Opinion As Latino voters shift right, here’s where Democrats will be hit hardest

Trump supporters line Calle Ocho in Miami's Little Havana neighborhood in Miami, during the 2020 presidential election. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
Trump supporters line Calle Ocho in Miami's Little Havana neighborhood in Miami, during the 2020 presidential election. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
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The Democrats have a Latino voter problem.

The remarkable recent shift of Latino voters toward the Republican Party has been broad and significant, though the full story — will it prove “transitory,” to use a word infamously associated with President Biden’s struggles? — is still developing.

But consider: In 2020, Donald Trump improved on his 2016 margin with Latinos by 14 percentage points. In a June special election, Republican Mayra Flores won 51 percent of the vote in Texas’s 34th District — an 85 percent Hispanic/Latino seat that Biden carried by four points. Biden’s net approval rating is underwater among Hispanic respondents — a huge decline from the early days of his administration, when two-thirds of Latino respondents approved of his performance.

There are many possible explanations for the change, and more than one of them may be correct: Trump won Latino converts by emphasizing the economy and soft-pedaling immigration in his 2020 campaign. Ideologically conservative Latinos are moving toward their natural political allies. Biden is taking the blame for inflation, a bread-and-butter issue of particular importance to Latinos. Republicans are pouring money and manpower into “community centers” in heavily Latino areas. All these developments give reason to think that the GOP may hold on to many of their newfound voters.

So if Democrats fail to make up ground — or lose more — with Latino voters, where would it hurt most?

Latinos make up a notable chunk of the electorate in many states and districts across the country. But two areas — the Southwest and the big states — show how a Latino surge would help Republicans play both offense and defense.

The Southwest: a potential GOP gold mine

If Democrats lose support from Latinos, the GOP will have a huge opportunity to play offense in the Senate and, to a lesser degree, the House. The Democrats’ biggest vulnerability? Nevada.

In November, Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto will be defending her seat against Republican Adam Laxalt. Democrats typically win the Silver State, but their margins tend to be thin: Biden and Hillary Clinton both beat Trump by two points there, and Republicans have held Democrats to single-digit wins in other recent statewide races. And in 2020 Democrats showed they were vulnerable in key Latino segments of the state.

Trump gained in heavily Latino

areas of Las Vegas

Percent Hispanic or Latino

100

0

North

Las Vegas

Enterprise

Henderson

Presidential margin shift, 2016-2020

+20 Dem

+20 Rep

North

Las Vegas

Henderson

Enterprise

Sources: American Community Survey 5-year

estimates, 2019; VEST via Harvard Dataverse;

author calculations.

DAVID BYLER/THE WASHINGTON POST

Trump gained in heavily Latino areas of

Las Vegas

Percent Hispanic or Latino

100

0

North

Las Vegas

Enterprise

Henderson

Presidential margin shift, 2016-2020

+20 Dem

+20 Rep

North

Las Vegas

Henderson

Enterprise

Sources: American Community Survey 5-year estimates, 2019;

VEST via Harvard Dataverse; author calculations.

DAVID BYLER/THE WASHINGTON POST

Trump gained in heavily Latino areas of Las Vegas

Percent Hispanic or Latino

Presidential margin shift, 2016-2020

+20 Dem

+20 Rep

100

0

North

Las Vegas

North

Las Vegas

Henderson

Enterprise

Enterprise

Henderson

Sources: American Community Survey 5-year estimates, 2019;

VEST via Harvard Dataverse; author calculations.

DAVID BYLER/THE WASHINGTON POST

Trump’s gains in heavily Latino North Las Vegas is a good omen for Laxalt: 30 percent of the state’s overall population is Hispanic or Latino, and 89 percent of Nevadans live in two mostly urban counties (Clark and Washoe). If Republicans continue to make progress with Latinos, Democrats may find it hard to keep up. There aren’t that many more votes available among key Democratic constituencies: Black Nevadans represent only 11 percent of the state, and college-educated Whites are outnumbered by White working-class voters 2 to 1 statewide.

Latino Republicans could also help the GOP flip key House seats. Three of Nevada’s four districts — each light blue and each held by a Democrat — include large Latino populations from Las Vegas.

Las Vegas Hispanic or Latino

residents are split into three

districts

Each dot represents 100 Latino residents

District Four

31% Latino

Biden+8

North

Las Vegas

Las Vegas

District One

32% Latino

Biden+8

District Two

19% Latino

Biden+7

Source: American Community Survey;

FiveThirtyEight.

