Hispanic Voters in This Pennsylvania City Are Shifting Toward the GOP

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READING, Pa.—Joseph Nuñez at first didn’t like Donald Trump.“I couldn’t stand the guy.I didn’t like the way he spoke about Hispanics or people in general,” he said.But by 2020, Mr.

Nuñez had become a fan of Mr.Trump’s style and priorities, and he voted in favor of giving the president a second term.

So did many other Latino voters in this working-class city who had once backed Democrats or, like Mr.Nuñez, had skipped elections altogether.Now, as political strategists continue to sift through the 2020 election results, the emergence of these newly Republican voters is setting off alarm bells within the Democratic Party.Nationwide, Mr.Trump’s share of the Latino vote grew by 8 percentage points compared with 2016, an analysis by Catalist, a Democratic voter-data firm found earlier this year.New calculations by the firm find that while then-candidate Joe Biden won 61% of Latino voters, the shift toward the GOP meant that he carried the group by about 750,000 votes less than had Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee four years earlier.

That erosion is a danger sign for the party, given that President Biden’s winning margin in five states was less than 100,000 votes.With Democrats defending narrow majorities in Washington—a loss in 2022 of just a few House seats and one Senate seat would give Republicans control of those chambers—strategists in both parties are trying to determine why a larger share of Latino voters backed Mr.Trump and whether the shift is durable.

One main conclusion: The social constraints that were once a barrier to voting Republican have eroded, in large part because the strong economy during much of Mr.

Trump’s term caused many Latino voters to give the party a second look.“You had a set of Latino voters who weren’t especially partisan and who had seen it as socially unacceptable to vote for Trump in 2016,” said Carlos Odio of Democratic-aligned Equis Research, which conducted surveys and focus groups to understand the shift.“‘My friends and family will be mad at me if I do this.’ You need a justification to do it.” “The economy, the issue on which they trusted Trump, unlocked the door to embracing him,” Mr.Odio said.At the same time, many Latino voters came to view the Democratic Party as untethered from their top concerns—unsupportive of law enforcement, too lax on border security and too focused on racial disparities, said Ruy Teixeira, a demographics expert and co-editor of The Liberal Patriot newsletter.

Among other things, this brought the GOP new votes from Hispanic voters who have a conservative bent but hadn’t acted on it, he said.“I think the bloom is off the rose for Democrats in terms of having an automatic pass from Hispanics,” said Mr.Teixeira.“They’re more suspicious and less sure that the Democratic Party is on their side.” Other Democratic analysts have taken a more optimistic view.

Matt Barreto, who polled Latino voters for Mr.Biden’s 2020 campaign, said the important development is that Latino voters have grown more than other groups as a share of the electorate—casting 30% more votes in 2020 than in 2016—and backed Democrats by large margins, helping to secure Democratic victories in several presidential swing states and Senate races.“If you have 30% growth over four years and you’re winning those folks 2-to-1, that is a major accomplishment and should be recognized for part of what Democrats did right,” he said, assessing Mr.

Biden’s share as larger than Catalist determined.Mr.

Trump improved his 2016 showing among Latino voters in the rural Rio Grande Valley and big-city Philadelphia and the Bronx borough of New York—as well as in smaller cities.Reading is one of Pennsylvania’s poorest communities and home to a large concentration of Hispanic residents—two qualities that traditionally would make it a secure Democratic stronghold.

The city’s tidy row houses, which run for blocks, sometimes display the flag of Puerto Rico or a Latin American nation.Some 69% of city residents are Hispanic, a larger share than in any other Pennsylvania municipality.Mr.Trump won only 27% of the vote here, but that was nearly 8 points more than in 2016, matching Catalist’s assessment of the national trend.As a result, Mr.Biden won the city with about 4,000 fewer votes than Mrs.Clinton had—a meaningful change in a state that he carried by just over 80,000 votes.Hispanic voters are more open to appeals from either party, said a group of seven voters convened here recently by Michael Rivera, a Republican, who in 2019 became the first Latino elected to the board of commissioners for Berks County, which includes Reading.

Many said the social pressures that had made many loyal to the Democratic Party were fading, including among new arrivals from Puerto Rico.“I don’t know if on the plane they put some sort of Democratic sauce in their coffee, but naturally they come here and they get registered as a Democrat,” said Angel Figueroa, a Democrat and former city councilor.

“But by our culture, we overwhelmingly are Catholic.Overwhelmingly, we are pro-life.People by far, and specifically Puerto Ricans, are more in line with Republican values.” Many pointed out that their personal histories showed that partisan leanings were fluid.Nicolas Camacho, 65, a retired Army chaplain, said he was a lifelong Republican but voted Democratic last year because Mr.Trump’s comments about Hispanics and immigrants made him feel personally unsafe.Mr.

Figueroa, 47, who works for an adult-education nonprofit, changed his party registration to Republican to help Mr.Rivera win his primary campaign, then re-registered as a Democrat the next year to work for the Biden campaign.Some disagreed with the Democratic-backed business shutdowns aimed at controlling the coronavirus pandemic.But the prevailing mood among the group was one of long-term disappointment with both political parties that bordered on anger.Lydia Torres, 45, said she had switched to the Republican Party because local Democratic leaders and Democratic-backed programs had failed her when she was raising five children as a single mother.“Democrats care more about kids outside the country than those who live here,” she said.And all said that both parties had disappointed them on a top priority: Creating a more functional immigration system that gives undocumented immigrants plausible hopes of becoming citizens.Democratic promises to create a pathway to citizenship “are just lip service,” Mr.

Figueroa said.Felipe Faña, 65, a pastor, noted that Republican President Ronald Reagan had signed legislation giving legal status to roughly 2.7 million immigrants, while Democrat Barack Obama deported many Latinos.“I don’t see that either party is really interested in seeing me as a human being.…We are just like simple numbers.We need you when we need you, and if we don’t need you, go to the trash can,” said Mr.

Camacho.To Wes Anderson, a Republican political strategist, the GOP would make a mistake in assuming it can hold on to the Latino voters who moved toward the party in 2020.But he believes Democrats have made the job easier with policies on border security, law enforcement and racial disparities that some Latino voters think are too liberal.

Mr.

Teixeira said the shift was a significant problem for the Democratic Party, challenging a central assumption that the party could rely on strong support from minority groups to counteract its weakened hold among white, working-class voters.Mr.Nuñez, for his part, wants to draw more Latino voters into the GOP.The strong economy helped pull Mr.

Nuñez, 36 years old, off the sidelines and into the GOP as he tried to build a career in real estate and other enterprises.Now, he wants to stay engaged.

He said he recently took the post of vice chairman of the Reading Republican city committee and will be working to build the party.Write to Aaron Zitner at [email protected] Corrections & Amplifications If Republicans gained a net five House seats in the 2022 elections, they would take control of the House.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly said a gain of three seats would give Republicans a House majority.(Corrected on Dec.28).

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