Three explanations for the shift towards Trump among Hispanic voters

Pieces of a larger puzzle

Last week we looked at the Texas Democratic Party’s 2020 autopsy and why campaigns need a healthy focus on both turnout and persuasion. A notable finding in the autopsy was notable vote switching among Latino voters in the Rio Grande Valley. There were also broader losses among Hispanics in other parts of the country, most evident in Florida, that fit a similar pattern.

This has caused a ton of debate within the party on why this happened and how Democrats can win those voters back. We’re going to go through the most prominent explanations offered so far and see how they hold up under scrutiny.

Explanation One: Democrats’ Focus on Unpopular Social Issues and “Socialism”

This is the explanation that has garnered the most debate, so I’m going to start by quoting from an interview with data scientist David Shor (which President Obama tweeted about), one of the prominent advocates of this theory:

Does the available data give us any insight into why? Do you have any sense what was behind the large rightward shift among Hispanic voters?

. . . one thing that really comes out very clearly in survey data that we’ve done is that it really comes down to ideology. So when you look at self-reported ideology — just asking people, “Do you identify as liberal, moderate, or conservative” — you find that there aren’t very big racial divides. Roughly the same proportion of African American, Hispanic, and white voters identify as conservative . . . What happened in 2020 is that nonwhite conservatives voted for Republicans at higher rates; they started voting more like white conservatives.

And so this leads to a question of why . . . What we found is that Clinton voters with conservative views on crime, policing, and public safety were far more likely to switch to Trump than voters with less conservative views on those issues. And having conservative views on those issues was more predictive of switching from Clinton to Trump than having conservative views on any other issue-set was.

. . . So I think you can tell this microstory: We raised the salience of an ideologically charged issue [defunding the police] that millions of nonwhite voters disagreed with us on. And then, as a result, these conservative Hispanic voters who’d been voting for us despite their ideological inclinations started voting more like conservative whites.

The related “socialism” argument focuses specifically on Hispanics with Cuban, Venezuelan, and Colombian ancestry who have more recent negative connotations with socialism, but the same idea is there. Democrats advocated for or became associated with ideas that are unpopular with conservative-leaning Hispanics, which pushed them towards the GOP.

On its face, this explanation is both relatively simple (unpopular issue lost votes) and has a relatively straightforward solution (run on popular issues). But Biden and most Democrats in states like Texas and Florida didn’t actually run on socialism or issues like defunding the police. So then you get into much more complicated territory where you’re asking activists not to advocate for issues they believe in lest Fox News pick it up and turn a national focus on it, an impossible ask.

There’s also been pushback to this theory, both the specific details of it and in how to respond if it’s true in the way Shor posits. First, Democracy Fund Research Director Robert Griffin offers the following data:

This graph disputes the specific “microstory” that Shor tells. If raising the salience of “defund the police” hurt Democrats among Hispanics, then why would the vast majority of the decline have happened in the second half of 2019 and first half of 2020? On the other hand, the very real declines before summer 2020 occurred during the height of the Democratic presidential primary, which did raise the salience of a lot of left-wing ideas in general. Perhaps a more plausible theory is that the general shift to the left of the Democratic Party under Trump made it a poor fit for the party’s most conservative voters, many of whom were Hispanic.

This twitter thread by Equis Research co-founder Carlos Odio also offers some useful information around the issue of immigration. Odio writes that opposition to restrictive immigration policies was a strong predictor of Hispanics voting for Clinton, even controlling for partisanship and ideology. That means that conservative Hispanics, regardless of party, were more likely to vote for Clinton if they opposed immigration restrictions. In 2020, Biden lost many of these conservative Hispanics that Clinton had won, and it’s possible that they were more open to voting for Trump because immigration was a less covered topic in 2020.

Meanwhile, some see this theory as a cudgel for moderates to stop the left from advocating on any issue that doesn’t poll well. Crooked Media’s Editor-in-Chief Brian Beutler pushes back on the while idea of poll-based campaigning:

No one argues that Democrats should ignore polls altogether or invert the formula and play up unpopular, divisive ideas, at the expense of their most broadly popular ones . . . But at a more basic level, voting decisions and election outcomes are way more complex than ascertaining which candidate’s menu of policy ideas most closely reflects median-voter opinion at any given moment.

Our hero figures of the past, real and fictive, weren't collages of ideas selected because they polled well. They embodied values, which they understood how to sell to different publics, and the policy ideas flowed from them. And that's how it should be. But if a politician in that vein were that to abruptly jettison the subset of those ideas that engendered controversy, it wouldn't just make Swiss cheese out of her agenda, it would also prove to the people who voted for her that her values weren’t so deeply held.

Overall, I think there’s something here, but it’s almost certainly much broader than just defunding the police or the word socialism. The Democratic party did move left under Trump so it makes sense that that could hurt us among our more conservative voters. And the lack of focus on immigration may have opened that door. But it’s also not the whole story.

