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How Democrats' Hispanic voter bungling could really haunt them in 2022

Democrats have a golden opportunity to set a foundation to own the Latino votes for generations. The question is, will they seize it?
Photo illustration: Sheet of stickers that read,\"he votado hoy\" split into blue and red halves.
The false narrative that Latino voters are evenly split between parties misses a major point.MSNBC / AP

At first glance, a recent Wall Street Journal poll proclaiming that Latino voters are “now evenly split between parties” would appear to be a ground-breaking discovery. But as with many polls that tend to underrepresent the country’s largest ethnic voting bloc, one always has to look beyond the headline and examine the actual data.

The extremely low polling sample and its +/- 7.6 percent margin of error raise serious issues about why this poll was even used in the first place.

For this specific poll, which reported that for next year’s midterms “37 percent of Hispanic voters said they would support the Republican congressional candidate and 37 percent said they would favor the Democrat,” the conclusion was based on responses from just 165 registered voters. That would mean that just 61 respondents chose the Republicans and 61 other respondents chose the Democrats. The extremely low polling sample and its plus-or-minus 7.6 percent margin of error raise serious issues about why this poll was even used in the first place to make sweeping generalizations about Latino voters.

As much as this latest WSJ poll wants you to believe that the findings are new and unique, not much has really changed since the 2020 election when it comes to Latino support for Republicans. Two 2020 polls with significantly larger Latino samples and smaller margins of error show that Republican support was at 38 percent (Pew) and 35 percent (AP VoteCast). Since 1980, Latino support for Republican presidential candidates has been as high as 40 percent (Bush in 2004) and as low as 21 percent (Dole, 1996). Seeing a 37 percent preference in a 2021 midterms poll of 165 Latino voters is rooted in historical patterns. And claims of “rapid gains among a crucial voting demographic that has long favored Democrats” come across as a bit sensational.

Anyone who has been following Latinos and politics for the past decades knows that Latino voters have never been a sure thing with Democrats, and Republicans have done an effective job in getting sectors of the Latino population — think of the Cuban exile community, anti-left Latin Americans and Catholic pro-lifers. Just like Ronald Reagan used to say, “Hispanics are conservative. They just don’t know it.”

So what current polls reveal is not that Republicans are gaining more Latino voters, but that Democrats are getting a smaller share of Latino support, even as Latinos continue voting in record numbers. The apex of Latino support was in 2012, when Barack Obama earned 71 percent of the vote. Since then, it has decreased, from Hillary Clinton’s 66 percent in 2016 and President Joe Biden’s 60 percent in 2020, but because the number of Latino voters has dramatically increased — a 50 percent increase in 2018 from 2014, a record 16.6 million in 2020 and a 30.9 percent increase from 2016 — Democrats have a golden opportunity to set a foundation to own the Latino votes for generations. The question is, will they seize it?

What current polls reveal is not that Republicans are gaining more Latino voters, but that Democrats are getting a smaller share of Latino support.

Earning the Latino vote starts, however, by understanding that Latinos were never a singular voting bloc and they never will be. For Democrats to get back to Obama’s 2012 success, they need to not only begin to invest in Latino voters as if they were investing in specific swing states, but they must find a way to correct the sins of the past and begin to connect with Latinos both culturally and politically. Manufactured debates about Latinx won’t cut it. Democrats must do better in real outreach. The Bernie Sanders 2020 campaign provided a blueprint, yet it seems Biden and other Democratic leaders haven’t read it yet.

While the Biden administration still grapples with the uncomfortable truth of losing support with Latinos, Democrats must come to terms with the fact that this loss of support can still be salvaged. They must admit that the hope of the Obama presidency ended in ambivalence. They cannot forget that the Great Recession decimated the Latino community, and the years after 2008 didn’t result in immediate relief. Now, the coronavirus pandemic has exposed how vulnerable Latinos truly are. Even though there is promise that things can improve, unemployment rates remain low for Latinos. But outside of a Hispanic Heritage Month speech, Democrats have shown little effort to address the problems that Latino communities continue to face. Even Latino Cabinet members, like Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, aren’t talking much to the press.

Part of the problem lies with a lack of urgency. A population that has accounted for 50 percent of the country’s growth since 2010 still lacks any real political power, although that is gradually growing. The transactional nature of politics hasn’t fully occurred between Democrats and Latinos, even after states from the new southwest blue wall of Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, and New Mexico delivered critical 2020 victories for Biden.

Then there is lack of any real action with immigration. The symbolic push on Biden’s first day in office has gone nowhere. Trump policies are still in place, but the White House keeps saying that a “humane” immigration system is in place. As of Dec. 10, more than 13,700 migrant children are being detained by the U.S. government and there is little accountability. The current Build Back Better bill discussions haven’t led to any clarity when it comes to Democrats delivering on any form of immigration relief.

Biden and Democrats appear to have taken a wait-and-see approach when it comes to Latino voters, but the waiting period has almost ended. So far, Democrats have failed to take advantage of opportunities to be more proactive with Latinos. And they should be worried, since more polls may likely share similar news. Democrats still have a chance to change direction, however. Maybe the 165 Latino voters who responded to the poll is a warning sign of what might be on the horizon. It’s time for Democrats to decide how they will respond.