Opinion No, Latinos aren’t abandoning the Democratic Party

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HR King
May 29, 2001
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By Dana Milbank
Columnist |
October 25, 2022 at 5:56 p.m. EDT


LAS VEGAS — Is the Latino voter abandoning Democrats, as this year’s incessant media narrative would have it?
Not on Catherine Cortez Masto’s watch.

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At the East Las Vegas Community Center, the Nevada Democrat, the first Hispanic woman elected to the Senate, has assembled 500 Latinos for “La Gran Celebración Latina.” They line up for tacos and pupusas, peruse the wares representing each South and Central American country — Venezuelan arepas, Costa Rican coffee, Paraguayan baskets — and watch the dancers in their ponchos and feathered hats. A DJ plays a merengue tune “Latinos” and chants: “Latinos! Latinos!”

On a temporary stage, speakers in Spanish and English take turns hailing Cortez Masto, “la primera y la única” — the “first and only” senatorial Latina. A man hangs a medal around her neck and presents a plaque. “¡Fuerte aplauso!” cries the emcee. “¡Viva la senadora!” On the wall, posters underscore the not-subtle point: Cortez Masto is “¡UNA DE LAS NUESTRAS!”— one of ours.






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The senator tells the crowd about her grandfather: “The difference between a baker from Chihuahua, Mexico, and the first Latina ever elected to the United States Senate is two generations!”

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Cortez Masto, probably the most endangered Democratic Senate incumbent this year, might or might not win reelection. Margins, or more likely turnout, among Hispanic voters could slip, and in this tight race, small variations could be decisive. “I know I can’t take this community for granted,” Cortez Masto tells me — a mantra she repeats four times in a few minutes.
And the community appears to be reciprocating. A Univision poll released Tuesday showed Cortez Masto leading Adam Laxalt by 33 points among Latinos (and a statistically insignificant two points overall).

But if there is slippage among Latinos, it will be because they, like voters of all races, are disenchanted with the majority party and feeling economic anxiety. (In Nevada, gas prices are among the highest.) It won’t be because they have embraced Laxalt, a MAGA Republican who has boasted about fighting against protecting “dreamers” (typically immigrants who were brought to the United States as children) from deportation. He has also voiced the white-nationalist “great replacement” conspiracy idea that the left uses illegal immigration to “destroy the values that made this country a great nation,” as he put it. (His campaign didn’t respond to my requests for comment.) In a broader sense, there is no sign Hispanic voters are abandoning Cortez Masto in droves. She will undoubtedly win Latinos (30 percent of the state’s population and nearly 20 percent of the electorate) by a wide margin, as she did in 2016.






The aggregate story is much the same nationally. It might be small comfort to Democrats if an erosion of the Latino vote costs them key races next month. But some correction is needed to the prevailing narrative that Hispanic voters are fleeing the Democratic Party en masse.
The source of the narrative is exit polling showing that Donald Trump gained among Latinos from 2016 to 2020, going from about 1 in 3 to roughly 2 in 5. Polling suggests this hasn’t rebounded, and has indeed worsened in places such as South Texas and South Florida. This has shaken the premise that demographics, in particular the fast-growing Hispanic population, inevitably favor Democrats in the long run.

But the long-term fear is overstated. First, as Emory University’s Alan Abramowitz documented, Democratic presidential candidates’ winning margins among Latino voters have swung widely from election to election since 1984, from a high of 51 points in 1996 to a low of nine in 2004. By that measure, Joe Biden’s 33-point margin in 2020 was typical.






Second, Latinos are not shifting over time to vote the same way White Americans do. For example, polling in Texas by Equis Research finds that even Hispanic voters whose families have been in the United States for generations remain far more Democratic than their non-Hispanic neighbors. The GOP could gain a 50 percent share of Hispanic voters over time, a leading Latino Democratic strategist told me, but that would require abandoning white-nationalist appeals — a welcome possibility not just for the Republican Party but for the nation.
Regional variations are driving the smaller, short-term shifts. Democrats are doing poorly in Florida (they’ll be lucky to get 50 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2022) because they’ve written off the state. They’re seeing serious erosion in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, largely because Democrats had overperformed there in past years.

Elsewhere, the situation is more stable, and it fluctuates with the economy. Here in Nevada, Cortez Masto volunteers Imer Cespedes and Luis Melchor, both college students, have been knocking on doors, trying to persuade young Latinos to vote. The opponent they’re fighting isn’t the GOP (they say they haven’t encountered Laxalt voters), but inflation. “Everyone is complaining about gas prices,” Melchor says.
That apathy could cost Democrats. But it’s not a tectonic realignment of American politics.