The Evolving Latino Voter – Democracy Paradox

Latino Voter
Protesters hold various signs and banners at a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) rally in San Francisco. Picture by Pax Ahimsa Gethen.

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The Evolving Latino Voter by María Isabel Puerta Riera 

María is a Political Scientist teaching U. S. Government in Florida. Interested in U. S. and Latin American Politics. 

The Evolving Latino Voter

The 2020 Presidential election brought into the spotlight an unexpected power player: the Venezuelan American voter. However statistically minor the vote was in 2020, where an estimated 80,000 were eligible voters, their use as a proxy for other Latino voting communities was significant. This constituency became a target of both parties. Indeed, the Republican Party and the former president received strong support from this community due to the prominence of the Venezuelan crisis in the socialist scaremongering during the Republican campaign.

For Venezuelan Americans, the 2020 campaign became yet another episode highlighting the shortcomings of the ex-pat community. The antagonisms exceeded the usually heated debates. They became increasingly worrisome for people like José Vivas, a member of the advocate group Venezuelans with Biden, whose family received threats. The South Florida political environment experienced the dramatic influence of local media exploiting the socialist threat allegedly represented by the Democratic Party.

As argued before, there is a mixed set of reasons that explain the support for Trump and the Republican Party from Venezuelan American voters. Yet, the complexity of national origin, socioeconomic background, education, and religion are not so different from the nuances we find in the rest of the Latino/Hispanic voting bloc. The Venezuelan American voter feared socialism as much as Black Lives Matter, covid restrictions, and even the dwindling economy.

Latinos are not a monolithic group and while it has been continuously cautioned, it is frequently treated as such. The degree to which the group is crosscut by national origin, political ideology, generations, gender, education, religion, and race demands a broader perspective to decode this key voter constituency. The 2020 election post-mortem has shown there was a shift among the electorate that allowed Trump to make inroads within the Latino/Hispanic electorate in South Florida and Southern Texas. So as we head into the 2022 midterms, questions remain to be answered about the ability of the Democratic Party to decipher the Latino/Hispanic voter.

The Republican Party has managed, if not to divide the Latino vote, at least to keep a quarter to a third of the vote under its influence, according to Geraldo Cadava. It is enough for the party to win in key swing states. The data points to a behavior that is not inconsistent with the fact that Latino/Hispanic voters are not Liberalsby default and that those with immigrant roots and a history of fleeing countries under leftist regimes often have ties to the Republican Party for generations.

The Historical Context

The nature of political participation among Latino voters in the United States cannot be separated from the history of political realignment in the United States. The rise of the Latino/Hispanic voter is the evolution of a political actor that became aware of its own potential through a journey that went from exclusion to the recognition of its Americanness. The trajectory of the Hispanic Republican voter and its transition from a trusted Democratic voter needs to be seen as an adjustment or response to the Republican realignment as well. Geraldo Cadava explains, “Hispanic partisan realignment was, therefore, part of a broader national political realignment.” But Cadava also warns against mistaking it for a linear development rather than a pendular movement. Moreover, this is all part of a larger struggle of recognition for the Latino/Hispanic voter as a vital actor in American politics.

Over time the Latino/Hispanic voter has evolved, not only qualitatively but also quantitatively. They have grown 23% according to the 2020 Census. So, they are now an increasingly influential constituency with a reach beyond just Latino strongholds. The Latino/Hispanic voter today has reshaped traditional approaches to politics and the role minorities play in the electoral landscape of the country. Despite all of this, both political parties have grown complacent. The Democratic Party, in particular, has come to expect  consistent significant support based on historical party identification. Of course, the trend has fluctuated at times even without major changes. But the results among Latino/Hispanic voters in Florida and Texas have reignited the discussion about the multivariable nature of the Latino vote.

Outreach remains among the most important variables missing from a more effective strategy, but there is an additional component often lost in the analysis. The diversity of interests and motivations of the Latino/Voter are not necessarily tied to their ethnicity. Indeed, the one-size-fits-all messaging coming from the Democratic Party nearly always misses this.

Hispanic Party Identification
Hispanic Party Identification. Source: Gallup, 2022

The Latino/Hispanic Voter and the Building of a Political Identity

One of the most unexpected outcomes of the 2020 election, was the behavior of the Latino voter. The 2020 postmortem among Latino/Hispanics in Florida and Texas, alongside other states with a significant Latino/Hispanic population, has added increased pressure to the Democratic Party vis-à-vis the 2022 midterms, but it still requires a more comprehensive understanding of the electorate.

According to Equis Research, President Joe Biden (and, therefore, the Democratic Party) has lost significant ground among Latino voters, with major consequences in South Florida. That story, however, does not fully explain movements in the electorate. First, it bears repeating that Latinos are not a compact voting bloc. The political choices are shaped not only by ideology but also by national origin, generations, gender, education, and religion. Moreover, the conservative-liberal oscillation is often seen through the lenses of the American perspective, without considering how this debate is framed in Latin America and the Caribbean. There are generational shifts but also distinctive behaviors based on gender and education. Religious identity and race are also overlooked variables.

The swing among Latino/Hispanic voters in Florida and Texas was not critical but might anticipate a trend. So far most theories for this shift, such as economic uncertainty, pandemic burnout, or immigration policies, fall short of a full explanation for the outcome. Part of the problem is many analysts treat Latino/Hispanic voters differently from the rest of the electorate. Indeed, there is a lot of common ground between the average white voter and the Latino/Hispanic voter.

