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Opinion | How Hispanics Became Swing Voters

As this shift was happening, the Democrats were moving leftward on most fronts, following public opinion at first (on same-sex marriage, for instance) but then arguably outpacing it. On economic policy, what counts as centrism from Joe Manchin today would have placed him to the left of Barack Obama in 2010; on cultural and racial issues, the radicalization of white Democrats has moved them to the left of many Hispanic voters; on social issues, the kind of anti-abortion Democrat who once held the balance of power in the House of Representatives has mostly gone extinct.

Then Trump’s ascent in 2016 suspended the Republican commitment to austerity, entitlement cuts and other features of its Tea Party-era agenda. That didn’t help Republicans make gains with Hispanics in 2016 because Trumpian bigotry was front and center — though keen observers noted that he did no worse than Romney in 2012.

But the subsequent strength of the Trump economy, the sidelining of his party’s deficit hawks and his administration’s willingness to spend money in the face of the pandemic all created an opening for Republicans to cast themselves as pro-capitalism moderates and to portray the leftward-moving, Bernie Sanders-influenced Democrats as socialists. That frame was effective — the apparent potency of the “socialism” charge is discussed in the Equis Research report — and much more to the G.O.P.’s advantage than a clash between stringent government cutters and moderate-welfare-state liberals, which was how the parties often appeared in the Obama era.

Its emerging opportunity with Hispanic voters, then, crystallizes the larger Republican Party opportunity right now — where it’s clear enough that a party that was genuinely moderate on economics, Trumpishly populist without being Trumpishly toxic, could lay claim to a lot of swing voters, and all without making the sweeping moves leftward on issues like immigration that were urged on Republicans 10 or 15 years ago.

The question, as always, is how much of the party’s core of donors and activists and voters wants to be economically moderate or wants to be nontoxic; I still think the answer is “not enough.”

The Democrats’ Hispanic challenge likewise distills their larger political problem: How to recreate some version of their early Obama-era messaging, which presented a moderate liberalism that appealed more effectively to working-class voters of all races, in a very different social and economic landscape, in a party with a much more powerful and demanding progressive wing.

One way or another, that adaptation will be fraught and painful. But this is the moment when the Democrats need to do it — when the Hispanic realignment is still more hypothetical than real, still more visible in issue surveys than electoral results, still only a harbinger of an epic political defeat rather than the thing itself.

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