July 13, 2024

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Biden’s struggle with Latino voters is real and serious

4 min read

It’s often noted that the Latino vote is “not monolithic,” and Latino voters do in fact come from an array of countries, generations, regions, races, faiths and classes. But with a few exceptions, this loosely connected group has voted strongly Democratic, meeting all conventional definitions of a voting bloc.

Until recently.

The Latino population is changing, with parallel repercussions for two prominent American institutions: the Democratic Party and the media giant Univision. Both have built their successes over the last few decades on the notion that Latinos are primarily Spanish-speaking recent immigrants, an image increasingly disconnected with reality.

Univision, long the primary news and entertainment source for millions of U.S. Spanish speakers, now finds itself at much the same demographic crossroads as the Democrats. Slowing immigration rates and exploding numbers of U.S.-born, primarily English-speaking Latinos threaten the network’s hegemony as a news source for the population. Univision’s viewership is in steep decline.

The network has no option but to adjust, as evidenced by its controversial recent decision to air a lengthy and friendly interview with former President Trump. Such moves put the media giant newly at odds with the Democratic Party, which has historically relied on Univision to carry its message and help drive turnout among Latinos.

The concurrent deterioration of President Biden’s performance in polls among Latinos has similar roots. The Latino electorate is moving away from the aggrieved immigrant narrative favored by Democrats and toward an assimilating, working-class identity that mirrors its non-Latino counterparts.

The Republican pollster Patrick Ruffini articulates what’s behind this shift in his new book, “Party of the People,” pointing out that the average Latino has been in the country longer and is more likely to speak English than just 15 years ago, when legal and illegal migration from Mexico reached its peak. The fastest-growing segment of the Latino population is not only U.S.-born and English-speaking but also ascending the economic ladder.

As of last year, according to the Pew Research Center, 72% of Latinos ages 5 and older spoke English proficiently, up from 65% in 2010. Pew also found that immigrants made up a declining share of the Latino population in 2021, 32%, down from 37% in 2010. Latino births in the United States outpaced immigration from Latin America during that period. The U.S.-born Latino population grew by 10.7 million while the immigrant population grew by just 1.1 million, a ratio of more than 10 to 1.

Accordingly, while Trump saw political advantage in running up his share of the white vote as an anti-Latino candidate in 2016, his build-the-wall rhetoric had receded by 2020, when he increased his share of the Latino vote to a stunning 38%. Heading into 2024, Trump is aggressively courting Latino voters, completing a 180-degree turn.

Unlike Univision, Democrats don’t have the luxury of rebuilding market share quarter by quarter. Losing even a marginally greater segment of the Latino vote to Republicans in swing states such as Arizona, Nevada, Georgia and Wisconsin could spell disaster in less than a year when we hold one of the most consequential elections in our history. Latino voters could ironically be the voting bloc that returns the White House to Trump, the most anti-Mexican president since James K. Polk, who signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848.

Just as Fox News built a media juggernaut by catering to the views of an older, conservative, white audience that favors Trump and Republicans, Univision built its empire on the great waves of migration from Latin America at the end of the last century and the beginning of this one. Its base found comfort and community in the political advocacy of the network, which often eschewed traditional journalistic standards and openly advocated for Democrats and their policies. Univision’s audience of Spanish-speaking immigrants became one of the most loyal Democratic constituencies in the country, routinely delivering more than 80% of their votes to the party.

Like Univision, Democrats grew too reliant on a demographic that is newer to the country and more Spanish-speaking than Latinos overall. This led a generation of political operatives to subscribe to the demographics-is-destiny idea that the growing Latino vote would eventually turn states such as Texas and Florida into blue anchors and swing the entire country left.

Democrats also clung to the belief that Latino voters heavily identified with the immigrant experience and were best targeted through Spanish television ads. This strategy was never backed by much empirical evidence or very effective at motivating Latino voters, and it’s only getting less so.

Republicans, meanwhile, have noticed and capitalized on the demographic shift. Democrats have underperformed among Latinos or seen them move sharply in the Republicans’ direction in three of the last four national elections.

Democrats’ recent public attacks on Univision’s overtures to Trump reflected their painful awareness that any further erosion of Latino support would be disastrous for them next November. But the unfolding war between Democratic-leaning Latino advocacy groups and the network could hinder the Biden campaign’s ability to rebuild support among Latinos. Biden, who is polling lower among Latinos than any other modern Democratic presidential candidate has at this point, can ill afford to lose any more Latinos whether they watch Univision or not.

The Latino vote has changed and is continuing to do so. Democrats, for their sake and the country’s, are going to have to fight for a base they have always been able to take for granted.

Mike Madrid is a political consultant and the author of the forthcoming “The Latino Century: How America’s Largest Minority is Shaping Our Democracy.”

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