Latino Voters Shift
Latino Voters Shift. Source: Equis Research, 2021

Biden’s performance in Miami-Dade County among Latino voters has been called an earthquake. While it was poorer than expected, it wasn’t indicative of a profound change in party preference. Moreover, according to Biden’s campaign manager, this final result was not so much a deficit of Latino votes as it was an increase in support for Donald Trump among Cuban Americans, with a turnout of 55 percent. Nonetheless, the Republican incumbent still fell short of winning the majority of the Latino vote nationally. While Trump made inroads with other groups, like Puerto Ricans, he fell short of winning the majority of the Latino vote.

Furthermore, other data suggests that losses among Latinos did not determine the outcome of the election. According to Matt Barreto and Kevin Munoz, there was a shift among the electorate, where Trump made gains beyond the Latino/Hispanic electorate in Miami-Dade. Still, there is little mention of the fact that Democrats experienced a net increase in votes due to Puerto Rican turnout in Central Florida.

Still, the question remains: Why those supposedly opposing Trump’s immigration policies offer such strong support? The answer is that Cuban Americans (along with the less quantitatively significant Venezuelan Americans) were persuaded by Trump’s strong rhetoric against “socialism”, aided by a powerful media outreach, both in English and Spanish-speaking broadcasting, that targeted Cuban and Venezuelan-American voters.

The messaging on the threats of socialism had a profound impact on the Latino electorate in Florida. However, this situation underscores the contradictions and complexities of the Cuban-American electorate, which has in the past supported raising taxes on the rich, low-cost education, the Affordable Care Act, and other policies considered to be more left-leaning.

Why did the Democratic Party Lose Latino Votes?

As previously argued, the approach to the Latino voter, especially the Trump Latino voter, needs a more thorough understanding. The traditional approach consider this electorate as a coalition. It ignores that a shared language or a close cultural heritage does not make it a compact community. But the election results in Miami-Dade and along the border in Texas should give us some clue of the underlying reasons for their support of Donald Trump. Two important factors rise above the rest: religion and race.

Traditionally, in a Latino cultural environment, religion has been an important social institution. The predominantly Catholic Latino voter has been historically associated with the Democratic Party though it has suffered a decline in the last decade. Protestants, meanwhile, have shown sustained support for Republicans. Still, some recent signs of stagnation in the Latino-Protestant cluster might indicate signs of secularization among the Hispanic/Latino population. Nonetheless, the divide in religious affiliation among Latino/Hispanics still shows Evangelicals and Pentecostals supported Trump 51% – 24%, while Catholics favored Biden 63% to 31%.

This may partially explain the appeal of Donald Trump among Latinos, especially, Evangelicals. But it is also falsely rooted in presenting Trump as an anti-abortion hero against Biden, who is not only a practicing Catholic, but is personally opposed to abortion, even though he is pro-choice and supports reproductive rights. So, religion is not a unique predictor of electoral behavior among Latino/Hispanic voters, but it does represent a significant influence on their political identity. The share of religious affiliation among Latinos, according to PRRI, continues to show Catholics ahead with 50%, while Evangelical Protestants and Non-Evangelical Protestants represent 24%.

Religious Affiliation by Race:Ethnicity
Religious Affiliation by Race/Ethnicity

Another element is the racial debate among Latino/Hispanics, which can get contentious, especially when it has been culturally replaced by other issues like class. This certainly applies to foreign-born Latino/Hispanics who adapted to continuous inquiries about their race, a practice not registered in their countries of birth. Some indicators suggest that the framing of Latino/Hispanics as not being American causes negative reactions among those who have been in the United States for generations with evidence of a decline in their identification as Hispanic/Latino. In those cases, they recognize themselves as Hispanic but not as diverse, meaning they identify as white, which shows a gap between race and ethnicity.

This is a critical aspect of the discussion that is often swept under the rug. The Latino/Hispanic racial debate is basically nonexistent because Latino/Hispanics are culturally detached from it. It does not mean that there are no racial tensions, but they are rather treated as social disparities. The challenge presented by a system that is constantly reminding people they are different from the majority and that they belong to a minority pushes many of those who feel like an outcast to join the majority. Eventually, Latinos will reckon with intra-racism. The fact that assimilation implies dealing with identity impacts electoral behavior, and with many Hispanics identifying mostly as white, this is rarely considered, especially among Democrats. The failure to acknowledge these nuances and an inability to address them impacts the electoral behavior of a constituency that often feels taken for granted by both political parties.

Is There a Latino Voter?

 The data shows a pattern of behavior that responds to critical issues (immigration policy, covid-19 pandemic, economic issues, health insurance) that are not necessarily aligned with political ideology (like abortion), but, more significantly, not able to unify the voting bloc. In specific Latino/Hispanic communities, the shift from Democratic to Republican responded to a set of variables that are associated with that community, hence the support for Trump in South Florida despite the overall support for Biden statewide.

The views of these distinct constituencies over not just domestic policies but also foreign policy towards their countries of origin (Cuba, Colombia, Nicaragua, and Venezuela) shape electoral behaviors in South Florida. The rest of the state has an entirely different pattern if we consider the impact of the growth of the Puerta Rican vote, especially in Central Florida.

On the southern border, the Latino/Hispanic voter has a very different rationale. This is the Tejano vote and it has no correlation to the Latino/Hispanic voter of Florida. The Tejano vote is a category by itself shaped by a historical context the other constituencies do not possess. There is an attachment to the land, and its own idiosyncrasy, making the label of Latino alien to this constituency.

The Latino/Hispanic electorate is a diverse electorate. There are commonalities, but to treat them as static political/electoral behavior will bring upsets like the ones experienced in Florida and Texas. If there is a lesson, it would be the need to recognize the distinct features of a complex electorate that aspires to be treated as a legitimate political actor without overfocusing on the label.

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