Politics

The culture war flashpoints dividing Latinos, and Latino Democrats

Talk to anyone who closely follows Latino voters — believe me, I’ve talked to a lot in the last few years — and they’ll likely share a similar lesson: America’s political parties, and their candidates’ campaigns, often shoot themselves in the foot by thinking that Latino and Hispanic voters have very different priorities when compared to the average American voter. Voting preference really does often boil down to the economy, health care, and education.

But it’s on social issues where notable exceptions to this consensus arise. Republicans have long claimed they can make inroads among a wide range of Latino voters on these issues. A new Pew Research Center poll shows they may be right.

That nuance in social issues comes through in Pew’s new data on attitudes and feelings of Latinos nationwide. According to the survey of 3,029 Latino adults provided to Vox, both Republican and Democratic Latinos say the economy and education are one of their top four concerns, but Latino Republicans are also worried about crime and immigration, while Democratic Latinos worry more about gun control and health care.

The bigger differences open on social policies among Latino Democrats, where support for abortion rights or restrictions is more closely divided, compared to Democrats in general. The same is true for other social issues, where religion, political ideology, and national origin show divisions in the Democratic base.

And while the survey shows a majority of Latinos still view the Democratic Party more favorably (60 percent) than the Republican Party (34 percent) and plan on voting for Democratic congressional candidates (53 percent), a sizable chunk of Democratic-leaning Latinos hold beliefs and preferences that could make them open to entreaties from Republicans. As Vox covered in-depth in our recent Highlight issue on Latino voters, any kind of marginal gain, especially in swing states, could make a difference in House and Senate races, including key ones that will determine this year whether there will be continued Democratic control of government, or a Republican-controlled chamber that renders President Joe Biden’s agenda moot.

Social issues, especially abortion, show opportunities for Republicans

Economic concerns are top of mind for Latino voters in the Pew survey: eight in 10 told Pew that the state of the economy would help them make up their minds about how to vote. Other bread and butter issues, like health care and education, came next.

But on more polarized issues, like abortion and immigration, just over half of all Latino voters said the same. Abortion is a standout, however — as other polls this year show, the issue had jumped in importance when the survey was taken in August, compared to Pew’s research in the spring. As news about the Supreme Court’s June decision on Dobbs and abortion politics spread, the response from Latino Democrats followed.

But abortion is a complicated subject in Latino communities, where religiosity, national origin, and ideology make it hard to draw a definitive conclusion. As Vox’s Nicole Narea has reported, just because most Latinos are Christians doesn’t mean they uniformly oppose abortion access. At the same time, Democrats who want to focus their campaigns on abortion run some risks among Latino voters, given the gap between support for abortion among all voters and support among Latinos.

Among all adults, 62 percent back legal abortion; among all Latinos, that number is 57 percent. But the gap is larger when looking just at Latino Democrats: 69 percent support some kind of legal abortion, while among all Democrats, that number is much higher, at 84 percent.

The same disparity does not exist among Latino Republicans: 60 percent support stronger restrictions, about the same as the 61 percent of all Republicans who support that position.

A chart showing the variations in support for abortion rights among Latino Democrats and Republicans, versus overall Democrats and Republicans.

That division among Latino Democrats can be explained by the diversity of the group as a whole: Mexican and Central American Latinos are more evenly split on the issue, while Puerto Rican, Cuban, and South American Latinos are more willing to support abortion rights. Most evangelicals, Spanish speakers, and recent immigrants, on the other hand, were more likely to oppose abortion rights.

“A clear majority of Hispanic Democrats say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, but their support for abortion is somewhat more lukewarm than among Democrats overall,” Jens Manuel Krogstad, one of the Pew report’s lead researchers, told me. “This survey shows that when it comes to Latinos in politics, it’s not always black and white. Latinos don’t always neatly fit into a nation’s two-party system.”

Similar complexities play out when Latinos are asked about immigration, LGBTQ people, and gun control. Though there are varying levels of support for more open immigration policy based on party, less than half consider these efforts “very important.”

Fewer than half of Latinos say that same-sex marriage and acceptance of transgender people are “good for society.” Meanwhile, Latinos, both Democrats and Republicans, back stronger gun control efforts by larger margins than among all adults, including more strongly than the average Democrat or Republican.

Together, these disparities suggest weaker terrain for Democrats on culture war touchpoints, where Republicans have tried to exploit fear and unfamiliarity with LGBTQ identity and frustrations with border policies to hurt Democrats.

Republicans can still make inroads, even if Democrats are dominating now

Two more findings jump out of the report: Republican Latinos seem more motivated to vote than Democratic Latinos, and fewer than half of Latinos say the country’s two parties are significantly different. Krogstad told me that the second point should be particularly impressive: it suggests that even as polarization has grown, Latino voters may be more willing to give the other side a chance.

“A notable share of Latino partisans say the opposing party really cares about Latinos and works hard to earn their votes,” he said. “Among Latino Democrats, about a third say the Republican Party works hard to earn the vote of Latinos. So, we see some blurred lines in how Latinos view the parties.”

Indeed, about one in five Latino Democrats said the Republican Party “really cares about Latinos,” fitting a theme Pew found in 2021, of a substantial share of Latinos who have soft ties to either political party and could be persuaded to change their affiliation. Today’s Pew survey suggests that Democrats are still capturing a little over half of Latinos’ voting support and convincing enough voters that their party cares about them, but that that support is precarious.

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