Debates about the role of the Latino vote have become somewhat of a tradition in the United States. As campaigns begin to trace their strategies for the upcoming elections, the topic is brought up by political strategists, scholars and pundits who attempt to project the electoral behavior of these communities. Their concern is not unfounded. In the last two decades, populations broadly defined as “Latino” have claimed an increasing share of the US electorate, particularly in battleground states like Florida.
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This trend is not equally celebrated by both sides of the aisle. As a group, Latino voters have traditionally leaned toward the Democratic Party, fueling hopes that the increasing share of Latinos among the US electorate would translate into growing support for Democratic presidential candidates even in states known for being Republican strongholds, such as Texas. This narrative gained further momentum in the current electoral cycle as many expected Latinos to reject Donald Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric. However, the results of the 2020 presidential election suggest that changing demographics might not be enough to shield US politics against the next Donald Trump.
Who Are the Latino Voters?
Understanding these voters in their complexity and diversity is no easy task. At times, even establishing who belongs in the Latino category is a matter of contention. For instance, most dictionary definitions of the term “Latino” would encompass Brazilian Americans as they define Latino as “a person of Latin American origin living in the U.S.” However, the US Census Bureau (USCB) — and some Brazilians themselves — would disagree. The USCB establishes no clear distinction between the terms “Latino” and “Hispanic,” privileging the narrower definition that emphasizes the Spanish linguistic heritage rather than geopolitical criteria.
This conflict of definitions is a sample of the challenges facing scholars and analysts who attempt to predict how the Latino vote will shape US elections in the future. Rather than being a monolith, Latinos are a diverse group with distinctive priorities, interests and political views. In fact, only a quarter of Latinos use the term to describe themselves, with most preferring to be identified by the country of origin of their families. Among those who have Spanish as the dominant language in the countries of origin, almost 70% claim Hispanics in the US cannot be described as having a single shared culture.
Diversity is also a hallmark of these communities in the realm of politics. Although minoritarian, some Hispanics have a history of commitment to the Republican Party and were instrumental in securing Republican candidates around a third of the Hispanic vote at least since the reelection of Richard Nixon in 1972.
Again, in 2020, electoral results appear to have followed that trend, with 32% of Latinos voting for Donald Trump, an increase of 4% compared to 2016 results, while Joe Biden performed on par with Hillary Clinton, securing around 66% of the Latino vote. Despite President Trump’s gains this year, most Latinos still vote Democrat and, as they become a greater share of the US electorate, this should benefit Democratic candidates in the future. Nonetheless, given the peculiarities of the US electoral system, projecting the influence of Latino voters on the outcome of an election based solely on national voting trends can be misleading.
Beyond convincing voters of their ideas, candidates must also persuade them to actually cast their ballots as voting in the US is not mandatory and turnout is usually low. Furthermore, as elections are decided by a few battleground states, the candidates’ performance in these is more critical to the outcome of an election than the nationwide popular vote, as we have seen in 2000 with George W. Bush and in 2016 with Donald Trump.
If we account for these two variables, turnout and performance in key states, Latinos have sent a mixed message during the 2020 electoral cycle. In the state of Georgia, turnout among Latinos doubled when compared to 2016, with many of those votes going for Joe Biden. In Gwinnett County, a precinct with a high concentration of Latinos, Biden widened the Democratic margin by 46%, earning 75% of the votes in the county. Young Latinos also helped flip the state of Arizona, which hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential nominee since Bill Clinton in 1996; Biden won here by a tight margin of little more than 10,000 votes.
However, Trump made significant inroads among Latino voters in important Democrat strongholds in southern Florida and in the Rio Grande Valley, Texas, two of the states which account for the highest number of electoral votes in the country.
Latinos for Trump
The surge in support for Donald Trump among Latinos in Florida and Texas was received with surprise by many observers of US politics. Prior to the election, expectations were that the Latino turnout would actually increase Democratic margins in those states and potentially flip them in favor of Joe Biden. Yet precisely the opposite occurred. But why did Latino communities in these states vote for Donald Trump, a candidate who made anti-immigration policies a staple of his administration?
As one would expect, the reasons are manifold, and among them, partisanship is one that is often overlooked. Voters in the United States are historically polarized along party lines, and the gap between Democrats and Republicans has grown even wider in recent years. Latinos are no exception. As the data from the University of Texas at Austin shows, Latinos in Texas who identify as Republican are almost twice more likely to forego concerns about Trump’s immigration policies than non-Republican Latinos.
Data from Florida also shows strong partisan identification, in particular among Cuban Americans, who make up the largest share of Latino voters in southern Florida. According to the Pew Research Center, 58% of Cuban American registered voters identify as Republicans. In Miami-Dade, the most populous county in Florida, approximately 55% of Cuban Americans voted for Donald Trump in 2020.
In addition to partisanship, Trump’s performance among Latino voters in Florida and Texas can be attributed to effective signaling strategies on issues that resonated with specific groups of voters in these communities. In Miami-Dade, for instance, Trump’s tougher stance against “socialism” was a major driver of engagement and one the president exploited well. Since taking office in 2017, Trump courted Cuban Americans unhappy with the normalization of diplomatic relations with Havana under the Obama administration. He announced the reversal of President Barack Obama’s Cuba policy at a rally in the neighborhood of Little Havana in 2017, in a clear bid to increase his support among Cuban American voters.
During his presidency, Trump also wooed Venezuelan Americans by posting pictures on Twitter with Lillian Tintori, the wife of Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, and recognizing the shadow government of Juan Guaidó. In the days leading up to the 2020 election, disinformation campaigns in Spanish circulated widely on social platforms like WhatsApp, portraying Joe Biden as a socialist and associating the Democratic candidate with the autocratic regimes of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua.
In Texas, home of the country’s second-largest Mexican American community, Trump’s message also resonated with Latinos who embraced the state’s conservative ethos. Tejanos, as some prefer to be called, traditionally lean more Republican than their counterparts in other states and seem very much in tune with the attitudes of their fellow Texans when it comes to religion, abortion, support for law enforcement and gun rights.
However, it was in the Democratic stronghold of the Rio Grande Valley, along the border with Mexico, that Trump registered his largest gains. In Zapata, a county dependent on the jobs created by the oil and gas industry, claims that Biden would ban fracking helped Trump flip the county red for the first time in almost a century. Trump benefitted greatly from a strong engagement of local Republicans who tailored his message to the issues most affecting these communities. Caravans of pickup trucks, the so-called “Trump Trains,” drove around the region praising Trump’s “pro-business” views and warning against “liberals” who want to “defund the police.”
Those were powerful messages in a region where 14% of local residents, most of them Latinos, are self-employed and many others work in law enforcement, including border patrol and immigration enforcement. The result was an astounding loss of 16% on average in the regions’ four counties, reducing the Democratic margin from Hillary Clinton’s 44% to only 11% for Joe Biden.
This time, Donald Trump’s inroads among Latino voters did not win him reelection. However, his performance showed yet again that the increasingly diverse make-up of the US electorate, when combined with the peculiarities of the US electoral system, is no antidote against far-right trends. For those concerned with the state of US democracy, Democrats and Republicans alike, the 2020 presidential election should sound the alarm against essentializing narratives that take groups as diverse as Latino voters for granted.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.