Opinion More people of color are voting Republican. That’s not all bad news.
"People of color aren’t voting against the Trump-era Republicans as much as I hoped and once expected. In fact, the Trump version of the party is getting more support from voters of color than the McCain-Romney one did. That’s disappointing in a big, obvious way: Some voters of color are helping the Republican Party remain electorally strong as it becomes increasingly radical and right-wing — including banning Black studies classes and proposing to end birthright citizenship.
But the political diversity of voters of color — and the growing recognition of that — is good in some other ways.
It’s important not to overstate the support for Republicans among voters of color. About 73 percent of Asian, Black and Latino voters combined backed Joe Biden in 2020, while just 25 percent supported President Donald Trump, according to the left-leaning data firm Catalist. More than 80 percent of Republican voters are White. That said, there has been a shift right — voters of color backed Barack Obama by an 81-17 margin in 2012. And even more could back Trump next year.
I’m firmly on the left and desperately want Trump (or whoever is the Republican nominee) to lose. So how in the world could I see anything positive about more people of color backing Republicans?
Well, first of all, this rightward drift among voters of color is part of a broader realignment toward a more ideological, transparent and values-based politics that I generally favor.
As recently as the early 2000s, the United States had lots of liberal Republican politicians and voters in the Northeast, and conservative Democrats in the South. Republicans weren’t (and aren’t) totally cohesive, but the Democratic Party in particular was very ideologically diverse, a coalition of labor union members, African Americans, feminists, abortion rights opponents and others who sometimes strongly disagreed on policy.
Today’s Democratic Party is much more unified around a set of liberal policy goals. So America now has red states and blue states, a clearly liberal party and a clearly conservative one, a base of voters with left-wing views on most issues another with more right-wing ones.
The shifts in voting patterns among people of color are part of this polarization. White people who describe themselves as conservative have long overwhelmingly voted Republican, while conservative Asian, Black and Latino voters had often voted for Democratic presidential candidates. But that is changing. In 2020, conservative voters of color were much more supportive of Trump than they were four years earlier, driving his gains with minority voters overall.
It’s not clear why that happened. I think the best explanation, based on my research and talking to experts, is that the Black Lives Matter movement, Trump’s presidency, the “racial reckoning” after the killing of George Floyd and other events over the past few years have made Americans more aware of the country’s deep divides, particularly around identity and race, and pushed people to choose a side.
People of color who already had conservative leanings, including on racial issues, are siding with Republicans. Black voters who backed Trump in 2020 were much more likely than other Black Americans to be skeptical of the idea that Black people suffer from systemic racism, according to researchers Udi Sommer and Idan Franco of City University of New York and Northwestern, respectively. They found Latino Trump voters are very wary of increased immigration in America.
Meanwhile, some White people who once voted Republican view the Trumpian version of the party as intolerant and bigoted and are aligning with Democrats. So Democrats gained ground from 2016 to 2020 among White voters who describe themselves as liberals or moderates. So we increasingly have a Democratic Party ofpeople of all races with more liberal views on racial issues — and a Republican Party that has the voters (White and of color) with conservative views, including on racial issues.
Having a very internally unified Democratic Party and a similarly unified Republican one, with the two parties disagreeing on everything, is usually described negatively. But, in some ways, deep polarization is good. As we saw in Washington in 2021-2022 and in blue states such as Michigan and Minnesota earlier this year, when Democrats have control of government, they now pass tons of progressive policies.
The Democratic Party of today has slightly less support among voters of color than it did a decade ago, but a policy agenda that more directly addresses issues of racism and racial inequality. Biden’s economic advisers pushed for a much larger economic stimulus than Obama’s to help Black Americans in particular, and it worked: We are at record-low levels of Black unemployment. The appointment of Ketanji Brown Jackson to the U.S. Supreme Court, the government-wide emphasis on racial equity and the creation of a federal holiday for Juneteenth are among the actions taken by Biden that would have been hard to imagine in 2009.
