The battle of perception – Hispanic and Latino votes cannot be taken for granted by Democrats in America

2020 saw Democrats successfully eat into Republican strongholds across the Arizona, Texas, Georgia, and Florida suburbs. They gained support amongst white women, the elderly, and college-educated voters – new ground for the party. However, Democratic cork-popping would soon be muffled at the realisation that one of their key voter bases was slipping at an alarming rate.

Democrats are losing ground amongst Hispanics and Latinos. Across the country, their support amongst one of their key electoral blocs has been shrinking, whilst Republican support amongst the group has been rising. 

Texas and Florida - Headaches for Democrats

In south Texas, the Rio Grande shapes the outline of Zapata County and Starr County – both Democratic strongholds since the 1920s – and in 2016, Hillary Clinton took nearly 66% and 80% of the vote (respectively) in each. The two counties have an average Hispanic population of 90%, specifically Mexicans – and Donald Trump nearly won both. Across both counties, Trump increased the Republican share of the vote by 24%. This trend was replicated across all the border counties in Texas – where Mexican-Americans comprise a significant portion of the population.

Branding liberals as 'Socialists'

Of course, the Latino population is not homogenous. Mexican Americans in Texas have different interests to Cuban Americans in Florida – a demographic that caused a sizable earthquake in Florida. Trump’s 3.4% victory in the state is largely owed to the Republican Party’s strategy of winning over Cuban Americans – a battleground voter base during the Obama years. Since then, Republicans have embarked on a persuasion campaign within the community to paint the Democrats as ‘radical socialists’. This tactic seeks to associate the Democrats with their Cuban homeland and the ‘radical socialism’ from which they fled.

Democrats had won over the majority of Cuban voters in Florida in 2012. Their support in Florida is vital to victory in the increasingly important state – yet as the population slides towards the Republicans, the harder Florida will be to win for the party.

Democrats have sought to re-engage with Cuba, end the trade embargo, and ease travel to and from the island. In 2015, 51% supported this thawing in hostility. Obama then visited the island nation to meet with Raul Castro – a move that was met with damning criticism by Republicans. By 2021, this figure had collapsed to 28%, with 66% of Cuban Americans opposing any normalisation of relations with Cuba. Consistent Republican attempts to paint Democrats as socialists, that the Biden campaign did little to brush off, were successful.

This message has only strengthened with the increased national focus on figures such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders, and Ilhan Omar. In fact, Florida voters would be hard-pressed to find an advert not featuring Joe Biden with these figures, or indeed with famed socialist leaders such as Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela.

The story is the same with Venezuelan Americans and Nicaraguan Venezuelans. Republican messaging remained targeted and consistent from 2016. It was a simple charge but was powerful and resonated. With population increases of around 184% (for Venezuelan Americans) and increasing migration of Central American countries to Florida, their influence can only grow. Again, the Republicans saw this audience as fertile ground for their ‘anti-socialist’ messaging, even producing creative adverts using Joe Biden’s words against him – “I will be the most progressive president in history” was followed by Castro and Hugo Chavez outlining how they were ‘progressive’, a progressivism these voters fled from and view with disdain. Semantic association is a political strategy used on both sides, seen recently in Democrats’ efforts to link current Republican candidates to Trump.

Republicans advance as Democrats lose focus

With Mexican-American voters in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, the erosion in Democratic support is on slightly different grounds. Across these border states, Trump increased the Republican share of the vote amongst Latinos by 6%. This led to narrower than expected races in Arizona and New Mexico.

The story here may not be about what Republicans did, but rather what Democrats did not do. Democrats attempted to use gender-neutral language to describe the Latino vote. This was in the form of ‘Latinx’ – Spanish is a language in which Latina and Latino are gendered terms to refer to male and female members of this demographic. 68% of the group prefer to describe their ethnic background as Hispanic (those from Spanish-speaking countries), 21% prefer Latino/Latina (those from Latin American countries generally – including Brazil), and just 2% prefer the gender-neutral term Latinx. For such a small preference, why did/do Democrats lean in so heavily on use of the term?

40% of those in the Hispanic/Latino demographic actually take offence to the term Latinx. Democratic insistence on using the term seems to have few benefits, appealing only to white, college-educated progressives on the east and west coasts. The Democrats focussed too much on politically correct terminology than that with which voters actually identified.

That said, it would be reductive to suggest that Mexican-Americans, Hispanics and Latinos in general, were switching allegiance simply due to one word. The Republicans have identified the group as economically liberal and socially conservative – fruitful ground for ‘culture wars’ messaging. ‘Latinx’ is just one cog that was magnified by the Republicans in their quest to hoover up the votes of those who believe in gendered language. The gradual seeping of progressive values into the Democratic agenda inevitably means the use of more language targeted towards a narrow audience. This, coupled with allegations of socialism that flew in the face of the community’s entrepreneurial and economically ambitious values, was a potent and successful offence by Republicans – one that continues to work.

President Reagan allegedly referred to Hispanic and Latino voters as “Republicans who just don’t know they are yet”. The pressure is on for Democrats to win this battle of persuasion, but to do so they must also win the battle of perception. The longer Republicans have to speak to this audience, the sooner Democrats will find themselves scrabbling for a new electoral coalition. It is highly likely that in 2024, an American of Hispanic or Latino descent will be on the Democratic or Republican ticket – whoever can win this demographic will win the White House, and potentially the future.