Palfrey Avenue on San Antonio’s South Side is a quiet street lined with small one-story homes and older cars. Voters here elected President Joe Biden by a 10-point margin in 2020, but it’s also hard to miss the proliferation of “Back the Blue” signs that dot the tidy yards.
Republicans see an opening in this predominantly Latino neighborhood, starting in the upcoming 2022 midterms.
Near the end of summer, a caravan of Republican candidates block-walked the neighborhood. It included Cassy Garcia, running for Texas Congressional District 28, which touches Bexar County, as well as Trish DeBerry, running an underdog campaign for Bexar County executive.
DeBerry, pointing to one of the “Back the Blue” signs, said the campaign trail this electoral cycle looks different from what it was more than a decade ago when she ran for mayor. “There have always been conservative pockets on the South Side,” DeBerry said. “Now it’s more than just pockets.”
The candidates that afternoon spoke to voters like Vicky Garcia.
Vicky Garcia, a paraprofessional for a local school district, grew up in a Democratic household but today identifies with neither party. “I vote for the people,” she said. She voted for Barack Obama in 2008 but did not vote in 2012. She voted for Donald Trump in 2016 but skipped 2020. After a short chat publicwith Cassy Garcia, Vicky Garcia said she plans to vote for Cassy Garcia in the upcoming midterms.
She said she found power in Trump’s pledge to “Make America Great Again” in 2016, and her conversation with Cassy Garcia convinced her that the candidate would treat immigrants with compassion — but impose order on the immigration process.
Vicky Garcia and many of her neighbors on Palfrey Avenue are drifting toward the Republican Party — a pattern seen across the nation among working-class Latinos. If Republicans continue to make inroads in these Latino communities, analysts say they have the potential to reshape the national political landscape in the same way that working class white voters flocked to the Republican coalition in the Reagan years.
Down south, the border counties’ tectonic shift toward Republicans — allowing the party to take Zapata County for the first time since Reconstruction, after the Civil War — was one of the biggest political stories of 2020.
But what has gone almost entirely unreported is the same shift happening — so far to a lesser degree — in Bexar County.
Democrats won Bexar County by a larger margin in 2020 than in 2016. But this win conceals an unprecedented partisan shift.
The stunning rise in Latino voters who went for Republican President Donald Trump in the Rio Grande Valley is evident in Bexar County as well, though to a lesser extent.
This map illustrates how each precinct shifted between 2016 and 2020. Republicans gained ground in red precincts. Democrats gained ground in blue precincts.
Republicans made gains on the South, West and East sides and in the urban core, where a higher percentage of voters identify as Hispanic, earn less and have fewer bachelor’s degrees.
Democrats made their largest gains on the North Side, where voters tend to be whiter, wealthier and have more college degrees.
The population of roughly 1 in 3 precincts in Bexar County is more than 70% Hispanic, indicated here in deeper shades of purple.
Almost all of them voted more Republican in 2020 than they did in 2016.
Adding in all Bexar County precincts, a pattern becomes clear. Precincts with a lower percentage of Hispanic residents, shown in lighter purple, shifted away from Trump from 2016 to 2020.
In 2020 in Bexar County, Trump saw gains in his voting share of nearly every precinct where more than 70% of residents are Hispanic, according to a San Antonio Report analysis. In precincts where Hispanic residents account for 70% or more of the population, Trump carried 28.5% of the vote, up from 24.5% four years earlier. Biden still won almost all of those districts, with nearly 70% of the vote, but this rise in vote share among the Hispanic population for Republicans is an outlier in modern politics.
To a lesser extent, Trump also saw gains among the overwhelming majority of precincts where less than a fifth of adults have bachelor’s degrees, a metric that describes a precinct’s educational attainment levels. The same was true for poorer precincts, where the median household income was below the county median of $55,000.
In 2020, Biden made his gains primarily on the North Side of San Antonio, among precincts that were the least Hispanic, the highest in income and the most college-educated. Democrats won Bexar County by a larger margin in 2020 than in 2016.
