Rural Voters, Latino Voters Defy Easy Narratives in Midterms : The NPR Politics Podcast In Pennsylvania, Democratic candidates managed to turnout their rural supporters while many rural Republicans stayed home. And long-term under-investment in Latino voter engagement by Democrats continues to stymie the party's statewide hopes in places like Florida and Texas.

This episode: White House correspondent Tamara Keith, political reporter Ximena Bustillo, senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro, and political correspondent Ashley Lopez.

This episode was produced by Elena Moore and Casey Morell. It was edited by Eric McDaniel. Our executive producer is Muthoni Muturi. Fact-checking by Katherine Swartz.

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Rural Voters, Latino Voters Defy Easy Narratives in Midterms

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OREN: Hi. This is Oren (ph) in Los Angeles, Calif., where, yes, it is 70 degrees. And, yes, the Christmas music is playing on repeat. This podcast was recorded at...


1:10 p.m. on Monday, the 28 of November.

OREN: Things may have changed by the time you hear it. OK. Here's the show.


KEITH: Things may have changed except your weather, which is almost always perfect (laughter). Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

XIMENA BUSTILLO, BYLINE: I'm Ximena Bustillo, and I cover politics.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: And I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.

KEITH: Now that the dust has really settled on the midterms, today we're going to explore what happened with two demographic groups Democrats were paying close attention to - rural voters and Latino voters. And let's start with rural voters. Domenico, this was a group that for generations Democrats had a lock on, and there are still vestiges of that. Look at West Virginia's Joe Manchin, for instance. But what happened? How, broadly speaking, over time did they lose this group?

MONTANARO: Well, culture has really been a huge shift in this. You know, it used to be centered around economics, and Democrats had been the party of unions and factory workers and the working class. And that shifted where Democrats were then seen as more of an elite party, a party of more educated voters - college degrees and so forth - and more urban voters. So it really shifted over time where Republicans then used culture issues to really turn this group around. And we've seen a - you know, them vote by huge margins ever since.

KEITH: And, Ximena, the rural voters, this is a group of voters that Democrats this past cycle put a new focus on or return to trying to win them over.

BUSTILLO: Yeah, definitely. And I think a part of that is because a lot of these races were very tight, and that was especially the case in areas where there were open seats. And in that case, campaigns really had to leave no stone unturned in terms of who could potentially be a voter, who could potentially go out to the polls - either be a swing voter or be brought over for one reason or another.

KEITH: Well, and if you looked at those maps that The New York Times had where they sort of had these arrows indicating the direction that various areas went from 2020 to 2022, you saw that, like, in a state like Pennsylvania, there were just a lot of arrows that went to the more Democratic side, including in rural parts of that state.

BUSTILLO: Yeah. What we saw is Democrats, by and large, did better at pushing those margins. So it was kind of predicted that they might be able to turn out more Democratic voters than even President Joe Biden did when he flipped some of these states like Pennsylvania. So we see Senator-elect John Fetterman specifically did do that. He not only won on election night, which, you know, was great for the Democrats, but he was able to turn out more Democratic voters in these rural areas than even the president when he flipped the state from Donald Trump in 2020.

MONTANARO: It's an important point to note that this didn't happen everywhere. You had...

BUSTILLO: Definitely.

MONTANARO: In fact, overall, rural voters still voted by a huge margin for Republicans - 29 points in 2022, higher even than in 2020 and in 2018. What I think we saw in Pennsylvania that was particularly notable was a decline in the share of the electorate among rural voters. So rural voters in 2018 were about 20% of the electorate. 2022, they were only 11% of the electorate. So you saw a steep decline. And even though Republicans still won them by a fairly wide margin, Democrats shaved off the margin.

And I think that that tells you, based on the share of the electorate having been so reduced, the kinds of rural voters who turned out. I mean, there are Democrats in rural areas, just not a huge number of them. And I think that that engagement in a place like Pennsylvania I think is probably the difference because you didn't see those numbers the same way in a state like Georgia, for example. In Georgia, it was really Atlanta and those suburbs that went more Democratic, but rural areas really moved far more Republican. Ohio, though, we did see a similar story to Pennsylvania, just not enough to kind of help a candidate like Tim Ryan over the edge, who was the Democratic Senate candidate there.

KEITH: Well, and, Ximena, you also looked at Washington's 3rd Congressional District.

BUSTILLO: Yes, that is one of the ones that had an open seat, and that's because Representative Jaime Herrera Beutler lost her primary. And she was a Republican.