DAVID BYLER/ THE WASHINGTON POST

Las Vegas Hispanic or Latino residents

are split into three districts

Each dot represents 100 Latino residents

District Four

31% Latino

Biden+8

North

Las Vegas

Las Vegas

District One

32% Latino

Biden+8

District Two

19% Latino

Biden+7

Source: American Community Survey;

FiveThirtyEight.

DAVID BYLER/THE WASHINGTON POST

Las Vegas Hispanic or Latino residents are split into three districts

Each dot represents 100 Latino residents

District Four

31% Latino

Biden+8

North

Las Vegas

District Two

19% Latino

Biden+7

Las Vegas

District One

32% Latino

Biden+8

Source: American Community Survey; FiveThirtyEight.

DAVID BYLER/THE WASHINGTON POST

This congressional map is an attempted gerrymander: Hispanic and Latino voters, along with other core Democratic constituencies, are spread across three districts, each of which voted for Biden by a single-digit margin in 2020. (Republicans have one Trump-won district farther north.) But with further Republican gains among Latinos, this map may turn into a “dummymander” — a gerrymander that backfires and delivers extra seats to the out-of-power party.

These problems plague Democrats across the region. Arizona Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly won his Senate seat by only two points in 2020, and 1 in 3 Arizona residents is Hispanic or Latino. In New Mexico, Democrats drew Republican Rep. Yvette Herrell into a bluer, majority Latino district — but FiveThirtyEight’s House forecast still has her as a slight favorite. And in all three states, the race for governor is at least somewhat competitive.

Playing Defense: The Big States

Though 2022 is expected to be a red year, Republicans won’t just be playing offense — they’ll want to take Democratic targets off the board, too. Latino Republicans may help them do so in California, Florida and Texas.

We’ll start by zooming in on Southern California.

Hispanic or Latino Los Angeles

residents spill into four seats

where Republicans are favored

Each dot represents 1000 Latino residents

CA-27

Biden+8

39% Latino

CA-41

Trump+1

34% Latino

Riverside

Los

Angeles

Irvine

CA-45

Biden+6

27% Latino

CA-40

Biden+2

23% Latino

Sources: American Community Survey 5-year

estimates, 2019; Loyala Law School; Cook Political

Report; FiveThirtyEight.

DAVID BYLER/THE WASHINGTON POST

Hispanic or Latino Los Angeles residents

spill into seats where Republicans are

favored

Each dot represents 1000 Latino residents

CA-27

Biden+8

39% Latino

Toss-up

CA-41

Trump+1

34% Latino

Lean Republican

Santa

Clarita

Riverside

Los

Angeles

Irvine

CA-45

Biden+6

27% Latino

Lean Republican

CA-40

Biden+2

23% Latino

Likely Republican

Sources: American Community Survey 5-year estimates, 2019;

Loyala Law School; Cook Political Report; FiveThirtyEight.

DAVID BYLER/THE WASHINGTON POST

Hispanic or Latino Los Angeles residents spill into seats where

Republicans are favored

Each dot represents 1000 Latino residents

CA-27

Biden+8

39% Latino

Toss-up

Santa

Clarita

CA-41

Trump+1

34% Latino

Lean Republican

Riverside

Los Angeles

Irvine

CA-45

Biden+6

27% Latino

Lean Republican

CA-40

Biden+2

23% Latino

Likely Republican

Sources: American Community Survey 5-year estimates, 2019; Loyala Law School; Cook Political Report;

FiveThirtyEight.

DAVID BYLER/THE WASHINGTON POST

Los Angeles features four diverse, suburban seats — Biden won three of them, while Trump barely took the other. These are seats where diversity and suburban gains “should” give Democrats an edge. But Republicans are favored in three of these seats, and one is a toss-up, and a Latino surge would push them further into the GOP column. California’s 21st and Florida’s 27th district are good examples of other districts like this.

Latino Republicans may also help popular GOP governors play defense. One prominent example: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is running for a second term. DeSantis looks strong — in part because he’s benefiting from a surge in support in South Florida.

Republicans made more

progress in Miami than other

Florida metros

Tie

D+30

D+20

D+10

R+10

Miami

Orlando

Jacksonville

President,

2016

Tampa

Senate,

2018

President,

2020

Source: David Leip; Office of Management and

Budget; author calculations

DAVID BYLER/THE WASHINGTON POST

Republicans made more progress in

Miami than other Florida metros

D+30

D+20

D+10

Tie

R+10

Miami

Tampa

Orlando

Jacksonville

President,

2016

Senate,

2018

President,

2020

Source: David Leip; Office of Management and Budget; author

calculations.

