While the midterm election was not the red wave that some had predicted, Democrats are likely to lose their majority in the House of Representatives and the future of the Senate hangs in the balance, with competitive races still being counted in Nevada, Georgia, and Arizona, where Latinos comprise a decisive margin of victory. Across the nation, Democratic candidates offered laser-focused messaging on abortion access in the wake of the Dobbs decisions. But that message may have fallen flat, particularly with many Latino voters, who care about abortion access, but ranked climate change among their top issues heading into the midterms.
Developing winning campaign messages on climate change and the green economy can be challenging, because such issues are often seen as important mainly to college educated white voters. But, in fact, environmental concerns are intimately linked to kitchen table issues like the economy, jobs, and inflation.
This is also true for many Latino voters, whose communities frequently bear the brunt of climate-induced disasters like wildfires and heat waves. The majority of the Latino population in the U.S., from Mexican Americans and Indigenous Guatemalans residing in mainland regions to Puerto Ricans and Afro-Cuban Americans, live at the forefront of climate change and are often hit hardest. And while Democrats have made serious strides in passing climate legislation, they have largely been silent in communicating these victories to voters, which may have been a serious misstep.
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Extreme weather events like hurricanes are happening more frequently and at higher intensities, threatening lives and economic welfare. Even before disasters strike, social and structural inequalities have left many Latino neighborhoods across the nation with crumbling infrastructure. Research finds that in cities like Miami and Houston, Latinos are more vulnerable to experience the effects of sea-level rise and flooding from hurricanes than white and Asian people.
Heat waves ravaged the country this summer, heavily impacting Latinos, who disproportionately live in urban heat islands. Extreme heat also threatened outdoor workers like the nation’s farmworkers, of which nearly 85% are Latino. Heat is historically the leading cause of weather-related death in the country, especially among outdoor and agricultural workers, who are 20 times more likely to die from exposure to heat-related illnesses than U.S. civilian workers overall.
Earlier this year, Democrats looked positioned to do the impossible—maintain their majority in Congress during a midterm election, something a president’s party has rarely done in the last half-century. Under Democratic leadership, Congress passed bipartisan legislation including the largest infrastructure bill in decades. And in a triumphant moment in August, Democrats delivered the Inflation Reduction Act, perhaps the most expansive climate and economic stimulus bill ever passed. It provides $7 billion for zero-emission technologies to be deployed in low-income communities and allocates $8 billion exclusively to low-income and disadvantaged communities to reduce climate pollution. Taken altogether, this federal action provides a critical down payment for addressing climate and environmental justice for low-income communities of color.
The 2020 presidential election saw record turnout, and it revealed that a small but consistent and predictable group of Latinos are making a durable shift in their allegiance toward Republicans. Researchers find that Latinos born in the U.S. as children of immigrants and Latino Catholics are amenable to Republican messaging, which in this election cycle has emphasized pocketbook issues such as inflation and jobs. For example, in battleground states, such as Iowa and Nevada, Republicans have framed the Inflation Reduction Act as promoting costly electric vehicles and asserting that government regulators will prevent drivers from charging their EV’s during extreme heat to avoid straining the power grid.
Despite spending millions on Spanish-language advertising, Democrats and even traditional environmental organizations fail to emphasize these priorities in messaging to Latino voters. A review of a recent $12 million ad campaign by the League of Conservation Voters aimed at promoting Democratic climate wins shows that few, if any, of the ads were targeted to Latinos in swing states. According to Lorella Praeli, co-president of Community Change Action, there’s a gap between policymaking in Washington and how people experience and understand the result of these policies. “It’s not enough to pass the Inflation Reduction Act, you also have to explain how it touches the Latino community,” she said.
If there is a prevailing wisdom that has emerged from the 2020 election, it’s that Latino voters are smart, savvy, and highly nuanced. There is no one “Latino vote.” A one-size-fits-all approach is not enough to persuade and mobilize the growing Latino electorate. Simply translating tone-deaf party platforms that work well for highly educated white voters into Spanish campaign messages may be persuasive to some rank-and-file Latino Democrats, but may leave many others sitting on the fence.
Simply put, Democrats are not effectively messaging how they are bringing home the bacon to diverse Latino communities. Studies show that family values outweigh politics in U.S. Latinos’ climate change beliefs. Effective climate change messages would focus on how the issue tangibly and disproportionately impacts Latino families and their well being across generations and what Democrats are doing to help them. Particularly underscoring that largely due to poor air quality, Latino children are 40% more likely to die from asthma than other children—and climate change will only exacerbate this health condition.
In sum, socio-economic issues linked to the environment matter to many voters of color. Climate change is ravaging their communities and literally burning down their houses, along with the proverbial “kitchen table.” If party leaders and traditional environmental groups fail to meaningfully engage with this rapidly growing group of voters, the future of climate action and the Democratic party will be in peril.
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