President Donald Trump's successes with Latino voters in Miami-Dade County, