How Hispanics became swing voters
By Ross Douthat
The chart that should frighten Democratic strategists appears in the 23rd slide of a newly released report from Equis Research, which tries to explain the Hispanic shift toward the Republican Party in the 2020 election. It shows how favorably Hispanic voters responded to a variety of Donald Trump’s positions and policies, on COVID and the economy and immigration — more favorably, in many cases, than many liberals would have expected.
Some responses aren’t all that surprising: 77% favorability for pandemic stimulus, 74% favorability for “rapid vaccine development,” 69% for middle-class tax cuts (who could be against middle-class tax cuts?). Some of them offer interesting evidence that Trump’s COVID insouciance, his attempt to prioritize economic reopening over precaution, was popular with Hispanic voters: “reopen economy” at 66%, “COVID policy set by states” at 62%, “living without fear of COVID” at 55%.
But it’s the numbers on immigration and border policy that are particularly notable. Trump’s family-separation policy, not surprisingly, polls at 28%. But “more border spending” gets 55% approval, “limiting refugees/asylum” receives 51% and even “reducing legal immigration” gets 49%.
At the same time, “more deportations” and “build the wall” poll lower, at 42% and 39%. But then recall that Trump got only 38% of the Hispanic vote overall. Which means that in an important sense, despite overperforming expectations, he arguably underperformed his potential with Hispanics. He didn’t even consolidate the full share of voters who favored building his border wall, let alone the share that supported other forms of immigration restriction, let alone the share that agreed with his COVID response.
Or as the report puts it, “Absent any context, the numbers might even suggest that the incumbent should have done better than he did.”
This is just one survey, but it’s congruent with a lot of different data sources suggesting that Trump’s improvement with Hispanics in 2020, rather than an outlier that other Republicans won’t hit, represents a foundation on which the GOP could potentially build further gains. Ruy Teixeira, the analyst whose famous “emerging Democratic majority” thesis (shared with John Judis) was welcomed and then misinterpreted by Democrats banking on the inevitable march of demographic change, has been particularly aggressive in warning about this scenario. In a recent post, he rattled off several polling results suggesting that Republicans could be moving close to parity in the Hispanic vote — a true political earthquake if it ever happened.
In the long-ago days of the George W. Bush presidency there was a lot of talk from pro-immigration Republicans about how Hispanics were “natural Republicans” — meaning family-oriented, religious, hardworking, in love with the American dream. But as the political parties were aligned in those days Hispanics fit pretty comfortably in the Democratic coalition. Even if they were more culturally conservative than white Democrats, they prioritized issues like health care and jobs and education and generally trusted the Democratic Party more on a range of domestic policy questions.
The Republican elites who imagined that they could make inroads with Hispanics by passing a comprehensive immigration reform bill weren’t completely out of touch, since there was often strong Hispanic support for that kind of measure. But the Republican Party’s core obstacle was always economic policy. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” probably helped him to a relatively strong showing with Hispanics in 2004, although one overstated by flawed exit polls (he probably got about 39%, not the oft-quoted 44%). But thereafter the party moved right on economics, and the sequence of Bush’s push for Social Security privatization, the Tea Party’s anti-spending zeal and then the Romney-Ryan ticket’s promise of entitlement cuts all made the Republicans too economically libertarian to appeal to most Hispanics.
Since then, though, three crucial things have changed. First, the shape of immigration is different: Both legal and illegal immigration have become less Latin American and more global, with a new pattern of rushes to the border by asylum-seekers who are more likely to come from Central America than Mexico. A simple story in which American Hispanics effectively saw themselves in every subsequent wave of migrants never quite fit reality, but for, say, a second-generation Mexican American in Texas it fits the reality of 2021 less than the reality of 15 years ago.
As this shift was happening, the Democrats were moving leftward on most fronts, following public opinion at first (on same-sex marriage, for instance) but then arguably outpacing it. On economic policy, what counts as “centrism” from Joe Manchin today would have placed him to the left of Barack Obama in 2010; on cultural and racial issues, the radicalization of white Democrats has moved them to the left of many Hispanic voters; on social issues, the kind of anti-abortion Democrat who once held the balance of power in the House of Representatives has mostly gone extinct.
Then Trump’s ascent in 2016 suspended the Republican commitment to austerity, entitlement cuts and other features of its Tea Party-era agenda. That didn’t help Republicans make gains with Hispanics in 2016 because Trumpian bigotry was front and center — though keen observers noted that he did no worse than Romney in 2012.
But the subsequent strength of the Trump economy, the sidelining of his party’s deficit hawks and his administration’s willingness to spend money in the face of the pandemic all created an opening for Republicans to cast themselves as pro-capitalism moderates and to portray the leftward-moving, Bernie Sanders-influenced Democrats as socialists. That frame was effective — the apparent potency of the “socialism” charge is discussed in the Equis Research report — and much more to the GOP’s advantage than a clash between stringent government cutters and moderate-welfare-state liberals, which was how the parties often appeared in the Obama era.
Its emerging opportunity with Hispanic voters, then, crystallizes the larger Republican Party opportunity right now — where it’s clear enough that a party that was genuinely moderate on economics, Trumpishly populist without being Trumpishly toxic, could lay claim to a lot of swing voters, and all without making the sweeping moves leftward on issues like immigration that were urged on Republicans 10 or 15 years ago.
The question, as always, is how much of the party’s core of donors and activists and voters wants to be economically moderate or wants to be nontoxic; I still think the answer is “not enough.”
The Democrats’ Hispanic challenge likewise distills their larger political problem: How to recreate some version of their early Obama-era messaging, which presented a moderate liberalism that appealed more effectively to working-class voters of all races, in a very different social and economic landscape, in a party with a much more powerful and demanding progressive wing.
One way or another that adaptation will be fraught and painful. But this is the moment when the Democrats need to do it — when the Hispanic realignment is still more hypothetical than real, still more visible in issue surveys than electoral results, still only a harbinger of an epic political defeat rather than the thing itself.