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Economy, COVID drove Latino voters toward Trump in 2020

Two women pose in front of an outdoor stage decorated with red, white and blue bunting
Karem Yepez, left, and Marilyn Briel at a rally in Miami a couple of weeks before the 2020 election.
(Brittny Mejia/Los Angeles Times)

In a country of deeply dug in voters, Latinos provide the great exception.

Although most Latino voters cast ballots for Democrats, as a group their partisan loyalties are less fixed and less predictable than many other Americans. At least for now, Latinos form the essential swing group in U.S. politics.

In last year’s election, a significant number of Latino voters swung toward the GOP — not a majority, but enough to bolster former President Trump‘s margins in Florida and Texas and to narrow President Biden‘s victory in states from Nevada to Wisconsin.

For Democrats, that swing was deeply ominous: Their chance to hold on to power rests on the ability to keep together an alliance of white liberals and overwhelming majorities of Black, Latino and Asian voters — the sort of multiracial coalition that gave Democrats their current narrow control of the Senate by delivering them twin victories in Georgia 11 months ago.

By contrast, successful wooing of Latino voters in Texas provides one big reason why the GOP has blunted Democratic efforts to replicate the Georgia experience there. Some Republicans believe the 2020 results point the way toward even greater gains in Latino communities, especially among working-class voters, mirroring how their party has won over large parts of the white working class.

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Not surprisingly, both parties have focused on what happened last year among Latinos and what it may portend for the future. This past week saw a major new analysis from Equis Research, a leading Democratic firm that focuses on Latino voters. We’ll take a look at what they found and also examine some other research on the role religion plays in shaping the voting behavior of Latino voters.

Economy trumped immigration

One key to understanding the overall picture: In a country as closely divided as the U.S., even relatively small shifts can tip the balance in big ways.

In 2020, Biden won more than six in 10 Latino voters. That’s a good showing by most measures, but was about eight percentage points lower than what Hillary Clinton got in 2016, Equis found, citing data from the Democratic voter analysis firm Catalist.

The shift among Latinos translates into about 1.2% of the overall electorate. Biden’s nationwide victory came about largely because he did about three percentage points better than Clinton did among white voters, a larger group that also has higher turnout than Latinos.

What lay behind the Latino shift?

“The simplest story remains the most powerful,” Equis Research’s co-founder, Carlos Odio, wrote: “The economy and its intersection with COVID became voters’ top priority.”

When he ran against Clinton, Trump’s constant attacks on immigration alienated even many conservative Latino voters, the firm found, analyzing polling data from the Democracy Fund’s Voter Study Group.

But in the 2020 campaign, Trump largely avoided the topic, and that paid him a significant dividend.

On the eve of the 2016 election, immigration and “voting to support the Latino community” were the top two issues cited by Latino voters in explaining how they intended to vote, according to surveys by UCLA political science professor Matt Barreto and Gabriel Sanchez, his partner at BSP Research.

By 2020, the share of Latino voters citing those two factors had dropped almost in half, while the economy and COVID-19 had jumped to the top.

Trump’s rhetoric wasn’t the only factor — Republicans had real-world gains to brag about.

The first three years of Trump’s term — before the pandemic — saw significant economic growth in Latino communities. Latino families enjoyed faster growth in wealth between 2016 and 2019 than either Black or white families, and Latino unemployment dropped to a historically low point, according to data from the Federal Reserve Board.

Those economic gains provided a powerful talking point for Trump’s campaign.

Economics doesn’t explain everything, however. One of the biggest and most persistent political divisions among Latinos falls along religious lines, noted Natalie Jackson, director of research at the Public Religion Research Institute.

“Hispanic Protestants look more like white Protestants than Hispanic Catholics,” Jackson said. “It’s the largest gap we see in our data among Hispanics.” Between 2016 and 2020, that religious division grew larger, she added.

The divide recapitulates a pattern seen in Latin America in which Protestant evangelical churches have been strong supporters of conservative movements.