DAVID BYLER/THE WASHINGTON POST

Republicans made more progress in Miami than other Florida metros

D+30

D+20

D+10

Tie

R+10

R+20

Miami

Orlando

Tampa

Jacksonville

President, 2016

Senate, 2018

President, 2020

Source: David Leip; Office of Management and Budget; author calculations

DAVID BYLER/THE WASHINGTON POST

In 2016, Trump narrowly won Florida, besting Clinton by only a point statewide. In 2018, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum improved on Clinton’s margin in major metros such as Jacksonville and Tampa, and wound up trailing DeSantis by a half a point in the final statewide count.

But Gillum lost ground in Miami — a home to many Latin American immigrants. And by 2020, Trump had improved on DeSantis’s performance, posting huge gains in Cuban American neighborhoods. Now the conventional wisdom about Florida has changed: It’s seen as a light-red state that reliably delivers victories to Republicans like DeSantis.

In Texas, a similar story is playing out. New Latino Republicans are helping incumbent Gov. Greg Abbott fend off a challenge from Democrat Beto O’Rourke.

304

MANDATORY SIZE

While major Texas metros

shifted left, South Texas moved

right

D+40

D+30

D+20

D+10

Tie

R+10

South

Texas

Houston

President,

2016

San

Antonio

Austin

Dallas

Senate,

2018

President,

2020

Note: South Texas includes the following counties:

Maverick, Zavala, Frio, Dimmit, La Salle, Webb,

Duval, Kleberg, Jim Wells, Nueces, Kenedy, Brooks,

Jim Hogg, Zapata, Starr, Willacy, Hidalgo, Cameron

and Webb.

Sources: Dave Leip; Office of Management and

Budget; author calculations.

DAVID BYLER/THE WASHINGTON POST

While major Texas metros shifted left,

South Texas moved right

D+40

D+30

D+20

D+10

Tie

R+10

South

Texas

Houston

President,

2016

Austin

San

Antonio

Dallas

Senate,

2018

President,

2020

Note: South Texas includes the following counties: Maverick,

Zavala, Frio, Dimmit, La Salle, Webb, Duval, Kleberg, Jim Wells,

Nueces, Kenedy, Brooks, Jim Hogg, Zapata, Starr, Willacy,

Hidalgo, Cameron and Webb.

Sources: Dave Leip; Office of Management and Budget;

author calculations.

DAVID BYLER/THE WASHINGTON POST

While major Texas metros shifted left, South Texas moved right

D+40

D+30

D+20

D+10

Tie

R+10

South

Texas

Houston

Austin

President, 2016

Dallas

San

Antonio

Senate, 2018

President, 2020

Note: South Texas includes the following counties: Maverick, Zavala, Frio, Dimmit, La Salle, Webb, Duval,

Kleberg, Jim Wells, Nueces, Kenedy, Brooks, Jim Hogg, Zapata, Starr, Willacy, Hidalgo, Cameron and Webb.

Sources: Dave Leip; Office of Management and Budget; author calculations.

DAVID BYLER/THE WASHINGTON POST

Texas wasn’t particularly close in 2016. But in 2018, O’Rourke ran for Senate, won over white-collar suburbanites and got within two points of victory. O’Rourke’s overall performance was strong, but his slight decline in heavily Latino South Texas seems to have been a canary in the coal mine. By 2020, Democratic margins in the metros had come back to Earth and Republicans made massive strides in South Texas and other diverse areas.

The result: Texas looks red again, and the odds of O’Rourke unseating Abbott are low.

When a ‘permanent’ majority fails

Throughout the Obama administration, Democrats dreamed of forging a permanent majority: a diverse coalition that would only expand as the Latino population grew and an increasing number of Americans earned college degrees. Trump’s victory in 2016 — and his progress with Latino voters in 2020 — shattered this dream.

And now, in 2022, a new political map is beginning to emerge. States that Democrats had started to take for granted, such as Nevada, are battlegrounds. Republicans are finding new strength in states that were “supposed” to turn blue — such as Texas and Florida. Still, Democrats can take comfort in one truth of politics: The only certainty is that the next majority, be it red or blue, will be — to use Biden’s word — “transitory.”

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