I’m not arguing that conservative-but-Democratic-voting people of color were the ones stopping the party from being more progressive in the past. That small subset of voters doesn’t have that much power. But there are some voters of color who prefer Republicans to this more liberal Democratic Party. And I’m fine with that because Democrats have made up that electoral drop-off with gains among White voters and implemented better policies than before, including on racial issues.
The second benefit of the growing recognition of Republican voters of color is that those voters themselves can be open and honest about their conservatism. About a year ago, I was sitting near one of my late father’s longtime friends at a party. Nearly everyone in the room, including this family friend, are Black. He and I hadn’t really talked about politics before. He started complaining about taxes being too high and what he described as the poor state of the public schools in our area.
I moved closer to him and asked in a low tone, “Are you a Republican?”
“Well, I think the Democrats are kind of stupid,” he said, matching my lack of volume.
“Did you vote for Trump?” I asked, having moved down to a whisper.
“Yes,” he said, making sure no one else could hear him.
There is some research suggesting Black people in particular feel pressure to back Democratic candidates — or be seen as breaking with the broader Black community. That’s not ideal. I don’t think anyone should vote for today’s Republican Party. That said, people of color who agree with Republicans should feel free to openly support them — just as conservative White people do.
Third, these voting shifts will, I hope, force the news media and the Democratic Party to finally start thinking about voters of color in more nuanced and sophisticated ways.
For my entire adult life, every presidential election has had the same simplistic discourse about voters of color. Anytime a poll comes out showing Black Americans at less than 90 percent support for the Democratic candidate, journalists frame that as a huge disaster for the Democratic Party. Party operatives blame the presidential candidate for being uninspiring. Closer to the election, there is lots of coverage of “turnout” — code for getting younger and less politically engaged Latino and Black Americans to vote. The assumption is that the overwhelming majority of those people will back Democratic candidates — if they are roused from their laziness to vote at all.
During his campaigns, Obama would implore his Black supporters to make sure their “Cousin Pookie” voted. I cringe thinking about this.
We are already seeing 2024 versions of these stories. But the 2020 election showed this thinking is outdated. Millions more Black and Latino people voted than in 2016, but the overall Black and Latino voting blocs moved to the right. That means many non-2016 voters turned out in 2020 but backed Trump. Increasing turnout among voters of color alone isn’t enough for Democrats. They have to increase turnout among voters of color who might vote for them. This isn’t shocking. In terms of White Americans, it’s really good Republicans if White evangelical Christians vote in higher numbers, not so much if it’s White college students.
What the news media and officials in both parties should be asking is not, “Why aren’t people of color producing their expected votes for Democrats?” The better questions are, “What are Democrats and Republicans doing to appeal to nonideological, moderate and conservative people of color who are choosing between the two parties?” and “What are Democrats and Republicans doing to appeal to left-leaning, moderate, conservative and nonideological people of color who might not vote at all or vote third-party?”
The Black voter who is considering Green Party candidate Cornel West probably identifies as liberal, while one who might vote for Trump over Biden likely doesn’t. It’s not that Black voters aren’t enthusiastic about Biden, but younger Black voters aren’t, the same as their non-Black counterparts.
Just like with White voters, the political preferences of voters of color vary widely by age, geography, ideology, religion and other factors. But many polls have fewer than200 Black or Latino respondents and the number of Asian Americans is even lower. If you are only interested in knowing who will win a given election, those small sample sizes are fine, because White Americans are by far the biggest racial group. But if news organizations actually want to understand Asian American political perspectives, they need to regularly poll a few thousand Asians, as they do for White Americans. (I had to reach out to numerous polling organizations to get enough data to write this article.)
With voters of color becoming less Democratic, campaigns and the media will feel more pressure to really understand these groups or otherwise miss important electoral dynamics.
The reality is that voters of color, even Black people, were never monolithic. The media and both political parties should move on from their “Oh, my goodness, people of color aren’t all Democrats” posture and embrace this reality. The “diverse” people have, well, a diversity of political views."