Explanation Two: A Lack of Investment and On-the-Ground Campaigning

Here are a couple of good quotes summarizing this theory from an interview in Texas Monthly:

Texas Monthly: Were there any warning signs that Biden wasn’t going to perform as well with Latinos in the Rio Grande Valley and throughout South Texas?

Ofelia AlonsoRio Grande Valley and El Paso regional field coordinator for Texas Rising, a grassroots organization focused on voter turnout: Folks down here have felt forgotten by the Democratic party for such a long time. The Republican party had a lot more of a presence down here. There were Trump caravans every single weekend for months, and every time the caravans would get bigger. It’s something that organizers talk about every cycle: we need to have Democratic candidates making a bigger effort in the area, but it never happens.

TM: What could the Biden campaign have done differently?

Alonso: As always, there wasn’t enough messaging and in-person outreach, especially in rural areas. There is still a digital divide in the Rio Grande Valley. Not everyone has access to the internet. [The Census Bureau’s 2016 American Community Survey found that Brownsville was the least connected city of more than 50,000 households in the U.S.; Laredo was the seventh least.] Even in my neighborhood in Brownsville, during the COVID-19 pandemic many of our students have to go to the parking lot of their high school to get internet access. It doesn’t really matter what candidates are tweeting, because they’re not reaching folks. There’s a very obvious disconnect between the Democratic candidates and voters here, which is the result of countless campaign cycles where they’ve never bothered to come to the Valley.

All this harkens back to the Texas Democratic Party’s conclusion that the lack of on-the-ground canvassing was a key reason for the worse than expected results in 2020. These criticisms around Latino outreach had also been voiced last spring after Biden won the nomination. This explanation shifts the focus to the mechanics of campaigning and voter contact instead of any particular issue stance or emphasis. It also benefits from unifying the party around something everyone supports. I don’t know of anyone in the party who would oppose greater investment in places like the Rio Grande Valley.

All that said, I think a lot of what was in last week’s newsletter still applies. I don’t think you can just crank up the canvassing machine to 1000% and expect it to solve everything. Most of the country did not have significant on-the-ground campaigning due to the pandemic. And there are other parts of the country with limited digital access that didn’t see such significant movement. The Rio Grande Valley shifts are too large for it to be a simple lack of outreach. And South Florida, which saw similarly large shifts among Hispanics, is far less rural and far more online.

I think everyone agrees that more long-term investment in South Texas is a must for the Democratic Party to succeed in Texas. But we shouldn’t just accept that this is only problem we need to solve.

Explanation Three: Incumbency

This theory doesn’t get as much discussion as the first two because there aren’t any takeaways for Democrats to learn from.

In 2004, Bush improved among Hispanics by nine points over an already impressive 2000 result, more than his three point overall improvement. In 2012, Obama improved among Hispanics by four points despite doing three points worse overall. Exit polls in 2020 showed Trump doing five points better among Hispanics than in 2016, though given the issues with the most recent exit polls, that could be an undercount. So some of Trump’s improvement among Hispanic voters could be chalked up to a tendency among Hispanic voters to support incumbent presidents.

If a major reason Trump gained Hispanic votes in 2020 was that he was the incumbent, then the problem has already solved itself. With Biden as the incumbent, assuming he runs in 2024, Democrats should see a significant increase in the Hispanic vote as Republicans lose the incumbency bonus and Democrats gain it.

I don’t think this theory had zero impact on 2020, but it doesn’t explain the major shifts that occurred, particularly in the Rio Grande Valley and in Florida. It’s more of a contributing factor than a central one.

So Which Is It?

If you’re looking for a cut-and-dried answer, there’s not one. All three of these explanations probably factored into the shift, to differing degrees in different places. The “socialism” moniker probably hurt among Cubans and Venezuelans, particularly in Florida. Outreach was poor in some Hispanic areas and the lack of in-person canvassing didn’t help. The highlighting of progressive social issues over issues like immigration probably did hurt to some degree among older, conservative Latino voters. Incumbency probably had an effect across the board.

Like many questions in elections, there aren’t any easy or straightforward answers. In some places do we need more investment? Absolutely. In some places, do we need to work on talking about important issues better without compromising our values? Definitely. Just like the Hispanic community is not a monolith, there’s no single answer as to winning their votes going forward.

We’ll return to this topic more as Democrats look towards 2022, but I think that’s enough to chew on for now.

Vaccine General Availability in All States by May 1st

Alaska became the first state to announce that the vaccine would be available to all residents ages 16 and up, followed soon after by Idaho. The rest of the United States will not be far behind as President Biden has ordered all states to open up general availability by May 1st at the latest. Given the pace of vaccinations and expected production ramp-up in March and April, this is pretty much on schedule.

Over 26% of Alaska’s population has received at least one dose and given the state’s younger population and the difficult in reaching some areas, it make sense that they would be the first state to move to general availability.

Idaho, on the other hand, is among the 10 states with the lowest vaccination rates and has been struggling to fill open slots which is a more worrying reason to open up the vaccine to the general population.