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Voters of color did move to the right — just not at the rates predicted

A woman leaves the polling place.

Both parties warned for months of an imminent red wave among voters of color, forecasting that the GOP would build further on gains made in the 2020 presidential race. But while every racial group moved right this year, especially among men, the shift fell short of expectations.

And Democrats should be wary of declaring victory on this front and moving on, multiple strategists said, noting that any erosion among the party’s core constituencies should be taken seriously — and addressed with more planning and purpose ahead of the 2024 presidential race.

Terrance Woodbury, CEO of progressive research firm HIT Strategies, credited new voters from 2018 and 2020, as well as younger voters, for showing up for Democrats on Tuesday to buck the earlier projections.

“Our initial take is that while Democrats have stopped the bleeding among people of color, they haven’t reversed the trend,” he said.

Democrats won among Black, Hispanic and Asian and Pacific Islander voters in the 2022 midterms, while the majority of white voters and Native Americans went for Republicans, according to exit polls conducted by major networks and Edison Research.

But compared to the 2018 midterms, Hispanic and Asian support for the GOP jumped 10 and 17 points respectively, while Black voters shifted about 4 points to the right. When contrasted with 2020 — a presidential election year fueled by a push to remove former President Donald Trump from office — the movement in favor of Republicans is in the single digits.

Going back even further, Black and Hispanic support for Democrats dipped to similarly low levels in the late 1990s.

The exit polls included more than 15,000 respondents with a margin of error of plus or minus 2 points, with higher margins for subgroups. Exit polls are preliminary, some states are still counting votes and more complex reports likely won’t be available for months. But the numbers provide the best early look at how people of color voted this election — and why.

‘La ola roja’ versus ‘el murmullo’

The battle for the Latino vote was more contested than ever this election cycle, between GOP hopes for gains and the group recently becoming the second-largest voting bloc in the country.

Both parties heavily pursued Hispanic voters, blowing past old records on Spanish-language ad buys and holding more frequent events courting Latino voters. After those campaign efforts, Hispanics saw the second-biggest shift among voters of color, with Democrats’ overall margins dropping 9 points since 2018 — and 21 points specifically among Latino men. Compared to 2020, the Democratic margin among Latinos decreased by 5 points.

“All signs [in election returns] point to a shift among Hispanics, and it’s very promising for the future of the Republican Party,” said Giancarlo Sopo, a Republican communications strategist. “I feel optimistic about where we’re going, but I’m under no illusions that it will be easy.”

People involved in the fight for Latino votes said Republicans can make more progress with better messaging. Sopo said the party has to get more comfortable talking with Hispanics outside of “their traditional wheelhouse.” Polls consistently show health care and climate change as priorities for Latino voters, Sopo said, so Republicans could stand to improve their cross-cultural outreach in those areas.

Clarissa Martinez De Castro, vice president of UnidosUS Latino Vote Initiative, echoed calls for both parties to engage in more long-term outreach with Hispanic voters. Democrats have “ample room” to solidify their support among Latino voters, she said, but they too must strengthen their message on areas like the economy.

Latinos turned out in droves to hand GOP Sen. Marco Rubio and Gov. Ron DeSantis reelection victories in Florida, but slight majorities of Hispanic voters supported Democratic Senate candidates in the battleground states, according to the preliminary exit polling.

On the House side, Democratic Reps. Henry Cuellar and Vicente Gonzalez, who represent two of Texas’ deeply Hispanic border districts, came away with wins after difficult challenges from Republican Latina opponents. Republican Monica De La Cruz was the sole Latina in the region to secure a seat, winning a redrawn district by 9 points.

Gonzalez defeated GOP Rep. Mayra Flores, whose usual bold posts promising great returns for the Republican Party in South Texas were traded in after the election for a statement with an accusatory tone.

“The RED WAVE did not happen,” Flores wrote after midnight on election night, blaming Republicans and Independent voters for staying home. “Do not complain about the results if you did not do your part!” she added in capital letters.

Experts said both parties have the potential to build on these results with Latinos in 2024 if they’re willing to put in the work.

