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Opinion: Dr. Jill Biden’s Comments Were Silly, but Did Anyone Expect Better?

Dr. Jill Biden found herself in hot water after a recent speech in San Antonio likened the uniqueness of Latinos to the city’s famous “breakfast tacos,” among other things. 

The backlash is well-deserved. But her comments don’t exist in a vacuum, and are more reflective of Washington’s inability to consistently connect with Latino voters than anyone in Washington would like to admit.

It’s not only that breakfast tacos aren’t exclusive to San Antonio — the bodega (or “bogeda” as Dr. Biden put it) a block from my apartment has them, as do most Mexican restaurants in the United States — but that the surface-level comparisons reflect an unwillingness to engage with minority voters on anything more than what’s needed to garner their vote. 

Democrats, in particular, bank on the minority vote without doing much to earn it. Until recently, the simple fact that Democrats weren’t Republicans was, in their eyes, enough to warrant mass support from minority groups. Now, the delineation between the parties isn’t as clear as it once was. 

The last two Democrats to hold the presidency have deported Latino migrants at a rate that could make even a staunch Republican blush. Looking at the last three presidential elections, Latinos who vote Democrat have steadily decreased from 71% in 2012 to 65% in 2020, while the number of Latinos voting Republican has risen in almost direct proportion, from 27% in 2012 to 33% in 2020. 

Latinos over 60, in particular, have been migrating en masse to the Republican Party, offering 40% of their vote to Trump in 2020, up nearly seven points from 2012.

One could make the case that Trump earned these votes by prioritizing “legal” Latinos over “illegal” Latinos, fanning the flames of a long-standing conflict between naturalized citizens and their undocumented counterparts. But with both Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — who is hugely popular with Latinos and prepares for a 2024 run — comments like Dr. Biden’s are more detrimental than ever.

We’re already starting to see how Democrats’ inability to flip the script with Latinos has damaged the party’s long-standing relationship with this particular block of voters. Look no further than Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, where MAGA Republican Mayra Flores, against all odds, won a special election earlier this year, nabbing a county that has voted Democrat for the last century

As if that weren’t enough of an indication of what’s to come, pundits across the political spectrum expect Democrats to take a huge hit in the upcoming midterms, and many of the most contested areas — specifically in Texas, Florida and Arizona — depend almost entirely on Latino voters. A recent poll published in the Wall Street Journal reveals that Latinos are now evenly split between the two parties while 22% are still undecided.

Much of this shift also boils down to the identity politics that have made their way to the forefront of American political strategies. Attempts to target voters based on race instead of class have mostly fallen on deaf ears. CNN reports that 60% of Latinos born in the United States already self-identify as white. 

That number is expected to rise in the years to come, as future generations of Latinos become more and more divorced from their ethnic identity. What’s even more worrying is the idea that Latinos who already self-identify as white could be inflating the number of whites who vote Republican.

While Dr. Biden’s comments could be viewed as innocuous, the Democratic platform in general isn’t much more nuanced, especially as Republicans continue targeting working-class demographics. A McKinsey study estimates that the median income for Latinos is around $36,000, in comparison to $188,000 for whites.

Republicans who run on working-class values are almost guaranteed to resonate with Latinos more than Democrats, who have in recent years, been increasingly characterized as the party of “the elites” by right-wing pundits. 

It’s not that Republicans are good at courting Latino voters — Trump’s infamous “taco bowl” statement was as much as if not more of a snafu than Dr. Biden’s recent comments — it’s that Democrats have become especially bad at keeping them.

And rather than abstaining from voting altogether, Latinos are going to end up choosing what they perceive as the lesser of two evils. For a long time, that meant voting for Democrats, even if their attempts to reach out to Latino voters have been, at best, performative. But where Democrats have been using the same playbook for the last half-century, Republicans are adapting.

The only comfort for Democratic candidates is the much-needed reminder that Latinos are far from monolithic. Mexicans vote differently than Cubans, who vote differently from Puerto Ricans and so on and so forth. Chances are, Democrats will always hold on to more than half of Latino voters. But at a time when whites continue to migrate to the Republican Party at rates that can only be described as “concerning,” that majority stronghold isn’t enough. 

To be clear, continuing to racialize these issues is not the answer. The one thing that is monolithic about Latino voters is their aversion to being singled out as monolithic. Instead, focusing on the working class as a whole, of which Latinos are a major part, would all but guarantee Democratic dominance in 2022 and 2024.

Unfortunately, Democrats are doing anything but. As long as the party continues to be associated with this abstract “elite,” a descriptor that Republicans are desperate to shed within their own party, the majority of voters are going to feel increasingly alienated, regardless of race.

As the 2022 midterms approach, what can be done?

At this point, not much. We’re four months out from an election that will help determine the next decade of public policy, and so far no candidate has emerged as one that the American people can rally around. 

Add to that the increasing divisiveness between the parties, and you’re left with a majority of Americans that have decided who they’re going to vote for before even knowing who the candidate is.

The best thing the Democrats can do at this point is regroup, encourage diversity within the party and learn from their own mistakes. Another likely more effective strategy would be to let Republicans talk themselves in circles until potential voters see how empty their promises really are. 

Of course, that would require Democrats to follow through as well. If the current state of the party is any indication, Dr. Biden won’t be the only person eating their words… or breakfast tacos.

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