KEITH: She was a Republican who voted to impeach former President Trump.

BUSTILLO: Yes, exactly. And so it was kind of which way is that district going to go? Is it going to go for someone that believes that impeachment was incorrect, or is it going to go for a Democrat? And the winner of that race was Democrat Marie Gluesenkamp Perez.

KEITH: And was there something in particular in that district about how Democrats spoke to voters there, or was this a, you know, Democrats turned out and Republicans kind of stayed home situation?

BUSTILLO: You can kind of analyze this in a wide variety of ways. Some strategists have told me that, specifically in this race, the candidate that won, she just appealed to regular people a lot more, and she was able to be a candidate that spoke to the issues of that district. And at the end of the day, that is who this county wanted to elect versus someone like Joe Kent, who was the Republican nominee, who was a lot more fringe even for Republicans, you know, in that area that traditionally does kind of - it swings, but it tends to go a little bit more Republican than not.

MONTANARO: I think Democrats do see some hope at least in that sort of - what used to be known as the Rust Belt, you know, having Pennsylvania, Ohio, even Michigan. We saw Michigan - huge swing in the governor's race, for example, where Gretchen Whitmer was. Now, we have to kind of think about what the underlying reasons for some of this was. And I think overall, what we saw were a lot of extreme Republican candidates - who Democrats were easily able to target that way - who really kind of held Republicans back in many instances. But Democrats see some hope at least in the Midwest and Midwest-adjacent. We can argue over Western Pennsylvania.

KEITH: (Laughter) So, Ximena, I think that what you were going to tell me is that there is no one reason why this happened. Like, I have a lot of questions. Was it because Democrats were trying harder? Was it because Republicans were somehow taking rural voters for granted? Was it because of migration related to the pandemic and more left-leaning voters moving to rural areas where their families are or something?

BUSTILLO: It definitely is not a one-size-fits-all as most analysis of voter groups is, right? No voter group is a monolith. So each race, candidates perform the way that they did for different reasons. So we had the overarching big national issues that trickled down into campaign talking points - items about inflation, the right to abortion, debt relief, rural development and infrastructure investment. But the reasons why voters turned out still varied. In some states, abortion mattered more. In other states, the state of democracy was a much bigger ticket item. So, you know, as to why there was one - not necessarily an answer, but I think it is true that both parties definitely did have to put a little bit of the legwork in for this midterm because it was looking really tight kind of across the board.

KEITH: And I think it's also just worth noting that when we talk about rural voters, there's often an assumption that it's white rural voters...


KEITH: ...When, in reality, rural communities, like the one I grew up in, were extremely diverse.

BUSTILLO: Right. Most recent 2020 census data showed that even as populations in rural areas are declining, they're also growing. They're becoming more racially and ethnically diverse and, even as you hinted at earlier, probably even socioeconomically and politically diverse after many people moved out of cities during the pandemic and into more rural areas and nonmetro areas. So it's really a demographic that has a lot of variety to tap into. And it just kind of is a matter of if candidates go out there, if they spend the money out there, if they, you know, put in the investment in those areas.

KEITH: All right. Let's take a quick break. Ximena, thank you so much for sharing your reporting.

BUSTILLO: Thank you.

KEITH: And when we're back, the challenge Democrats had this cycle with Latino voters.

And we're back. And Ashley Lopez is with us now. Hey, Ashley.


KEITH: So Democrats have long tried to position themselves as the party for Latino voters and voters of color. But among Latino voters this cycle, results were mixed. Republicans did really well in Florida and Texas, states that have large Latino populations, while in states like Nevada, Arizona and Colorado, Latino voters were a key part of a winning Democratic coalition. So, Ashley, there has been a lot of talk, particularly on the Democratic side, about the idea of demographics as destiny. I think some of that has been fading.

LOPEZ: Yeah.

KEITH: But arguably, Texas would be ground zero for those demographics' destiny. But Republicans did pretty well there at the top of the ticket, certainly.

LOPEZ: Yeah. I mean, throughout statewide races, Republicans dominated in Texas as they have been doing for decades now. So it was a really bad showing for Democrats. And I got to say, a lot of this actually has to do with the stronghold Republicans have in rural parts in the state. And this was, you know, as you mentioned, a state with a lot of Latino voters. And Republicans, during this cycle specifically, wanted to see if they could improve their numbers among Latino voters, mostly in South Texas, which is mixed, but pretty rural. Because in 2020, Donald Trump overperformed there, and Republicans saw this as a sign that this could be, like, a good voting bloc for them to invest in.

