Memo: The Remarkable Success of the Democratic Party's Hispanic Strategy

Memo: The Remarkable Success of the Democratic Party’s Hispanic Strategy

So the chatter has it that Dems are struggling with Hispanic voters right now.  But how can that be true if Democrats just won two Senate seats in Arizona, and won AZ, CO, NM, NV in the 2020 Presidential, all states George W. Bush won in 2004? Let’s spend a bit of time trying to figure all this out.   

The modern battle over the Hispanic vote began with the 2000 Bush campaign.  The two Bush brothers, George W and Jeb, came from Florida and Texas, and understood this fast-growing part of the American electorate.  Winning over Hispanics was central to their success in both states, and it became central to the Bush campaign and Bush Presidency. 

In 1996 Bill Clinton won the Hispanic vote 72%-21%.  With an aggressive Hispanic strategy in 2000 which included paid Spanish language advertising, Bush was able to get that vote to 62-35.  These gains helped him flip Arizona, Florida and Nevada from blue to red, wins critical to his narrow 271 (contested) Electoral College vote victory.  It is not an exaggeration to say that Bush’s success with Hispanics gave him the Presidency. 

In 2004 Bush improved his Hispanic performance getting it all the way up to 53% Kerry 44% Bush, the second consecutive election he shaved 20 points off the Democratic margin.  This time he also turned New Mexico red, and these 4 flipped heavily Hispanic states provided him 47 Electoral College votes of his 286 total (CO went R in 1996, 2000, 2004).  Again, Bush’s success with Hispanics was an essential part of his victory. 

In 2002 NDN joined forces with noted pollster Sergio Bendixen to create a Democratic Party wide response to Bush’s successful strategy.  In the coming years working with prominent Hispanic leaders like Bob Menendez, Bill Richardson, Ken Salazar, Joe Garcia and Maria Cardona NDN introduced bi-lingual polling and Spanish language advertising to Democratic politics.  In 2004 NDN countered Bush’s campaign with months of Spanish language ads in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Nevada and New Mexico.  A modern Democratic Party Hispanic strategy was born, and it has been carried on in the years since by many able leaders, strategists and staff.  And reviewing what’s happened since those early days it has clearly been a success, arguably the most successful major party-wide strategy of the past generation of American politics.

Let’s look at some numbers. 

According to the exit polls Gore beat Bush with Hispanics in 2000 62%-35%.  Using data from CUNY, 5.934,000 Hispanics voted that year. That breaks down to 3,679,080 Dem votes, 2,076,900 Rs, leaving a net vote margin of 1,602,180 for Democrats.  In 2004, with Bush’s gains, that margin was down to 682,000 votes. But in the years after 2004, when the work we all did really started to kick in, Dems got their vote share up from the 50s and lows 60s to the high 60s.  In 2020, while Biden did dip a little, coming in at 63%-35% (using Catalist and AP Vote Cast data), that 28 point margin in an electorate now 16.5m (yes up from 6m in 2000) yielded Dems a net margin of 4.6m votes.  To understand the significance of a 4.6m vote margin with Hispanics Biden’s overall margin of victory was 7m votes.

                Overall Hispanic Vote        Est D Share         Est R Share        Dem Margin                

2000                   5,934,000                          3,679,080                 2,076,900             1,602,180

2004                   7,587,000                         4,021,110                  3,338,280                682,830

2020                 16,459,000                       10,369,170                  5,760,650             4,608,520

This is not erosion, as many have characterized it.  Its millions and millions of more Democratic votes.  A slightly smaller slice of a bigger pie means you still have more pie. In this case lots more pie (if we use the 2020 exits which had Biden at 65-32,+33, rather than +28 as we have it above the 2020 net Dem margin comes in at 5,431,000 votes).

So, if this is true, and Dems have picked up many more votes in the states with heavily Hispanic electorates, we should see those states trending more Democratic.  And that’s what we see (Florida is an exception to this story, something we will come back to in a future memo). 

In AZ, CO, NM, NV

Dem Electoral Votes – 0 in 2004, all 31 (100%) in 2020

Dem Senate Seats – 3 of 8 (38%) in 2004, all 8 (100%) in 2020

Dem House Seats – 7 of 21 (33%) in 2004, 14 of 23 (61%) in 2020

Dem Govs – 0 of 4 in 2004, 3 of 4 (75%) in 2020

In 16 years Dems have picked up 31 Electoral College votes, 5 Senate seats, 7 House seats and 3 governorships in these 4 southwestern states.  These Congressional gains are the reason Dems have majorities today in the Senate and House. 

After reapportionments Biden's 306 Electoral College vote total shrinks to 300. The region will pick up 2 to get to 126, and the # of EC votes coming from the 4 states will grow to 32.  At 300 and 32, this means that Biden is at 268 without AZ, CO, NM, NV, further reinforcing the political significance of these gains. 

In AZ, CO, NM, NV plus CA, TX

Dem Electoral Votes – 55 of 118 (47%) Electoral College votes in 2004, 86 of 124 (69%) in 2020

Dem Senate Seats – 4 of 10 (40%) in 2004, 10 of 12 (83%) in 2020

Dem House Seats – 55 of 106 (52%) in 2004, 69 of 112 (62%) in 2020

Dem Govs – 0 of 6 (0%) in 2004, 4 of 6 (67%) in 2020

These gains have helped shift the center of gravity of the Democratic Party itself westward. Speaker Nancy Pelosi is from this expanded region, as is Vice President Kamala Harris.  Harry Reid was the Democratic leader in the Senate for many years, and in fact was instrumental in advancing Democratic Hispanic efforts.  The DCCC Chair who flipped the House in 2018, Ben Ray Lujan, is from New Mexico.  The DSCC Chair who flipped the Senate in 2020-2021, Catherine Cortez-Masto, is from Nevada.  The 2021 Chair of the DGA, Michelle Lujan Grisham, is from New Mexico. 

Decades of investment and effort has turned what was once a red region of the country far more Democratic.  Since that 2004 Bush election, Democrats have flipped 6 states at the Presidential level – these 4 Southwestern states and Georgia and Virginia.  Democrats owe their Congressional majorities to the gains made in these states, and these states will be central to the 2024 Dem Presidential strategy. 

As we look forward, Democrats should work to protect these gains, and understand the basic math at work here.  30+ point margins of a growing electorate will continue to add votes to the Democratic column for years to come.  But new and fresh strategies will be needed to make Texas more competitive, reclaim lost ground in Florida and continue earning the votes of an electorate with many new, young and episodic voters. As George W. Bush showed us two decades ago, and as we are learning in Florida right now, this is not an electorate which can be taken for granted.

The Democratic Party’s current success with Hispanic voters was not an accident, it didn’t just happen. It came about through a big audacious strategy and years of investment and hard work.  It may very well be the most successful party-wide effort of the last 20-30 years, something which has transformed the Democratic Party and American politics more broadly. And it is something which needs to be preserved, nurtured, improved upon and perhaps applied to other demographic and geographic opportunities in the years to come.  

For demography isn’t destiny – it’s an opportunity.

Related Readings

Analysis: The Southwest Has Become A Democratic Stronghold (2020)

In Florida Democrats Lost Ground With All Important Hispanic Voters  (2018)

Among "New Coalition" Voters in 2018, Dems Have Best Performance Ever

Notes On The GOP's Erosion In The Southwest (2017)

Trump Is Right To Be Worried About Arizona (And Texas Too) (2017)