In the 2020 presidential election, Latinxs nationwide voted about the same ways they have for the last four decades: Roughly 70% voted Democrat, and around 30% voted Republican. However, shocking results out of South Texas and southern Florida shook that reliable narrative. In heavily Latinx counties in the south of both states, President Donald Trump improved on his 2016 result by dramatic margins, to the point that southeast Texas and the tip of Florida each experienced a further rightward shift than any other regions in the county. Trump’s success among the very distinct Latinx communities led many to ask the obvious question: Was the Republican’s success an aberration, or the beginning of a rightward shift among Latinxs?
Like so many questions about the 2020 election, there proved no easy answer to this question. One election is not enough to draw a trend line. It seemed that the only way to understand if the Latinx electorate was changing was to wait for the midterms or the next presidential election. Then came the historic Georgia Senate runoff election. While more study is needed, the early results out of Georgia provide fascinating data about the future of the Latinx vote.
For the first time in decades, two Democrats will represent Georgia in the U.S. Senate. The story behind the victory in the state is, in a sense, simple: Remarkable turnout among Black voters—who make up roughly 30% of Georgia and who stand as clear majority of the Democrat electorate in the state—helped turn the Peach State blue. (Both reporters and Democrats were right to quickly credit the work of Black community organizers, particularly the work of Black women in the state.) Between the general election and the Jan. 5 runoffs, majority-Black precincts shifted over 3 percentage points towards the Democrats, helping lead to record turnout in a normally quiet runoff cycle.
However, one community experienced an even further leftward shift. In majority-Latinx precincts, the vote shifted almost 8 percentage points towards the Democrats. In two Senate races won with razor-thin margins, the modest Latinx population in Georgia proved a deciding force in the election.
Looking at voting percentages in majority-Latinx precincts alone can’t tell the whole story, but community leaders working on the ground say they think it’s a good enough barometer to come to a solid conclusion: Latinx participation in the runoff was historic.
Jerry Gonzalez is the founder and CEO of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, an organization that trains new community leaders, engages voters, and provides some direct service to the Latinx communities in Georgia. Every presidential cycle, GALEO analyzes the data to understand Latinx participation.
“Once we do our formal analysis of the electorate, and the turnout, I think we’re gonna see records were broken for both general and runoff election participation—and even more so for runoff election,” Gonzalez says.
Already, the data from early voting bears out Gonzalez’s prediction. Early voting shattered previous records, with more than 67% of Latinxs who voted in the general election voting early in the runoff elections. In a 2018 runoff, only 10% of Latinx voters who voted in the general election came back for the runoff.
What explains Latinx enthusiasm and the sudden shift leftward in the runoff election Georgia? Michael Jones-Correa, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania who studies civic engagement among Latinxs, says that there are too many different factors to boil that question down into one easy answer. The runoffs in Georgia were such a dramatic election: Control of the Senate was in the balance; Trump, stumping for the Republican candidates in Georgia, spent his airtime spreading lies that the general election was rigged in Georgia; and the pandemic reached awful, new record levels. However, even among all these variables, Jones-Correa says there’s one thesis that might carry a lot of weight. National Democrats, and affiliated get-out-the-vote groups, fixed their mobilization problem.
“Part of the story of the shifts towards the Republicans in South Texas and South Florida is that Democrats weren’t mobilized effectively,” Jones-Correa says. Local organizers working in Latinx districts on the ground in Texas in particular reported that they felt abandoned by the state and national parties. And, during the pandemic, Democrats opted to shut down much of their door-knocking operations.
It remains to be seen if the surprising results in Texas and Florida came more from Republicans’ success, or Democrats’ failure to mobilize voters. But if Georgia is any indication, it appears that Latinxs can indeed provide the that final push to turn a state blue, if people on the left actually dedicate sufficient time and resources towards galvanizing Latinx voters.
The campaign to turn out the Latinx voter in the Georgia runoff election was, in a word, heroic.
One million Latinxs live in Georgia and a little less than 380,000 of them are eligible to vote. For the runoff, Mijente—a national Latinx advocacy organization—formed a coalition with the local organization, the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, to canvass their state. The goal of the “GA Con Ganas” coalition was to knock on the door of every single Latinx household in Georgia—some 300,000 doors. It was the largest field campaign focused on Latinx voters in the state’s history, and, by Jan. 4, the coalition had proudly claimed to have knocked on the door of every Latinx household in Georgia, from rural counties to big cities.
Gonzalez says GALEO also led an enormous push: Besides door-to-door canvassing, four different informational mailers went out to every Latinx household in the state.
Gonzalez is clear that work of organizations like GALEO in Georgia has been going on for much longer than the 2020 election. “We’ve been working on this for decades,” he says. What made the difference this time around was the support groups like the GA Con Ganas coalition received from Democratic voters across the country. In December, Tania Unzueta, the political director for Mijente, told The Nation that she’d gone from people asking her, “There are Latinxs in Georgia?” to seeing over $2 million in donation flow to the coalition.
If the general election was a warning to Democrats about the dangers of neglecting Latinx voters, the Georgia runoff elections could be a lesson about what can be accomplished when organizers get the support to meet Latinx voters where they are—at every single door.
Gonzalez says there’s another lesson to be learned from Georgia: Latinxs are resilient, and want to have their voices heard. “Georgia is a hostile state to Latinxs; we are a voter-suppressed state,” he says.
During his successful run for office, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp ran a TV ad with him cocking a shotgun and telling voters, “I’ve got a big truck, just in case I need to round up criminal illegals and take ’em home myself.” Kemp has also thrown his weight behind Georgia’s voter ID laws and other measures that create barriers between marginalized communities and the ballot box.
Still, Gonzalez says it’s heartening that Latinx participation in elections continues to grow.
In his book Holding Fast, Jones-Correa found that Latinx immigrants have a strong core of “civic resilience” in the face of disparaging rhetoric and hostile policies. Co-written with James McCann, a professor of political science at Purdue University, Holding Fast found that even though Latinx immigrant communities have experienced significant increases in fear and anxiety following Trump’s election, there has been “no evidence of their withdrawal from covid life.”
Jones-Correa says it would have been a fair expectation that toxic messaging, like that of Kemp, could have alienated or discouraged Latinxs from voting. Instead, Latinxs broke records with their participation.
“It’s certainly the heartening figure that voting went back up,” Jones-Correa says.