During the election year, 57% of Latino Protestants, but just 27% of Latino Catholics, approved of Trump’s conduct in office, PRRI’s surveys found. Latino Protestants were also significantly more likely to approve of policies like building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

The greater salience of economic issues — and the deemphasis of immigration — lowered a barrier that had kept many conservative Latinos from voting for Trump in 2016.

Overall, Latinos disapproved of Trump, and majorities opposed several of his policies, including expanded deportations and, especially, family separations.

But some of Trump’s policies garnered strong approval among Latinos. In polling of Latino voters this year, the economic stimulus passed early in the pandemic (77% approval) and rapid development of vaccines (74%) got especially favorable reviews as parts of Trump’s legacy, Equis found. He also got favorable majorities for his push to reopen the economy (66%) and his emphasis on living without fear of COVID (55%).

One factor that did not seem to have had much impact: “Defund the police.”

Contrary to a lot of conventional wisdom, there wasn’t any significant movement toward Trump among Latinos after the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, the event that sparked months of protests and the rise of the “defund” slogan, Equis noted, citing data from Nationscape, a massive research project done by UCLA and the Democracy Fund. In fact, the debate over policing may have galvanized some more liberal Latino voters to turn out for Biden, the Equis study suggests.

By contrast, “the socialism attack broke through,” Equis found, especially among conservative voters and those who get their news from social media and conservative outlets.

The Republican attack dovetailed with strong beliefs that many Latino voters hold about the value of hard work, Equis found in focus groups. That finding highlights a big vulnerability Democrats now face, and not just with Latino voters.

Democrats continue to have a strong advantage over Republicans among Latino voters as the party that “cares about people like you” and the “party of fairness and equality.”

But the two parties come out roughly even when pollsters ask Latino voters which is the “party of the American Dream” or which is the party that is “better for American workers,” according to surveys done earlier this year by Democracy Corps, a leading Democratic organization.

For a party that has long seen itself as the tribune of the working class, that’s an uncomfortable and potentially dangerous place to be.

The four years of Trump accelerated a shift of more affluent college graduates, mostly whites, toward the Democrats. Support from those voters helped Democrats regain control of the House in 2018 and played an important role in Biden’s victory. That change, which began long before Trump, also helps explain why Democrats have won a majority of the votes in seven of the past eight presidential elections — an unsurpassed record in American politics.

But that streak for Democrats will be difficult to sustain if the party’s gains at the upper end of the income scale come at the cost of losing more working-class voters. What happens among Latino voters will go a long way toward determining whether Democrats suffer that fate.

Major stories of the year

The Supreme Court is ending the year starkly split on abortion, with the five conservatives showing all signs they will overturn Roe vs. Wade and let state lawmakers decide whether women may legally end a pregnancy, David Savage wrote. Until recently, “it was at least possible to foresee a moderate-conservative majority coming together to set new limits on abortions later in a pregnancy, while upholding the constitutional protection for a woman to end a pregnancy in the early months,” he wrote. Now, that seems increasingly unlikely.

Biden set out a game plan early in his administration and has stuck to it, Eli Stokols writes. But so far, voters seem unimpressed with the results.

Vice President Kamala Harris has struggled with the constraints of a job that almost always diminishes its incumbents, Noah Bierman wrote. Harris has had difficulty telling her own story, while conservative media have attacked her, and many mainstream outlets have published a string of stories about low morale and high staff turnover.

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United States of California

The next big battleground over fighting climate change could be in America’s kitchens, Evan Halper wrote in the latest installment in his series on how California policies are shaping the U.S. To reduce greenhouse gas emissions, policymakers want to start weaning Americans away from natural gas and toward electricity. But for cooks, a full transition would mean giving up the gas stove. The natural gas industry is fighting back, hoping that America’s love of sear and char — and its fear of change — will protect its market.

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The latest from Washington

Biden’s long-stalled Build Back Better legislative package is ... still stalled, Stokols and Jennifer Haberkorn reported. The bill, which would deliver some $2 trillion in spending for social programs, remains short of the unanimous Democratic agreement it needs to get through the Senate, with Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia publicly criticizing it. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York had hoped to get a vote on the bill before Christmas, but it’s now off until the new year. That’s not fatal to the bill’s chances, but it’s not exactly good news, either.

