“Are you a racist?”
“Do you hate Mexicans?”
These are the two questions J.D. Vance, the GOP’s nominee for Senate in Ohio, posed to voters in a primary election ad in which he accused the media of vilifying Republicans like him for wanting a border wall — and falsely claimed that President Biden had established an “open border” that was “killing Ohioans” because “more illegal drugs and more Democrat voters [were] pouring into this country.” The ad was purposely incendiary, designed to push broader culture-war issues, like immigration and critical race theory, that the GOP has used time and time again to galvanize their primary base, typically older white voters.
Vance is a particularly egregious example of this trend, but he’s hardly alone. Promoting racial grievance politics to appeal to conservative (and often white) voters who perceive a threat to their status at the top of the racial hierarchy is a popular conservative political tactic — one that can have devastating and deadly consequences.
Case in point: the mass shooting at a supermarket in a predominantly Black neighborhood of Buffalo, New York, on Saturday, which police say was a racially motivated hate crime. According to reports, the suspect also promulgated the baseless “great replacement” conspiracy theory, which claims that non-white people are being brought to the U.S. and other Western countries to “replace” and “disempower” white people to achieve a political agenda. In the attack, 11 of the 13 shooting victims were Black; 10 of them died. And because a sizable minority of Americans believe in certain tenets of the replacement theory, these messages of white victimhood and the idea that “America is not a racist country” aren’t going anywhere; we’re likely to hear these talking points from the GOP in 2022 and beyond.
“[Vance is] trying to give voters a sense of license to have these anxieties, discomforts and sometimes even prejudiced views,” said Justin Gest, a professor of policy and government at George Mason University. “Those are precisely the politics that he’s bristling at, and there are going to be voters who appreciate him giving them the license to believe what they believe.”
But where does this leave the GOP in its efforts to appeal to voters of color, especially the Latinos whom Vance and others have routinely cast as bogeymen despite then-President Donald Trump making sizable gains among them in 2020? At first glance, this messaging may seem at odds with a GOP that has tried to rebrand itself in fits and spurts as the party of the working class for all Americans. Yet, as counterintuitive as it sounds, these messages of racial grievance could also appeal to voters of color, especially Latino voters,1 who were already open to supporting Republican candidates.
“Republicans know that white voters are upwards of 80 percent of their voters, so everything is targeted toward them,” said Bernard Fraga, a political scientist at Emory University. At the same time, though, he said this kind of message might not turn off minority voters, especially the few who have been receptive to voting for Republicans. “They might be willing to accept that [messaging] because they align with the party on other kinds of policy issues.”
How Latino voters think of themselves politically varies depending on where they live, how long their family has been in the U.S., and whether they went to college. Those fault lines are true of most voters in the U.S., but on some issues, Latino voters are unique and might be more open to the GOP’s messaging on race. For instance, while Latinos overall lean Democratic, some are open to supporting Republicans or identify as conservative, particularly on certain immigration policies and race-related issues, like support for Black Lives Matter. Some polling and research also suggests that large chunks of conservative Latino adults buy into American nationalism and believe that issues of race get too much attention in the U.S. today, so they could be receptive to the idea that Democrats are out of step with their views.
“I think a lot of Latinos are turned off by the hateful rhetoric toward them, but part of the reason that Latinos are a swing vote and that Trump was able to do so well with them in 2020, is because there are a lot of Latinos who think there is too much identity politics going on, think of themselves more as ‘Americans’ and are receptive to the idea that Democrats are always going around calling people racist,” said Melissa Michelson, a political scientist at Menlo College.
According to a March 2021 poll from the Pew Research Center, 57 percent of Republican or Republican-leaning Latino adults2 agreed with the statement that “too much attention is paid to race and racial issues in our country these days.” Meanwhile, only 28 percent said that discrimination based on race or skin color was a “very big problem” facing the country today.
Support for Black Lives Matter was another big dividing line: In September, Pew found that among all racial and ethnic minority groups polled, Latino adults3 were the least likely to say they supported the movement. While 60 percent of Latino adults said they did support Black Lives Matter, that’s significantly less than the share of Asian adults (68 percent) and Black adults (83 percent) who said the same. (By comparison, only 47 percent of white adults said they supported Black Lives Matter.)
The results of the past two presidential elections also suggest that overtly racist rhetoric about Mexicans and immigrants won’t turn off certain Latino voters. According to Pew’s 2020 validated voter analysis, Biden won Latino voters4 by only 21 percentage points — 59 percent to 38 percent — significantly less than Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 38-point edge over Trump among Latino voters in 2016, when she won by 66 percent to 28 percent. Immigration was not as important to voters as it was in 2016, but it’s still notable that Republicans managed to win a sizable portion of Latino voters while simultaneously leaning into messages of white nationalism.
What’s more, plenty of Latino voters are conservative on immigration issues — particularly in swing parts of the country, like South Texas — but pollsters noted that not all Latino voters want the same immigration policies.
“Latinos generally express high levels of support for a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented and a DACA-like program, but support varies around border-security issues,” said Mark Hugo Lopez, Pew’s director of race and ethnicity research. “When you start talking about asylum seekers and offering asylum to those coming from Central America, for example, we’ve found that there’s a significant share of Latinos who feel like there’s not an obligation to help those people.”