The findings come out of a San Antonio Report analysis of voting precinct and census data from the 2016-2020 American Community Survey. Its methodology and findings were confirmed by University of Texas at San Antonio statistician and political science professor Milena Ang, who found that out of the three variables chosen — Hispanic percentage, bachelor’s degree attainment and median household income — the percentage of Hispanic residents was the strongest predictor for increased support for Trump in 2020. (Notes for methodology can be found at the bottom of this article).
In historically heavily blue Bexar County, “Democrats are winning seats but losing votes,” Ang said. And while Latino communities as a whole still vote overwhelmingly Democratic, the question is “for how much longer?”
Why Latino demographics are shifting
Jill Biden’s trip to San Antonio in July was supposed to be a moment reaffirming the Democratic Party’s close relationship with the nation’s largest Latino civil rights group. But when the first lady spoke before the annual conference of UnidosUS, she said Latinos were “as unique as the breakfast tacos here in San Antonio.” The line instantly became a meme in politically conservative Latino circles.
Weeks later, Cassy Garcia wore a T-shirt that said “Unique as a breakfast taco” while giving her own speech at a small venue on the South Side of San Antonio, where a few dozen Republican voters and staffers had gathered. She began with praise for Mayra Flores, the Mexican-born congresswoman who recently won a special election in Texas’ 34th Congressional District.
“[Republicans] elected our first Mexican American to Congress,” Garcia said. “We flipped a blue seat that’s been Democrat controlled for over 150 years. Can I get an amen for that?”
After the applause, she gestured to the room. “The red wave is happening right and right now,” she said, to even louder applause.
The relatively new Republican National Committee Hispanic Community Center, which opened in October 2021, is one of five such centers the national GOP has opened recently in mostly Hispanic neighborhoods in large Texas cities.
At the Garcia event, RNC spokeswoman Macarena Martinez said the “seven-figure investment” is the largest the national GOP has ever made in Texas. The move is intended to seize upon a sudden fault line in traditionally strong Democratic blocks, whose first cracks in 2020 took many Republicans by surprise.
Martinez, a former Trump campaign staffer in charge of monitoring Spanish-language news media, said the campaign suspected gains would be seen in Florida because Trump’s anti-socialist messaging appealed to some Cuban emigres. But Texas? “We didn’t think it was going to happen. It was a tectonic shift that took us by surprise.”
It’s the kind of shift that Orlando Sanchez, founder of the Texas Latino Conservatives, which has donated to the campaigns of DeBerry and Republican Bexar County district attorney candidate Marc LaHood, said was “entirely organic,” meaning it had nothing to do with the efforts of the state GOP.
Sanchez said the shift in South Texas instead sprung out of the “values of multigenerational Mexican Americans”: hard work, an entrepreneurial spirit and pro-life values. “I predicted a long time ago that South Texas would turn conservative,” he said.
He said that while Bexar County’s shift was smaller than the counties in the Rio Grande Valley and elsewhere along the border, it was in the same direction. He didn’t think these shifts would change the game in time for the 2022 election, but it might in future ones. Sanchez didn’t think Texas Gov. Greg Abbott would get more than 50% of the Hispanic vote, as he has pledged, but progress would continue to be made for the GOP.
Garcia cites this values-based explanation in her own appeals to voters: “I am running to defend faith, freedom and family,” she said, but she also offers a second explanation of her ethos: It’s about kitchen-table problems she says Democrats aren’t addressing. “They don’t talk about issues,” she said. “They take your vote for granted. They don’t talk about, ‘Hey, what can I do to lower your gas bill?’”
DeBerry put it more bluntly: “It’s the economy, stupid!” she said, referencing political strategist James Carville’s 1992 advice for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign. DeBerry said that although issues like the mass shooting in Uvalde and the overturning of Roe v. Wade appear to have become liabilities for Republicans, economic concerns remain a top issue for voters.