“Republicans should not be pleased with their performance,” said Gabe Sanchez, vice president of BSP Research. He added the GOP did not pick up nearly as many House seats yet as projected earlier, partially because the Latino gains they predicted did not materialize. “And although it was a relatively good night for Democrats, I don’t think they can celebrate the numbers that much, either,” Sanchez said.

Black voters maintain heavy support for Democrats

Democratic campaigns and consultants have been fretting over a potential surge of support for conservatives among Black voters this year, or lower turnout in key swing states. In Georgia’s gubernatorial race, Black men were expected to make up a wider gap between incumbent Gov. Brian Kemp and Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams.

But Abrams still scooped up 90 percent of the Black vote, while running much closer among Latinos and Asians, and Kemp solidly won about three-fourths of the white vote. The numbers were similar to exit polling from their 2018 contest, when Abrams garnered 94 percent of the Black vote, and Kemp similarly won with 73 percent of the white vote.

Overall, Black voters remain the most consistent supporters of Democrats — their vote share dropped 4 points since 2018, and just 1 point since the last presidential election, according to preliminary exit polling.

Woodbury, of HIT Strategies, said he repeatedly warned against Democrats losing traction with Black voters, particularly men. After Election Day played out, he said Abrams and other candidates did do a better job of connecting with male voters of color. According to the organization’s metrics, Black voters have had an enthusiasm boost since July, though Woodbury believes even without that, they would have shown up for Democrats — albeit begrudgingly.

“When we engage [Black voters] the way we engage them, texting them every day … making them feel important and valuable,” Woodbury said, “and then we cut that light switch off immediately and abruptly after Election Day, it lends to a darkness and a cynicism that validates the frustrations they already have.”

AAPI voters remain tightly divided

Though Asian voters garnered more attention last cycle, particularly during Georgia’s Senate runoff races in January 2021, both parties still struggled to reach AAPI voters throughout the year.

And the initial exit polling shows a deep jump away from the Democratic party since the last midterm cycle: Support has dropped by some 19 points since 2018, but only 3 points since 2020 — all as the number of Independent voters has increased to around 35 percent of Asian Americans, according to AAPI Data’s findings from this July.

Despite making up a relatively small portion of the electorate, some campaigns leaned into the base. In GOP Rep. Michelle Steel’s contest against Democrat Jay Chen in California, the campaign soured when the incumbent called Chen, a Taiwanese American, “perfect for Communist China.” This came after Chen said earlier in the election that people needed an interpreter to understand Steel, who is Korean American.

Asian Americans make up one-third of the district, including a large percentage of Vietnamese voters, who are more likely to vote conservatively and hold a communal distrust of communism. Several AAPI groups, including local Vietnamese leaders, condemned Steel’s ads, which circulated throughout her campaign.

The use of divisive attack ads, particularly targeting Asian Americans, is disturbing, said Christine Chen, executive director of the nonpartisan organization APIAVote. As new voters join the Asian American electorate, they may only pay attention to political races closer to election day — meaning they aren’t served by negative advertising, Chen added.

“Why can’t you use that money for a mailer to actually explain more about your candidate, the values and changes you want to make?” she said. “That’s the kind of information our voters are looking for — not necessarily attack ads when they don’t even have the basic information, including who was on their ballot.”

Outside of the Steel-Chen race, which has yet to be called, the GOP tried to make up more ground with Asian Americans late this election cycle. Trump alum Stephen Miller’s organization, America First Legal, sent mailers claiming President Joe Biden is against Asian American voters, while gubernatorial candidate Rep. Lee Zeldin and other New York Republicans won over Chinese-speaking neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens with a tough-on-crime message.

Chen said returns in Georgia and Nevada also show that Republicans are finally latching onto Asian American voters, while Democrats have failed to move the needle in the same way.

“Even though in the past, Asian American voters were supportive of more Democratic candidates, that is not a given anymore,” Chen said. “We’re seeing an increase in the number of Independent voters [and] Republicans are a lot more proactive in terms of investing resources in engagement. They’re both going to have to step up their game long-term.”


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