Inside Virginia’s Latino vote mystery

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Republican Glenn Youngkin pulled off the unthinkable in his victory in the Virginia governor’s race Tuesday: He won the Latino vote by roughly a dozen percentage points.

Or perhaps not.

Youngkin’s impressive performance was one of the exit poll findings from the Associated Press’ VoteCast. But according to Edison Research, which conducts the exit poll for the TV networks, Democrat Terry McAuliffe crushed Youngkin among Latino voters, carrying the group by a hefty 34 points.

The chasm between these two findings offers an insight into one of the biggest and most consequential discussions in politics: the degree to which Republicans are making inroads with Latino voters.

Until Donald Trump won a bigger-than-expected share of the Latino vote nationwide in 2020, the voting habits of a group long seen as a reliable Democratic voting bloc rarely received the kind of scrutiny they are now routinely afforded. And that scrutiny is only going to ratchet up in the 2022 midterm elections, when Latino voters stand to play a key role in some of the nation’s most closely contested races.

“Today, polling in general has a real problem: We’re getting low response rates across the board, and that’s not limited to Hispanic voters, but it’s even harder when you poll smaller groups,” said Eduardo Gamarra, who polls Latino voters in the United States and throughout Latin America.

“The fact is, we probably don’t know who won the Hispanic vote or by how much on Tuesday,” Gamarra, who is also a professor of Latin American studies at Florida International University in Miami, said. “But I can tell you from my research that what we have been seeing is a real message for the Democrats, who are not getting behind issues that really speak to Latinos. It’s a reason we’re seeing the shift.”

In Virginia, none of the exit polls or surveys leading up to election night had a large enough sample of Latinos to be statistically significant — Latinos only account for between 5 and 7 percent of the state’s registered voters. In the other nationally-watched governor’s race, New Jersey, no exit poll was conducted. Nor did pollsters perform Hispanic-heavy surveys leading up to the election in New Jersey, despite the fact that Latinos make up a larger chunk of the electorate than in Virginia — between 10 percent and 14 percent.

Pollsters and political insiders say it will take days to pore over precinct-level data to get a better idea of just how Latino voters broke Tuesday. But in New Jersey, there are a few signs: Some Latino-heavy precincts did show a shift toward Republicans compared to the 2017 gubernatorial contest. Pollsters note there are challenges in both states in getting a full picture, as there are few Latino-majority precincts in Virginia to examine and not all precinct-level data in New Jersey is readily available.

As the largest of the fast-growing demographic groups in the nation, Latinos have become an electoral battleground unto themselves over the past two decades. During Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns and Hillary Clinton’s 2016 run, Latinos were solidly blue Democratic voters, second only to African Americans in their loyalty. Last year, Biden won a comfortable majority of Latinos across the country.

Still, Trump unexpectedly made impressive gains with Latino voters, despite a legacy of harsh immigration policies and racist rhetoric.

In Virginia, Trump ran 6 points ahead of his 2016 performance with Latinos — from 30 percent to 36 percent, according to 2020 exit polls. Meanwhile, Biden won 61 percent of the Latino vote, down from Clinton’s 65 percent in 2016.

At first, Democrats cast doubt on the accuracy of the 2020 exit polls and news reports documenting Trump’s gains. But over time, it became clear that his blue-collar culture-war appeals, combined with economic anxiety over Biden’s embrace of Covid-19 restrictions, helped peel off many Latino voters,

Heading into Tuesday night, both sides wondered if 2020 was a one-off due to the pandemic and Trump, or if the trend was real. The dueling exit polls Tuesday night failed to bring more clarity to the situation, and instead fostered more partisan debate.

“The so-called exit poll that Fox News is promoting has a clear Election Day bias and way too large of a Republican sample,” said Matt Barreto, president of BSP Research and long-time Democratic pollster who has published numerous academic articles on exit poll methodology. (Fox News and the Associated Press are partners in the survey, which the AP calls “VoteCast” and Fox calls their “Voter Analysis.”) “The Edison news consortium exit poll appears to have a much more balanced sample of mail voters, early voters and Election Day voters, and that poll suggested Latinos voted Democrat at well over a 2-to-1 margin.”

Other Democratic pollsters were more cautious in their assessment of the party’s performance among Latinos in Tuesday’s election, saying it’s too early for either side to claim victory in Virginia.

“There will be more sophisticated analysis as we actually get the final results, but for right now, nobody knows. Everyone is at this point trying to draw a narrative based on their preexisting views on the state of the country,” said Carlos Odio, co-founder of EquisLabs, a Democratic research firm focused on Latinos.

For Republicans, that meant taking a victory lap based on the AP VoteCast exit poll results and ignoring the inconvenient Edison Research numbers.

“When you examine the actual election results in Virginia, New Jersey and Texas last night, it's clear that Republicans are continuing to perform well with Hispanic voters,” said Giancarlo Sopo, a GOP media strategist who led the Trump campaign's national Hispanic advertising last year.

Calling Tuesday’s results a “continuation of 2020,” Sopo pointed to the victory of Republican John Lujan in a special election runoff for an overwhelmingly Latino Texas state House district in the San Antonio area as another indicator of the lasting gains for the GOP.

“Republicans just proved in this election that they could replicate a lot of the success Donald Trump had in certain communities, in the gains that he made with voters of color… and holding on [to] white working class voters,” said Patrick Ruffini, a Republican pollster and founding partner of Echelon Insights.

“These off-year elections are showing that 2020 wasn’t a fluke,” Ruffini said, adding that Latinos should be viewed more like swing voters.

Fernand Amandi, a Latino pollster who advised Obama’s successful Hispanic outreach campaigns, said there’s no way to reconcile the two polls. “One of them is wrong,” he said.

Exit polls have become trickier to perform today than in the past, when most people voted on Election Day and it was easier for interviewers to grab voters at precincts after they cast their ballots. Now, Amandi said, large portions of the electorate vote before Election Day, forcing pollsters to try to reach voters by phone, text message or internet web panel. When the sample sizes are small — as with Hispanic voters in Virginia — the task becomes even more complicated.

Amandi, who didn’t poll in Virginia this year, said the trends disfavor Democrats when it comes to Latinos.

“This idea that we’re going to blame the exit poll methodology rather than admit the obvious — that Republicans are making inroads with Hispanic voters — is an act of self-delusion,” he said.

Ryan Enos, a Harvard University political scientist who studies demographic voting patterns, told POLITICO that the massive gap between the two polls merits further study “to see if they pass the smell test or not and, when there’s that big of a gap, one of them doesn’t pass the smell test.”

Since Youngkin ran so far ahead of Trump in Virginia, Enos said, “it’s reasonable to assume you would see that shift with Hispanic voters.”

But that doesn’t account for the Edison Research exit poll finding that, despite underperforming Biden, McAuliffe improved his margins with Hispanic voters.

Overall, Enos said, Latinos seem to be gravitating more toward Republicans, noting a red shift in Latino areas of Passaic County, New Jersey, on Tuesday

“It is really evidence that Democratic support from Hispanic voters is eroding in a way that will have damaging implications if it becomes permanent,” Enos said.

Several Democratic pollsters and political operatives agreed that the party has work to do with Latinos, regardless of which poll hit the mark Tuesday.

“Democrats should be worried about the electorate more broadly — and should be concerned that … what we saw among Latinos in 2020 was not specific to Trump,” Odio said. “That, one way or another, requires a lot of attention.”

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