National polling firm Equis Research has found a significant Democratic advantage when Hispanic voters are asked which party is “better for Hispanics” (53% Democratic to 31% Republican), with similar margins to questions asking which “is the party of fairness and equality” and which party “cares about people like you.”
But the Democratic advantage fell dramatically on key bread-and-butter questions: which party “values hard work”? Which party is “the party of the American dream”? And when asked which party is “better for the American worker,” Latino voters polled were split 42% to 42%.
Equis, a Democratic-aligned firm that focuses on Latino voters, found an 8% shift toward Republicans among Latino voters nationwide. In Bexar County, it was closer to 5%, said Maria Isabel Di Franco Quiñonez, a research associate with Equis.
“In a moment where the economy is top-of-mind, as it was in 2020, it created ‘permission’ for some Latino voters who had previously held back on voting Republican,” Quiñonez said.
She said the current midterm election cycle has been volatile when it comes to which issues are priorities for voters, swinging among guns, abortion access and inflation in polls leading up to Election Day on Nov. 8.
But the shift hasn’t happened in a vacuum, and the real test will be to see if it holds true in future elections, or if Trump’s 2020 support was unique.
“There’s a more complicated story here,” said Michelle Tremillo, co-executive director of the Texas Organizing Project (TOP), a progressive advocacy group. “Working-class Hispanic communities have proven through their votes that they value progressive ideals,” she said, pointing to the election of progressive candidates on San Antonio’s City Council Teri Castillo (D5) and Jalen McKee-Rodriguez (D2), as well as the votes in favor of Proposition B found in many neighborhoods.
She attributed the shift in 2020 to an organizing deficit. Democrats by and large avoided door-knocking and other face-to-face campaigning in the runup to the 2020 election due to concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic and the safety of in-person get-out-the-vote efforts. (TOP was one of the few groups that did, albeit in the final weeks).
Democrats are door-knocking now in 2022 in hopes of shifting the electorate back the other direction. “We’re confident that given our work and our canvassing, Bexar County will see a growth in Latino participation in favor of the Democrats,” she said.
An enduring conservative shift or just a blip?
The question of whether 2020’s shift among some Latino voters will be enduring, or even grow, is of consequence to Bexar County. Approximately 55% of Bexar County residents over age 20 identify as Hispanic, according to census figures. For those under 20, it’s closer to 70%.
Quiñonez, the researcher with Equis Research, said the progressive organization’s recent polling has indicated that the shift has not grown since 2020, but it hasn’t diminished, either. That was true in Bexar County and nationwide.
“The question is where to stand between the doomsayers who say Democrats are bleeding support and the denialists who want to perceive 2020 as just a blip along the way,” Quiñonez said.
An argument that the shift may endure — and even ultimately do away with the idea of a dominant “Latino vote” — comes from a political science paper published in July, “Reversion to the Mean, or Their Version of the Dream? An Analysis of Latino Voting in 2020,” by political scientists at Emory University, Columbia University and the University of Pittsburgh. The authors found that, among Latino voters, issue positions are increasingly driving votes rather than any potential sense of ethnic solidarity. The authors also noted pro-Trump shifts among subgroups: working-class Latinos, Latinos who are the children of immigrants and Catholic Latinos.
In other words, the idea of a “Latino vote” may be dissolving entirely in favor of other identities and political alignments.
The next substantial indicator will come on Election Day.
For this analysis, the San Antonio Report used demographic data from the 2016-2020 American Community Survey, which is a product of the U.S. Census Bureau that uses polling to estimate key demographic trends. Those census results were projected into the geographic borders of 2020 election precincts. This allowed each precinct to be assigned an estimated demographic profile, which could be used alongside the precinct’s vote tallies in 2020.
In order to compare the 2020 results with 2016, the 2016 precinct-level results were also projected into the 2020 precinct map. This allowed each precinct to be assigned estimated 2016 vote tallies.
Precincts with fewer than 200 voters in either election were removed as outliers, though their presence did not dramatically change results.
Projections were population-weighted.
The R file creating the spreadsheet used for this analysis can be found on GitHub here.