In a statement Thursday night, Biden said he and Manchin were still talking and that the West Virginia senator had “reiterated his support” for a bill somewhat smaller than the one that passed the House last month. “It takes time to finalize these agreements,” Biden said, pledging to continue working “over the days and weeks ahead” — phrasing that doesn’t suggest a vote is coming any time soon.

Meanwhile, as Haberkorn wrote, the Democrats’ last effort to get an immigration reform plan included in the massive bill failed to pass muster with the Senate parliamentarian. Elizabeth MacDonough, the parliamentarian, has the job of interpreting the Senate’s complex rules, including the ones governing the special budget procedures that Democrats are using to avoid a Republican filibuster of the spending bill. The Senate could overrule her, but that would require the votes of all 50 members of the Democratic caucus, and Manchin has said he opposes such a move.

The Federal Reserve launched a major shift in monetary policy on Wednesday. As Don Lee reported, the central bank indicated it would soon start raising interest rates. The move is intended to squelch inflation, but is also likely to slow economic growth.

Black voters were key to Biden’s victory, and in his victory speech, he said, “they always have my back, and I’ll have yours.” But as Chris Megerian reported, a lot of Black leaders and voters have started to wonder about that. Biden is scheduled to speak Friday at South Carolina State University, a historically Black college and the alma mater of Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), one of the president’s most influential allies. When he does, his record on issues of concern to Black voters will be in the spotlight.

As the Omicron variant of the coronavirus spreads, the White House warned of a January surge, but said vaccine booster shots can provide strong protection, Anumita Kaur and Erin Logan wrote.

As the administration tries to unsnarl the nation’s supply chain problems, John Pocari is the man in the spotlight. Biden’s special “port envoy” is a former Maryland secretary of transportation who led the modernization of the Port of Baltimore and has a bipartisan reputation for his ability to fix complex systems, Megerian wrote.

Just over a quarter of Republicans accept Biden as the winner of the 2020 election, according to a new survey by Bright Line Watch, an organization that monitors the health of U.S. democracy. The results underscore the instability of American democracy and the growing partisan divide over the legitimacy of elections, Stokols wrote.

The latest from California

With the once-a-decade process of redistricting in full swing, some Democrats are bemoaning the fact that their party doesn’t control the process in California — the state uses a nonpartisan citizens commission to draw the lines — and can’t gerrymander the state to offset what Republicans have done in states like Texas. Mark Barabak wrote in his column that the critics should remember that the state’s voters set up the independent commission because they disliked the old system of politicians picking their voters.

Rep. Alan Lowenthal, who has represented the Long Beach area in Congress for a decade, announced Thursday that he will retire, Nolan McCaskill reported. Lowenthal, 80, has had a long career in public office and has been a strong advocate of environmental protection. Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia has been widely viewed as a likely successor, but it’s still unclear how the redistricting commission will redraw the lines in that area. Lowenthal is the fourth member of the state’s delegation to announce plans to leave the House.

A citizens redistricting commission finished its work on redrawing districts for Los Angeles County’s Board of Supervisors. As Jaclyn Cosgrove reported, the new map will produce a second majority Latino district, swinging from Palos Verdes through Long Beach and up to heavily Latino cities in the southeastern part of the county, including South Gate, Lynwood and Huntington Park. Supervisor Janice Hahn currently represents that district and will be facing some major political changes.

Gov. Gavin Newsom‘s announcement that he’ll back a law that would allow private lawsuits against sales of assault-style guns — in effect copying the legal strategy that Texas is using against abortion — is a politically savvy move, George Skelton wrote in his column.

Two veteran political consultants have left Rep. Karen Bass’ campaign for mayor, Julia Wick reported. Parke Skelton and Steve Barkan have both departed, although Barkan said he is continuing to do some volunteer work for the campaign.

Sign up for our California Politics newsletter to get the best of The Times’ state politics reporting.

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