Did the Democrats misread Hispanic voters in 2020? Judging from the election results, it certainly seems so. Data from exit polls and postelection surveys all suggest that there was a very substantial swing away from the Democrats relative to 2016 and it was not confined to Florida. Further work on voting patterns utilizing fine grained geographic election results and area demographics also indicates large swings, as much as 16 margin points nationally.
That’s a very large change. How did the Democrats miss the mark so badly on one of their key constituencies? One possibility is that they fundamentally misunderstood the nature of this voter group and what they really care about. Hispanics were lumped in with “people of color” and were assumed to embrace the activism around racial issues that dominated so much of the political scene in 2020, particularly in the summer. This was a flawed assumption. The reality of the Hispanic population is that they are, broadly speaking, an overwhelmingly working class, economically progressive, socially moderate constituency that cares above all, about jobs, the economy and health care.
For example, in the post-election wave of the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group (VSG) panel survey, well over 70 percent of Hispanic voters rated jobs, the economy, health care and the coronavirus as issues that were “very important” to them. No other issues even came close to this level. Crime as an issue rated higher with these voters than immigration or racial equality, two issues that Democrats assumed would clear the path to big gains among Hispanic voters.
In this context, it is interesting to note that the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement did not rate very highly among Hispanics. In the national exit poll, Hispanic voters were split close to evenly about BLM, 47 percent unfavorable to 49 percent favorable. This significantly trails not just black voters, but also white college graduates, who rated BLM 61 percent favorable to 35 percent unfavorable.
Consistent with this, Latino voters evinced little sympathy with the more radical demands that came to be associated with BLM. In VSG data, despite showing support for some specific policing reforms, Hispanics opposed defunding the police, decreasing the size of police forces and the scope of their work and reparations for the descendants of slaves by 2:1 or more.
An important thing to remember about the Hispanic population is that they are heavily oriented toward upward mobility and see themselves as being able to benefit from available opportunities to attain that. Three-fifths of Latinos in the national exit poll said they believed life would be better for the next generation of Americans. In the VSG data, these voters agree, by 9 points, that racial minorities have mostly fair opportunities to advance in America, by 11 points agree that America is a fair society where everyone has a chance to get ahead and by 20 points agree that “Irish, Italian, Jewish, and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without any special favors.”
They are also patriotic. By well over 3:1, Hispanics in the VSG survey said they would rather be a citizen of the United States than any other country in the world and by 35 points said they were proud of the way American democracy works.
Clearly, this constituency does not harbor particularly radical views on the nature of American society and its supposed intrinsic racism and white supremacy. Rather, this is a population that overwhelmingly wanted to hear what the Democrats had to offer on jobs, the economy and health care. But the Democrats could not make the sale with an unusually large number of Latino voters in a year of economic meltdown and coronavirus crisis. This suggests there was an opportunity cost to the political energy devoted to issues around race which simply were not that central to the concerns of Hispanic voters and the more radical aspects of which were unpopular with these voters.
In the end, many Hispanic voters continued to see Trump as better able to handle the economy than Biden. A little under a third nationwide according to the exit polls and well over 40 percent in Florida and Texas. It’s not hard to see how this all translated into political setbacks for the Democrats.
A better approach to Hispanic voters in the future lies in the liberal patriotism recommended by this site, rather than the race-centered appeals Democrats erroneously believed would work in 2020. As we noted in our opening document:
Too much of modern political discourse revolves around unsolvable cultural divisions between people rather than common objectives that advance the wellbeing of all people. What sets liberal democracy apart from other ideologies and systems of government is a focus on the common good and dignity of all people, a commitment to pluralism, and a rejection of reductionist tribal thinking that drives Americans apart through endless culture wars….[We see] the pursuit of the common good for all Americans as a core tenet. That means national economic development, national security in the world, and a robust safety net for all at home. A focus on the common good allows Americans to rebuild a shared sense of national purpose both at home and abroad.
These views comport well with the views of the median Hispanic voter. The Democrats would be wise to give it a try.