California's September 14 recall election saw Gov. Gavin Newsom retain statewide power with ease.
The results show falling Democratic support among Hispanic voters, the state's largest voting bloc.
But one expert warned exit polls lack some key nuances when it comes to analyzing the Latino vote.
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California Gov. Gavin Newsom easily kept his governorship in the September 14 statewide recall election, with several outlets, including Insider, calling the race less than an hour after polls closed across the state.
But while Democrats in the solidly blue state are framing the decisive win as a mandate from the state's overwhelmingly liberal base, the voting behavior of a key demographic group has left some members of the party worried. Meanwhile, political junkies have latched on to exit polls and early voting data, hoping the numbers might provide insight into what upcoming elections could hold, not only for California, but for the US broadly.
Hispanic voters constitute the largest voting bloc in California, and while they helped Newsom stave off a recall, they did so at a smaller margin than they have voted for Democrats in past elections. That assessment specifically applies to Latino men.
According to an NBC News exit poll, Latinos voted in favor of Newsom and against the recall 60% to 40% - a slight decrease from 2018, in which Latino voters elected Newsom with 64% of the vote.
The decline is part of a "consistent trend" in diminishing national Democratic support among Latinos, according to Ben Kaplan, CEO of TOP Data, a national political polling agency, who noted the group's dwindling approval began in the 2020 election when Trump overperformed with Latino voters.
"An isolated incident, you don't put too much credence in it," he said. "But the trend now is definitely in that direction."
The September 14 recall election was an important one, Kaplan argued, as one of the only real-world, post-2020 tests to provide insight into the 2022 midterms, where Latino voters across the country will play a significant role in deciding which party will take control of the House
The demographic has long been a reliable bloc of voters for Democrats, but overconfidence among elected officials in Hispanic support could explain the group's early-stage desertion.
"Anytime one party dominates, there is a tendency to take for granted your support and lump them in a bucket," Kaplan said.
"No group likes to be taken for granted, so we start seeing movement when that begins to happen," he added.
When Newsom's victory looked significantly less certain earlier this summer, polling among Latino voters indicated a fairly even split over whether they wanted to keep the governor or kick him to the curb, Kaplan said. And while the Trumpian behavior of Newsom's main opponent, conservative radio host Larry Elder, helped the Democratic governor recoup the majority of his past Latino support, exit polls suggest his campaign did not succeed in recovering it all.
"I do think there is a lot of potential here for this to be a kind of new battleground in the state," Kaplan said of the brewing fight over Latinos' loyalty.
But exit polls only go so far
Much of the immediate analysis of Latino voters' role in last week's election may be missing the specificity it deserves, according to Dorian Caal, director of civic engagement research at NALEO Education Fund, a nonprofit that supports Latino participation in the political process.
"We need to be a lot more nuanced at how we're looking at the Latino vote," Caal said.
A necessary first step is acknowledging the limitations of exit polls. Accounting for different methodologies, different elections, and margins of error reveal that Latino voters' support for Newsom in the recall was actually roughly the same as their support for the governor in the 2018 gubernatorial election, Caal said.
"Nothing really changed," he said. "Especially if we're using the marker of Newsom in 2018 versus the recall, nothing has really changed around the Latino community."
"We have to be more cognizant of what the data is telling us," he added.
Since the 2020 election, widespread interest in Latino voting habits has grown, playing a role in some of the narratives surrounding the demographic come election time, Caal said. And while understanding the Latino vote is important, doing so shouldn't come at the expense of genuine political engagement.
"We need to understand the Latino vote," Caal said. "We have to treat it as an important vote in the same way we need to engage the Latino community that has really not been engaged in many states."
But Republicans hoping to win over Hispanic voters in the coming years would be wise to avoid Democrats' past mistakes.
"Politicians forget sometimes that a group isn't one monolithic group that thinks all the same way," Kaplan said.
Latino Americans have an array of diverse origins and are continuing to grow more distinct as their share in the US population increases. Their ethnicities, cultural beliefs, and voting patterns vary. As Insider's Havovi Cooper reported following the 2020 election, Venezuelans, Nicaraguans, and Cubans helped secure Florida for Trump, while Mexican-Americans in Arizona played a role in turning the state blue for only the second time since 1948.
"We already knew the Latino community was a diverse community, and therefore we have to treat it as such," Caal said. "We have to understand the nuances that exist throughout the country, but also in states, where they can differ wildly."
So what do the California recall results tell us about future elections?
Not much - yet, according to Caal.
As organizations conduct deeper analysis of the results, some key insight into forthcoming elections could eventually emerge, he said.
"With future data, we'll see some more nuance," Caal said. "But we won't see dramatic differences."
But even with Democrats likely retaining the support of Latinos in 2022, Kaplan warned the party should be wary of a waning depth of affinity among the group.
"I think what polls sometimes miss is the strength of support," he said. "You could say at a certain point that you support Newsom or the Democrat candidate, but how deep is that support?"
Lukewarm Latino support for Newsom likely played a role in the 50-50 polling among Hispanic voters earlier in the summer, Kaplan said, and that ambivalence could factor into elections to come.
"What this bodes for 2022 and 2024, is that there tends to be Democratic support overall in the Latino community, but it might not be as deep as it once was," Kaplan said. "It's more tangible, it's more mutable, it's more often split."