And what we saw is that Republicans really didn't do that much better in the Rio Grande Valley even though they completely shut out Democrats throughout the state. And in the end, you know, Republicans only picked up one congressional seat in the Rio Grande Valley out of three that they were looking at. And that one seat, you know, they won was probably the most competitive for them. It was redrawn during redistricting to become an easier pickup for them.

But overall, I mean, it seems like despite Democrats holding on to their ground for the most part among Latino voters, they definitely lost big statewide. And it's a sign that Democrats are really struggling in places like Texas despite not really doing significantly worse - right? - among Latino voters this year.

MONTANARO: And there's a big difference between how Latino voters voted in places like Texas, Nevada and Arizona, where Democrats really did hold their own pretty well, you know, at least compared to 2020, and something like Florida. And they're very different types of Latinos, obviously, in those states. And, you know, South Florida went far more for Republicans this time around than they did - than it did in 2020.

And a lot of that, you know, when we talk about second-generation Latinos, third-generation Latinos - immigration as an issue is not the kind of thing that is just seen as, you know, the winning message that Democrats have used over the past decade or so to try to appeal. And it doesn't mean that demographics is absolutely destiny when you have, you know, immigrant groups. As we've seen with other immigrant groups, you know, as they kind of filter into, you know, getting the kinds of jobs and income and trying to move up the, you know, socioeconomic ladder in the United States, things start to change politically for a lot of those groups and their children.

KEITH: Florida, however, was just a total blowout for Republicans, including, as you say, in, like, something like Miami-Dade County, traditionally very Democratic.

MONTANARO: Yeah, a huge shift. Miami-Dade went 17 points more for Republicans this time than it did in 2020. And that's a huge shift. It has a lot of Democrats concerned that Florida is going to be off the table as a swing state. And, you know, I think that that really has something to do with a lot of the kind of campaigning that Republicans have done to try to appeal to Cuban exiles, Venezuelan exiles, who really don't like the idea of, quote-unquote, "socialism." They hear what some of the more progressive left are talking about. And Republicans are using that to say, this is what the left wants to do, so vote Republican.

LOPEZ: Yeah. I mean, there is another perspective on this that I heard mostly from third-party groups that mostly focus on engaging with and turning out the vote among Latino voters. And they tend to, you know, mostly try to get out the vote for Democrats, right? And what they said is, you know, it's not just that the messaging from Republicans was, like, maybe a little more effective for those voters but also that Democrats - especially, like, national donors and stuff - were just less invested in Florida. I mean, this seems like a state where it's been slowly moving red, where Democrats have been shut out for a couple of cycles now. And it's just harder to get donors to invest in getting out Latino voters for Democratic candidates.

And so that also led to, you know, Florida - yes, the margins were big in terms of wins for Republicans, but also turnout was significantly down, especially compared to the rest of the country, like places like - I would say Texas and Florida had pretty significantly lower turnout compared to 2018. So I think it's, you know, a little bit of Republicans have a lot of money, better messaging for some of these voters but also all the resources for the most part because Democrats didn't really spend a lot of money in Florida compared to places like Arizona and Nevada. And groups down there say it shows.

MONTANARO: Ashley makes a great point that when you don't put in the kind of money that's necessary in states like Texas and Florida, which are big states with big media markets, and it's difficult to go door-to-door without that kind of millions of dollars pumped in.

LOPEZ: I mean, anyone who's covered Latino voters and especially, like, groups who have, like, sort of grassroots groups who have, like, connections in those communities, say, like, effective canvassing and effective engagement with these kind of voters takes time. It needs to be consistent. You know, you need to be spending money, you know, year after year there, not just when there's an election because these are the kind of voters that will tune out and not feel like they're cared about if, you know, people aren't knocking on their doors consistently, making sure they have all the information they need to vote.

And so this is the kind of thing that happens when money starts to dry up year over year. It's like it becomes sort of a vicious cycle because, you know, their voters aren't turning out, and so people think that those voters aren't worth investing in. And I think, like, what I heard from a lot of groups while I was down in Florida after the election was they want to make sure that people still understand that this takes time and money, and sometimes you're going to lose some, especially if you don't invest.

KEITH: We're going to have to leave it there for today, but I am certain we are going to be picking apart this past election right up until the next one to see what lessons there were to be learned.

I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

LOPEZ: I'm Ashley Lopez. I cover politics.

MONTANARO: And I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.

KEITH: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.


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