This may be because many Latinos in the U.S. are not undocumented or immigrants themselves — in fact, their families may have been in the country for several generations — or they don’t know many immigrants personally. According to a March 2021 Pew study, 60 percent of Latino adults said they didn’t worry very much or at all that they, a family member or a close friend could be deported. The longer their family had been in the U.S., the less likely they were to worry. A large majority (81 percent) of third- or higher-generation Latino adults in the U.S.5 — according to Pew’s 2021 National Survey of Latinos, about one-third of registered Latino voters fall into this category — said they did not worry about deportations.
“The farther you are away from the immigration experience, the more likely you are to be removed from immigration issues and maybe even agree with Republicans’ messaging on race and immigration,” said Sergio Garcia-Rios, a professor of government and Latino studies at Cornell University. “Latinos in Republican states especially are likely to embrace Republican views and remove themselves from the groups being attacked.”
In fact, according to a separate November poll from Pew, close to 3 in 5 Latino adults (58 percent) say that they’re white themselves (although, of course, as I’ve written previously, what it means to identify as “white” is often a limitation of census categorizations). But at the very least, that means it’s possible that certain Latino voters will embrace messages of white grievance, or at least won’t be completely turned off by it.
“If you’re a Latino who identifies as ‘white’ or ‘American,’ it often doesn’t matter what country you’re from or where your ancestors came from,” Michelson told me. “You can still have a strong white, American identity that makes you receptive to these messages because you want to be part of that community that’s ‘protecting’ the United States from these alleged threats. It’s nice to be on the winning team, and white people in America are still the winning team.”
Moreover, once Latino adults start to identify more as white than Latino, it’s easy to appeal to them using the same fear-mongering, us-versus-them language that Republicans use on white voters. Fear — like the threat of an “open border” or “illegal drugs” coming into the U.S., as Vance said in his ad — can be a powerful motivator in getting voters to cast a ballot one way or the other. And by raising the threat of people crossing the border with Mexico, Republicans might be able to successfully win over both racially conservative white and Latino voters.
This is not to say that this messaging necessarily works. As Michelson said, a lot of Latinos are turned off by this rhetoric. But even if grievance politics doesn’t attract Latino voters to the GOP, that doesn’t mean it will drive them away, either. As is the case for Americans as a whole, the No. 1 issue for Latino voters is the economy, and that concern may outweigh concerns about racism in the GOP when they’re casting their vote.
“Experts were really blindsided by the reduced margins of Democratic victories among Latinos in 2020. So there’s still a scramble to better understand Latino identity, solidarity and what’s driving Latino votes,” Gest, the George Mason University professor, said. “Among some Latinos, we have noticed a clear willingness to overlook some of this rhetoric and anti-immigrant nativism if they feel like their economic prospects will be boosted by Republican candidates.”
That was especially true in 2020, when Trump won over more Latino voters, in part because there was a sharp drop in how they prioritized immigration issues as well as a steep climb in their emphasis on economic issues instead. In fact, economic messaging may even be an extra potent antidote to the GOP’s racism for immigrants in particular. “The evidence is that the children of immigrants buy into this ‘American dream’ rhetoric and might even be more receptive” to it than later generations, said Fraga, the Emory University professor. “It’s the children of immigrants who have had relative economic success who say that the Republican message — economy, religion, jobs — appeals to them.”
There are plenty of reasons, then, why the GOP’s racism may not be the poison pill for Latino voters that it seems. It’s still important to remember that a majority of Latino voters are Democratic and likely don’t appreciate Republican candidates’ racist rhetoric about them. And despite some Latinos being more conversative on issues of race, many are still liberal on these issues. For instance, according to a December Axios/Ipsos/Telemundo survey, 57 percent of Latino adults did not agree with the statement that America is not a racist country. Moreover, 61 percent agreed that Latino or Hispanic people do not have the same opportunities in the U.S. as white people. So, even if grievance politics appeals to some Latino voters — or at least doesn’t turn them away — this tactic could still backfire.
Nevertheless, this won’t necessarily deter Republicans from using this kind of racist messaging. Remember, grievance messages aren’t crafted with voters of color in mind — they’re intended to galvanize an overwhelmingly white GOP base whom Republicans often prioritize at the cost of losing other voters, said Fraga. That’s why even if the GOP as a whole were to decide it’s bad politics to demonize Latinos, specific candidates like Vance, who is running in a state that is only 4 percent Latino, would still likely lean into this kind of messaging.
“The national party might think, long-term, that it’s better to be more welcoming to Latinos given demographic trends. But it doesn’t matter what the national party wants or envisions as its long-term future since you can’t stop individual candidates from running these types of campaigns and having short-term victories that capitalize on racist stereotypes and economic fears,” Michelson said.
It’s an open question, then, as to whether this messaging will backfire. It’s possible that it will repel more Latino voters than it attracts. It’s possible that it will appeal only to a specific swath of Latino voters. After all, those living along the U.S.-Mexico border have different political priorities than those living in New York.
Then again, it’s possible, too, that this messaging just might work.