The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Use of ‘Latinx’ is low on the list of what Democrats should be nervous about with Hispanic voters

Supporters of President Donald Trump wait at a campaign rally at Tucson International Airport on Oct. 19, 2020, in Arizona. (Alex Brandon/AP)
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One of the challenges with American politics is that it distills all of the complexity of human concerns and priorities and emotion into an A-or-B decision. Your 60 years on this planet, your family relationships, your work history, your religion, your neighborhood, your aspirations — has this made you a Donald Trump person or a Joe Biden person? Check the proper box and move on with your life.

This is less frustrating to you than it is to the people tasked with influencing which of those boxes you will choose. If my job is to get you to vote for Trump or for Republicans in the future, I need to figure out which of those factors that contribute to who you are is the thing that has the greatest chance of convincing you to vote that way at the lowest cost in resources including time and energy.

And, of course, money. Campaigns spend a lot of money to convince people who to vote for, and there is an entire industry built around getting those campaigns to spend that money in particular ways. If, for example, you run a local television station, you are going to want to make the strongest case possible to a presidential campaign that running ads on local television is the best way to convince those voters or get them to turn out to vote. If you are Twitter, you are going to offer an alternative viewpoint.

That scramble over money is just the most obvious way in which candidates and campaigns and parties are pulled in different directions. There are also clear ideological and rhetorical fights that pit factions against one another, generally with the same outcome of maximizing votes. In the wake of the 2020 election, for example, there was a fight among Democrats about the extent to which leftist rhetoric on policing hampered the party’s efforts to appeal to voters.

There was also a more potent fight over the rightward shift of Hispanic voters in the presidential contest. Democratic strength nationally depends to a significant extent on robust support from non-White voters now and over the long term. If that support softens, it threatens the party’s political position. Thus, there’s been another swirl of conversation centered on how and why that softening occurred and how to prevent it from happening in the future.

One thing that’s safe to say didn’t play a huge role in that shift was the use of the descriptor “Latinx” instead of “Hispanic” or “Latino.”

You’re probably familiar with “Latinx.” If not, The Washington Post’s Jose A. Del Real wrote about it last year, explaining that the term is meant to serve the same function as “Latino” but without the gender specificity of the -o suffix (as opposed to the -a in Latina). The term was embraced by many on the political left — but by no means everyone.

On Monday, Politico reported on a survey conducted by the Democratic consulting firm Bendixen & Amandi International. That survey determined that very few Latinos identify as “Latinx,” as opposed to “Hispanic” or “Latino/a” and that 4 in 10 say that use of the term bothers them to at least some extent. Three in 10 voters said that use of that term would make them less likely to vote for that candidate for office.

The survey is a very good distillation of the way in which small parts of broad conversations can be weaponized as part of the discourse over winning elections. Those data “suggest that using Latinx is a violation of the political Hippocratic oath, which is to first do no electoral harm,” one of the firm’s founders told Politico, suggesting that the Democratic Party was shooting itself in the foot by using it.

There might be things that Democrats should worry about less than what this poll says about Hispanic voters, but I’m not sure what.

Other polling reinforces the idea that even most Hispanic Americans don’t use the term Latinx. Pew Research Center, for example, found similarly that only 3 percent of Hispanics use it. But there’s so much cant around the Bendixen & Amandi polling that it’s hard to treat its findings as particularly significant — much less worthy of incorporating into broad discussions of outreach to Hispanic voters.

For example, despite the inclusion of party and age breakdowns, the Bendixen & Amandi poll results weren’t actually weighted. The survey was conducted online and by phone from a database of registered voters, with 800 interviews among those whom identified their ethnicity or heritage as Hispanic, Latino, Latina, Latinx or who named a Hispanic country or territory as their place of origin. That lack of weighting, though, means that the stated differences in responses between Democrats and Republicans shouldn’t necessarily be considered representative of the Hispanic population nationally.

A particularly dubious finding from the survey is the one that seems most directly applicable to the question of influencing Hispanic voters: the group that said they would be less likely to support a candidate using that term. Such questions lead to notoriously wonky results, as CNN’s Ariel Edwards-Levy has pointed out. We treat the question as pointing in one direction — I have view X, so I vote Y — when it’s often pointing the other way, with the Y vote leading to the X view. At one point, she found that 11 percent of Trump voters said they were more likely to support him based on how he ordered his steak.

The finding that 40 percent take issue with the term (though a more modest 20 percent said they were bothered by it “a lot”) reminded me of another poll that Politico covered. In that one, the pollsters found that a plurality of Americans thought “cancel culture” had “gone too far” — a finding that makes sense when you consider that the common association with “cancel culture” is that it’s used as a pejorative to disparage leftist rhetoric and behavior. “Cancel culture” has been used to describe something in a negative way and, subsequently, “cancel culture” is viewed negatively. Use of “Latinx” is not as widespread, but one might assume that those whom are familiar with it similarly identify it with a political viewpoint.

The point here is not that Democrats should insist upon use of the term Latinx despite it not being embraced by Hispanics. It is, instead, that eliding the term from the left’s vocabulary will not fix the challenge the party may face with Hispanic voters. If we consider “Latinx” as a proxy for “How White leftists think America should talk about race,” we get slightly closer.

The short-term concern is that Black and Hispanic Democrats are less likely to identify as liberal than White Democrats. It seems clear that the Trump campaign’s rhetoric attempting to tie President Biden to socialism last year helped drive down Biden’s numbers in Florida, but even besides that, Hispanics are more moderate than Democrats overall. The General Social Survey found in 2018 that two-thirds of White Democrats identify as liberal, compared with 37 percent of Black Americans and 29 percent of Hispanics. In the American National Election Study conducted last year, only 44 percent of non-White Democrats over the age of 45 identified as liberal, compared with 62 percent of all Democrats in that age group. The long-term concern is whether this divide leads to a shift in partisan identity and voting.

The Democratic Party does need to figure out how to prevent erosion from its Hispanic supporters, but that’s a broad conversation about how people apply their life experiences and desired outcomes to checking a box on a ballot. It seems unlikely that using the term “Latinx” earned the Democrats any votes it wouldn’t otherwise have won. It seems unlikely, too, that using the term cost them any votes they would have otherwise received. This debate, then, seems most likely to be one of the swirling eddies that spins out of conversations about what happened in elections and what will happen in elections moving forward.

Scott Clement and Emily Guskin contributed to this report.