There are few things more on-brand for Democrats than finding and embracing a worst-case scenario. So in the aftermath of California’s failed recall election — an election in which Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) beat the polls by double digits to keep his job — there has been one particular bit of data that has been elevated as a looming crisis: What about the Hispanic vote?

Washington Post columnist León Krauze explored the numbers revealed in exit polling and found an area of concern.

“If exit poll numbers hold, Newsom will have seen an eight percentage point drop in support among Latino men,” Krauze wrote. “The shift might not seem sizable, but it carries a clear warning: Latino men have been moving steadily to the right.”

Writing for NBC News, Alex Seitz-Wald documented similar concerns from activists in the state.

“Donald Trump got a historic number of Latino votes in 2020, and you can claim it was because of this or because of that, but it’s not like Larry Elder” — the Republican who received the most votes in the unneeded replacement vote — “broke through for these folks,” strategist Michael Trujillo said. “There is something else going on.”

As Krauze pointed out, 56 percent of Hispanic men who voted on the replacement question picked Elder, according to those exit polls.

In response to this, I would offer three recommendations.

Don’t rely too much on exit polling for analysis like this

In 2004, President George W. Bush won reelection despite struggling for much of the campaign. According to exit polling, that was in part because he’d managed to secure 44 percent of the Hispanic vote, a larger figure than any Republican had netted in any prior election.

You’ll hear this on occasion, this bit of data about how well Bush did with Hispanics. You should then, however, hear this: take it with a grain of salt. Here, for example, is a lengthy explanation from the Pew Research Center of why the results that year were shaky. Or you can read the analysis of the firm that did the polling, now called Edison Research. The firm constantly updates its processes to be as precise as possible, but it is still necessarily the case that estimates for smaller demographic groups yield larger margins of error.

Over the course of the past several decades, exit poll estimates for Hispanic voters in both presidential and House races have bounced around regularly. There’s not a big difference between the Republican vote share in the past few House elections and where it was 20 years ago.

Let’s consider just the past three elections. We have exit polling from Edison for the 2016 and 2020 presidential races, for the House races in those years and in 2018 — and we have validated voter-file analysis from Pew that compares polling on the election with actual voter records, providing a different look at who voted.

In the 2020 presidential exit polls, Hispanics preferred the Democrat (Joe Biden) by 33 points. In the House exit polls, though, the margin was 27 points. According to the Pew Research Center, the divide was only 21 points — a third lower than the presidential exit margin. Among Hispanic men, the margin was only 17 points in Pew’s analysis.

That, importantly, is not terribly different from where the California exit polls landed, but, for now, we should take those estimates with a grain of salt.

There was a clear shift in 2020

That said, you can see in the Pew analysis that there was a shift from 2016 to 2020, one that, interestingly, is understated in the Hispanic presidential exit polls. We can see it when we compare the density of the Hispanic population in counties with the shift in their vote from 2016. See how this tornado of voting drifts off to the upper right? That’s more-Hispanic counties voting much more heavily Republican.

There was a good analysis of this shift conducted by the firm Equis Labs earlier this year. It found that Trump may have been aided in 2020 by increased turnout from lower-propensity voters — that is, voters who didn’t usually turn out to vote. It also found that immigration had declined as a salient issue for Hispanics, centering the economy as an issue — and Hispanics saw more pre-pandemic job gains under Trump than other groups. What’s more, Trump’s specific focus on socialism may also have helped trigger increased support in southern Florida, as pre-election polling suggested.

As Seitz-Wald’s article makes clear, the 2020 shift, not specifically the recall, is the one raising the central questions for the Democratic Party. Is this actually a trend or is it an aberration? If so, how big of a problem will it be?

The issue depends to some extent on an esoteric question about race

We’re pretty into the weeds now, but the question of what “Hispanic” actually means and how people identify themselves also overlaps with these questions.

Writing for Texas Monthly, Jack Herrera recently explored the question of why Hispanic voters in South Texas shifted to the right from 2016 to 2020. One of the reasons he isolated overlaps with the point above.

“Many Hispanic South Texans shared something else with non-Hispanic white rural Texans: their racial identity,” Herrera explained. “Hispanic residents of our state are much more likely to identify as white than Hispanic residents of cities elsewhere in the country. With roots many generations deep in lands that were annexed from Mexican control to that of the U.S., many also actively reject being cast as immigrants.”

Racial identities can be surprisingly fluid, something that the Census Bureau’s recently released 2020 estimates makes clear. The second-biggest racial group in the United States last year was people who identified themselves as “some other race” than those presented. The Hispanic community includes people from a broad range of geographic backgrounds and includes everyone from new immigrants to families that have been in America for more than a century. It’s not clear how that intra-race diversity evolves in a political sense.

That’s certainly true in California. It may be the case that the recall saw a shift that marks the beginning of a less-Democratic Hispanic electorate in the state. It may not be. We will simply have to wait to see.