Recent polling shows a majority of Latino voters plan to back Democratic candidates in next month's midterm elections, continuing a trend that has held for decades.
But that support is on the decline.
While Democratic strategists make renewed pledges to woo Latino voters, Republicans are also making inroads to appeal to the second-largest and fastest-growing group in the U.S. electorate.
Democratic strategist Chuck Rocha worked on both of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders' presidential runs and told NPR that while Senate campaigns have been airing Spanish-language ads for more than six months, a lack of outreach in races for the House of Representatives could cost the party a majority there.
"It's very important for folks to know Democrats are going to win the Latino vote and Latino voters," Rocha said about the November midterms. "But what's happening is we're losing a little support, a little at a time, to Republicans."
According to a recent Washington Post-Ipsos poll, Democrats have a 27-point advantage with voters who identify as Hispanic. That's a generous margin, but it's down significantly from the nearly 40-point advantage the party had in 2018.
One of the biggest reasons for this shift, Rocha said, was Republicans have been stepping up their efforts to gain the support of Latino voters.
"Republicans used to not compete for this vote," Rocha said. "Up until about eight years ago, Republicans would just walk past a Latino neighborhood. They would never see themselves trying to do a Spanish-language advertisement."
Mike Madrid, a Republican political consultant with an expertise in Latino voting trends, said Republican efforts to reach Latino voters reflected changes in the party. While working on George W. Bush's 2000 and 2004 campaigns, Madrid was helping with "aggressive" Latino outreach efforts. But the party's efforts slowed until 2020, he said.
"What has happened since 2020 is math," Madrid said. "2016 was not a good year for Trump with Hispanic voters. He was kind of directly assaulting [them]."
In 2020, Madrid said strategists realized they would have to focus on Hispanic communities in places like North Carolina, Texas, Nevada and Colorado to run viable campaigns.
"Everyone realizes this is a demographic that's really popping up everywhere now. And so it's something you've got to deal with," he said.
Republican strategists have told NPR that they have appealed to the group with a three-pronged approach — on the economy, crime and progressive policies — which began during the 2020 election when Trump used "democratic-socialism" to appeal to Latinos, particularly to those of Cuban and Venezuelan descent.
Republicans now have a program in nine states in this election called Operation Vamos. Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, for example, has made concerted efforts to appeal to Latinos in Wisconsin, that while not a huge population in state, still accounts for 8% of votes. Every bit on the margins could be the difference-maker in a state likely to be decided by a few points.
Meanwhile, what Democratic strategists have realized is that immigration can be an important "threshold issue," but the concerns of Latinos go well beyond that, particularly to issues such as the economy for a group that has a high working-class population. This is especially true in a place like Nevada, where Latinos who worked in the culinary union, for example, have been frustrated with Democratic leadership and COVID policies that cost them money.
No racial or ethnic group votes in lockstep, and the Latino vote is expected to diversify even more in the coming years. The age of the Latino voting base is also a double-edged sword for Democrats, Rocha said. While younger Latino voters tend to be more progressive, younger people in general were more infrequent voters.
"They're more apt to not participate in an off-year election, which harms Democrats more than Republicans," Rocha said, who added that younger and Latino voters were more likely to not vote than to support Republicans.
Madrid sees demographic changes as an opportunity for both parties.
"I think the best way to characterize it, is to say that the party that understands a multi-ethnic working class ... is going to be the dominant party in the next decade," he said.
Pew Research reports have found that the economy remains the most important issue for Latino voters. Other high priority issues include abortion, health care, crime and education, with the diverse voting population split by age, region and religious affiliation.
Both Madrid and Rocha emphasized the importance of appealing to working class voters.
"Democrats have had a better time with the multi-ethnic part than the working class part," Madrid said. "Republicans have always had a better time with the working class and not been multi-ethnic."