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Democrats warn of 'canary in the coal mine' for Latino voters in California recall

While California Latinos voted to keep Gov. Gavin Newsom in office, they did so by a smaller margin than Democrats have won by in the past.
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WASHINGTON — California Gov. Gavin Newsom trounced the effort to remove him from office in Tuesday’s recall election. But the rosy result may obscure an erosion of support among Latino voters for Democrats that has some in the party worried about the future.

“Donald Trump got a historic number of Latino votes in 2020, and you can claim it was because of this or because of that, but it’s not like Larry Elder broke through for these folks. There is something else going on,” said Michael Trujillo, a Democratic strategist based in Los Angeles, referring to the leading Republican candidate in the failed recall attempt.

The former president made inroads with Latino voters in places like South Florida and the Rio Grande Valley in Texas last year. But many Democrats chalked up those results to the idiosyncrasies of the Latino populations in those areas, Trump’s unique persona or the wrinkles of holding an election during a pandemic.

But in the first real-world test since the 2020 election, some data from California suggests the issue may be more widespread, a potentially troubling sign for Democrats ahead of the 2022 midterms, when Latino voters will play a major role in the battle for the House in places like California.

Image: California gubernatorial recall election
Myladi Jimenez casts an early ballot for the California gubernatorial recall election on Sept. 7 in Los Angeles.Jae C. Hong / AP file

Democrats have long warned they are taking support among minorities — including Black and Hispanic voters — for granted, assuming they will support liberals without doing enough work to win their backing.

“We’re seeing something happen in blue state California, where a certain segment of the Latino population is trending in the wrong direction,” Trujillo said.

California Latino voters sided with Newsom and against the recall 60 to 40 percent, according to an NBC News exit poll — a slightly smaller margin than Newsom and other Democrats have won by in the past in California, especially among Latino men, and nearly identical to the 59 to 41 percent split among whites.

By comparison, Black voters broke 83 to 17 percent in favor of Newsom, while Asian Americans backed the governor 64 to 36 percent, according to the exit poll.

In being elected governor three years ago, Newsom won 64 percent of Latino voters, according to NBC News exit polls from the time.

Both whites and Latinos saw a large gender gap, with Latina women more likely to side with Newsom by 19 percentage points and white women more likely to back the governor by 16 points.

Still, Dorian Caal, the director of civic engagement research at the nonpartisan NALEO Educational Fund, an offshoot of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, cautioned against reading too much into early exit polls.

“They’re notoriously limited with subgroups,” Caal said. “When you're drilling further and further down, you're getting even more and more margin for error. There's a lot more that needs to be unpacked as more and more information gets released.”

Caal noted, however, that mainstream political discourse often obscures the diversity among Latino voters, with differences along gender, education and age lines, among others, mirroring more familiar breakdowns among whites.

The exit polls may be bolstered by real vote data from the state’s most Latino county, Imperial, in the southeast corner of the state along the Mexican border, where more than 80 percent of residents are Latino.

The recall actually performed slightly better in the heavily Latino Imperial County than it did statewide, with 38.7 percent of voters in the county voting to remove Newsom from office, compared to 36.1 percent in the entire state, though not all votes have been counted yet.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016 won Imperial County by 41 percentage points. President Joe Biden won it by 25 percentage points in 2020. Now, the pro-Newsom anti-recall effort is winning it by 22.6 percentage points so far.

“There is a canary in the coal mine and it’s called Imperial County,” Trujillo said. “That canary has a cough, and as a party we need to do more than just give it a throat lozenge or a cough suppressant. We need to cure the cause.”

Nearly 4 in 10 Californians are Latino, so even small shifts in their vote preferences can be significant.

“We all do such a good job of dissecting the white electorate, and for some reason we can't do that with Latinos,” said Christian Arana, the vice president of policy at the ​​California-based Latino Community Foundation.

“Because outreach historically has been late, underinvested and, quite frankly, kind of lazy, I feel like a lot of people are just missing the big picture here,” he said. "You can't just come to our community and talk to us about immigration.”

Arana noted, for instance, that about a quarter of small businesses in California are owned by Latinos. A Latino college graduate working in Los Angeles may vote differently from an older relative in California’s agricultural Central Valley who mainly listens to to Spanish-language radio, for instance.

“The big warning is that you can't relent on the outreach. The outreach needs to happen every single day,” he said. “We're a complex and broad swath of people who make up the Latino vote, and the candidates and political parties who recognize that and also invest in outreach will probably fare the best.”