hispanic voters are no longer Democrats. They were either independents (32 percent) or Republicans (20 percent). 

In the 2020 election, congressional Republicans were able to win 36 percent of the Hispanic vote, a 4 percent increase over 2016 and 4 points higher than President Trump, who got only 32 percent of the Hispanic vote that year. The exit polls also showed that 29 percent of Hispanic voters said the economy was their top issue, behind racial inequality at 38 percent. But among those Hispanics who self-identified as independents, 58 percent of them cited the economy as their most important issue. Republicans won that key group by 90.5 percent to 8.8 percent 

In part, there’s an ideological component to this trend. In the 2020 exit polls, Hispanic voters’ self-identified ideology broke down this way: 25 percent said they were liberals, and 32 percent said they were conservatives. But a plurality, 43 percent, called themselves moderates. 

When independents were asked to do the same, the results were similar to Hispanics. Eighteen percent said liberal, 32 percent conservative, and 50 percent moderate. What this shows is that Hispanics, at the congressional vote level, are still slightly more liberal than independents as a whole, but an overwhelming majority are clearly in the moderate or conservative camp. In contrast, among Democrats, 46 percent said they were liberal, 43 percent were moderate and 10 percent were conservative. 

So, among independents, the margin of conservatives over liberals was +14, and among Hispanics, it was +7. Among Democrats, it was -36. This puts Hispanics very close to independents ideologically and at quite a distance from Democrats. 

This ideological disconnect between Hispanic and Democratic voters likely explains at least some of the Democratic slippage with Hispanics we’ve seen in polling over the past decade. With progressives in charge, voters are seeing a political party pushing an extreme liberal agenda focused on issues like climate and abortion rather than the kitchen table issues that take priority with independent voters, Hispanic or otherwise. 

Another interesting way to look at exit poll results is by examining the vote behavior of independents by race and ethnicity. In 2020 at the congressional level, Republicans won the majority of independents among only one racial/ethnic group — Hispanics, by a margin of 54 percent to 44 percent. 

Exit polls over time show that the Hispanic move to the middle isn’t a new phenomenon. 

A good predictor was the 2010 congressional election when “Where are the jobs?” — in other words, the economy — was the dominant issue, especially for independents. That year, congressional Republicans retook the House, in part by getting 38 percent of the Hispanic vote. So, one of the key factors in understanding the direction of Hispanics is determining whether their economic concerns are becoming an even bigger factor in deciding how they are going to vote, an issue that is central to independents. 

This week an NBC/Telemundo poll of Hispanic voters found that 40 percent of Hispanic voters cited economic issues as their top concern — 23 percent cost of living and 17 percent jobs and the economy. That would be a significant increase over the 2020 exit poll survey where, as stated earlier, 29 percent of Hispanics said the economy was their top issue. Perhaps equally as important, only 41 percent of Hispanics approved of President Biden’s handling of the economy.

This is bad news for Democrats given the historical data of the 2010 election. People out of work never makes for good politics. Today, inflation, especially the cost of food, is hitting voters hard as they also face high gas prices and interest rates and falling home values and financial markets. 

The takeaway from all these numbers is relatively simple. Hispanic voters are becoming a key part of swing voters that both parties are going to have compete for to build a majority coalition. However, these voters will be more difficult to reach with narrow, base issues. When either party runs base campaigns, they are simply not talking to Hispanics in today’s political environment, and likely tomorrow’s as well.

To win the Hispanic vote, candidates have to offer policies that appeal to the same economic concerns that traditionally have characterized independents. 

Welcome to the newest swing voters.

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 serving as an election analyst for CBS News.