Latino voters are key to 2024, and they’re not always buying what Democrats are selling

New York Updated: Jan 20, 2022, 12:56 AM(IST)

(File Photo) A person holds an "I voted" sticker as people vote in the U.S. presidential election on the first day of expanded California in-person voting, amid the global outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at Dodger Stadium sports venue in Los Angeles, California, U.S., October 30, 2020 Photograph:( Reuters )

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Given the political stakes as well as the stakes for Latino families, Democratic leaders must do better

The shift toward Donald Trump by Latino voters was one of the more surprising takeaways of the 2020 presidential election. The findings of recent polls and reports — that Latinos may still be sliding toward Republicans — are even more disconcerting for Democrats. Given the political stakes as well as the stakes for Latino families, Democratic leaders must do better.

As 2022 begins, the party so far has no visible, convincingly powerful plan to win over the voters many rank and file Democrats believe are key to November’s midterm elections, the 2024 presidential race and perhaps the future of the Democratic Party. But what happens next, when Democratic candidates fan out across the country trying to shore up support from Latinos who may be slipping away?

Some believe that doing better means spending more money on messaging, advertising and outreach. But this isn’t the only lesson to be gleaned from what the data is telling us, and it might not even be the right one. Democrats should more aggressively combat Republican messaging with their own, but the real fight should be over which party has the best ideas on education, immigration, jobs and the economy. This is where Democrats take the Latino vote for granted, but they shouldn’t.

Daniel Garza, the president of the conservative group The Libre Initiative, for example, believes that the Republican agenda gives his party the upper hand with Latinos. He scoffed at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee announcement last November that it planned to win back Latino and other voters of color by spending at least $30 million to hire organizers, pay for targeted advertising campaigns, combat disinformation and support voter protection and education programs.

Thirty million is a lot of money, he told me, but it would be “wasted if the message were about nuanced topics like voter suppression, disinformation and diversity.” The problem for Democrats, he added, is that “GOP ideas are better” because they’re “pro-growth, pro-energy, pro-parent (school choice) and pro-advancement.”

Mr. Garza makes several assumptions: that voter suppression and disinformation are nuanced topics that don’t resonate with Latinos; that Democrats aren’t fighting for policies that will make our lives better; and that Republicans are the only party that supports growth and families.

Some Democrats have downplayed the importance of policy compared with style and approach. Chuck Rocha, a political strategist, who is in a way Mr. Garza’s liberal counterpoint, called the re-election campaign announcement by Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas at a Hispanic Leadership Summit a “brilliant political move,” but said that the Republican Party’s policies prove that they don’t care about Latinos. Mr. Rocha added that Democrats need to “quit taking a policy book” to a “fistfight.” He might be right that Democrats should be ready to fight, but they should absolutely bring their policy book with them.

Indeed, one of the main findings of the post-mortem report on the 2020 election published by Equis Research was that Donald Trump made inroads with Latino voters because he and Republican governors kept the economy open during the pandemic, cut taxes, distributed stimulus checks, secured the border and expedited vaccine development. I would add Mr. Trump’s focus on religious liberty and support for charter schools.

The report dispelled theories that Latinos supported Mr. Trump because they opposed the term Latinx and defunding the police, or because they aspire to whiteness. The problem with these assumptions is that they caricatured Latinos as motivated primarily by culture wars instead of sincerely held policy beliefs.

Or, rather, the term Latinx, policing and whiteness were issues with underlying policy implications that too often got framed as divisive culture wars, and in ways that minimized the real policy disagreements they highlighted for Latinos: generational divides between Latino Democrats over progressive versus moderate policies; whether the border patrol or police help or harm communities; and whether capitalism, however exploitative, or socialism, however invasive, is the best path toward upward mobility and economic security.

The notion that Latinos were swayed by disinformation implies that they could be duped into voting for Mr. Trump, or that they could have voted for him only if they were duped. Sure, calling President Biden a socialist is disinformation because he is not a socialist. But it’s also the same line of attack that Republicans have used to brand their opponents for a long time. We should be outraged with the lies, and we should combat them. But by merely dismissing the attack as disinformation we ignore why it has been so successful.

It’s not just that socialism conjures ghosts of Latin America’s leftist leaders. It’s also an argument about religion — since conservatives consider socialism a godless philosophy — the ills of government intervention and dependency on government, and education. In a society that cherishes freedom, parents should have a hand in deciding what their children learn.

As much as Democrats would like to dismiss Republican talking points — or misinformation, in some cases — they would be better off understanding how they relate to values that in turn connect with policy preferences. Then they can work to persuade Latinos that their policies are better, even on issues such as religion, the economy and education, on which Republicans claim to occupy more solid ground.

Latino voters aren’t empty vessels just waiting to be filled with liberal beliefs. The problem with focusing only, or even primarily, on messaging and outreach is that it once again doesn’t take Latinos seriously as political actors, and instead assumes that they’re out there ready to be mobilized for the Democratic cause. That’s just not true.

In the end, even if Democrats focus exclusively on policy, they still won’t sway all Latinos to vote for them. But doing so would help them better understand these voters. They should be asking them whether they are paid enough to provide for their families, if they’re satisfied with the schools their children go to, whether they have access to health care, and what government can do to help them reach their goals.

The concrete plans they develop in response, especially for families living paycheck to paycheck and worrying about schools and health care, should respect their work ethic and ambitions. Latinos aren’t looking for “handouts,” but rather, leveling the playing field by, for example, making it easier to get loans to start a business, and increasing access to higher education.

I dream of vigorous town hall-style debates where both parties engage in arguments over whose policies are best, instead of hurling talking points in our general direction from a distance. What Democrats learn may be uncomfortable if they have to abandon their assumptions. But dissecting our understanding of these voters, long presumed to represent a bloc, will be necessary if we have any hope of reconstituting “the Latino vote” in a way that’s more reflective of Latinos’ hopes, dreams and political aims.

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