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Beware the post-midterm hot takes about Latino voters

Democrats seem to have staved off the worst, but Republicans still made some inroads.

Three people in voting booths with flames coming out the top. Christina Animashaun/Vox

Rep. Mayra Flores, the South Texan GOP darling, declared it plainly: “The red wave did not happen.”

She was talking about the possibility of Republicans sweeping competitive House, Senate, and governor’s races around the country. But she might as well have been referring to the much-hyped Republican realignment of Latino voters during the 2022 midterm elections.

We don’t have a full set of data and we might not for some time. But based on what we know from imperfect exit polls and election surveys, while Republicans did make gains with Latino voters in some places, it doesn’t appear that the Great Realignment materialized.

Flores was part of the cohort of conservative Latina candidates that Republicans were hoping could cement the idea that Democratic dominance with Latino voters was over. Running for reelection in a redrawn district, she lost Tuesday night. She wasn’t the only one: In South Texas, Republican challenger Cassy Garcia failed to knock off conservative Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar, while in Virginia, moderate Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger soundly beat political newcomer and former police officer Yesli Vega by three points, a bigger margin than in Spanberger’s last two elections. Both challengers needed large numbers of Latino support to win, and they just didn’t get it.

That’s the picture if we take a sweeping overview. But if we look narrowly, at specific communities, signs of a smaller, more nuanced “paradigm shift” do appear, so resist the messages from those who say Democrats have no problems with Latinos or that Latinos aren’t actually shifting right. Take Florida, where in 2020, former President Donald Trump dramatically improved on his 2016 performance in Latino-heavy Miami-Dade County, cutting into President Joe Biden’s margin of victory. This year, Miami-Dade and the state as a whole went red, reelecting Gov. Ron DeSantis and Sen. Marco Rubio by double-digit margins.

There were places where Democrats performed well with Latinos too. In Pennsylvania, Democrats in statewide races seem to have won Latinos by the same margin as Biden did in 2020, about 70-30, even as Latinos made up a bigger share of the electorate than in that election. As more votes are counted in Arizona and Nevada, a similar picture could emerge.

If the landscape sounds complicated, that’s because it is. Data isn’t yet available to give us a complete picture of how Latinos voted. But so far it seems that while Republicans and Democrats may have held on to and even made some gains with certain Latinos in certain places, it is far too early to declare any sudden, major shifts in the Latino vote. Essentially, beware Latino vote hot takes.

Shifts across the country make the national picture messy

Votes are still being counted in states with large Latino populations (like California, Arizona, and Nevada), meaning narratives about how Latino voters swung in the 2022 midterms are being made using incomplete voter data. Early exit polls are also imperfect tools from which to extrapolate national narratives, in part because they are calculated based on predictions about what the national electorate might be on Election Day and have to be corrected according to the electorate that actually turned out. And exit polls don’t tell us as much as county and precinct-level analyses that take time to produce.

That said, limited voter data and exit polls are all we have to work with right now. And both show Republicans seem to have made improvements with Latinos nationally. Compare the AP VoteCast numbers, gathered through a combination of mail, online, and phone surveys and research: from 2018 to 2020 to 2022, Democrats share of Latino support drops from 64 to 63 to 56 percent, while Republicans’ share increases from 33 to 35 to 40 percent. Network exit polls over those three cycles show Democrats’ share of votes declining from 69 percent in 2018 to 65 percent in 2020 and to 60 percent in 2022, while Republican shares increased from 29 percent in 2018 to 32 percent in 2020 and then 39 percent in 2022.

One thing that’s unclear about these figures is whether they show a decline or a reversion to a previous state of political orientation. As Equis’ Carlos Odio has highlighted, these figures mirror Latino GOP support in the 1990s. It will take some time, likely decades, to fully understand the answer to this question.

The exact national figures are sure to change as more votes are counted and final results are called in House districts and statewide races where Latino voters are sure to make an impact. But another way to find some immediate clues about how Latinos voted at this stage is to look at actual votes cast — though here, another caveat applies: Don’t take Florida as a national bellwether.

Florida, because of its East Coast time zone, relatively quick process for reporting out results, and traditional swing state status, tends to captivate the attention of the nation on election night. It did so in 2020, when Donald Trump’s surprisingly fast victory in the state coincided with his success in Miami-Dade, and when Republicans had a huge win in Miami-Dade this year.

Plenty of pundits tried to read the tea leaves in Florida and extrapolate results there out to the nation, including what Florida’s results meant for how Latino voters split nationwide. But Florida is a unique beast — its blend of expatriates, immigrants, nationalities, and media ecosystems are completely different from any other place in the country. That much is clear to anyone who is plugged in to the peculiarities of Latino voters.

Large Republican improvements in the state could be chalked up to a combination of robust Republican outreach, consistent conservative and economic messaging, incumbency advantages, higher approval ratings for incumbents, a midterm year with an unpopular Democratic trifecta in Washington, DC, and the collapse of consistent strategy among national and Florida Democrats trying to regain a foothold in the state — which aren’t necessarily the case in other places.

In South Texas, which also raised alarm bells about a Republican rise among Latinos in 2020, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke appears to be running about even with Biden’s performance in that year. Democrats flipped back Flores’ seat, the heavily Latino 34th Congressional District, and held the majority-Latino 28th Congressional District, where conservative Democrat Henry Cuellar improved on Biden’s performance in the region.

Meanwhile, in New Mexico, where Latinos make up the largest share of the electorate of any state, Democrats saw some slippage. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, the incumbent Democrat, seemed to be underperforming compared to her last election in 2018, and her Republican challenger closed the gap slightly. Despite that, in the state’s competitive Second Congressional District where more than half of voters are Latino that was redrawn to be more favorable to Democrats, a Democratic challenger, Gabriel Vasquez, flipped a Republican-held seat.

Turnout among Latinos in Arizona, California, and Nevada, meanwhile, might make the difference between a Republican-controlled Congress or a Democratic hold of the Senate.

Latinos will be an especially decisive group in Nevada, where Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto has to make up a difference of about 15,000 votes; working-class Latino turnout in Clark County, in which Las Vegas lies, could determine if Democrats hold her seat.

Latinos aren’t monolithic, duh

If you’re looking for a pattern here, let it be this: Latinos in different parts of the country vote very differently.

Of course Latinos are not monolithic voters; we’ve spent plenty of time and space explaining that here at Vox. But the 2022 midterm elections might simply end up showing varying levels of Republican and Democratic influence in different Latino electorates.

Republicans seem to have a more solid hold of a certain kind of voter of Cuban American and South American descent in Florida, while having less of a grip on certain kinds of Mexican American voters in the West and Southwest, who are still more willing to give Democrats a chance — and with whom Democrats did engage.

Chuck Rocha, a leading Democratic Latino strategist who helped run Sen. Bernie Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign, credits Democratic Lt. Gov John Fetterman’s Senate win in Pennsylvania, in part, to Latinos. Rocha’s firm ran a large get-out-the-vote and persuasion operation to aid Fetterman this cycle, while Republicans didn’t have the same level of outreach.

“So when folks who are looking through the exit polls in Florida and are like, ‘Well, there’s been this shift of Puerto Ricans to the right,’ that’s because Democrats didn’t ask Puerto Ricans to come back to the left.’ But in places where we [did], like in Pennsylvania, they [likely] voted 70-30 for the Democrat.”

Rocha said that places where Democrats ran up their margins with Latinos will likely be the areas where Democrats and liberal groups spent millions of dollars and countless hours talking to Latino voters. That was especially likely to be the case in the West and Southwest, where Latinos are summarily more receptive to Democratic candidates and persuasion efforts because of greater degrees of shared identity.

“Latinos are probably going to single-handedly save the Democrats’ ass,” Rocha said, emphasizing that a reversion to traditional Democratic vote shares outside of Florida would be an encouraging sign for Democrats’ chances of improving their performance and relationship with these voters.

Outside of Florida, the final numbers might show Democrats holding strong majorities of Latino support, despite perceptible Republican improvements. For now, be cautious about sweeping claims that ignore state-by-state complexities. Still, one thing is certain: in what was shaping up to be a terrible year for Democrats, they didn’t massively bleed support, particularly in key states for Democrats’ future ambitions.

Their performance should still be a warning for the party, however: the midterms confirmed that Latino voters are persuadable, and that there are places where Republicans are being persuasive. So though they seem to have made it through this election okay, Democrats should heed that message if they hope to avoid future losses.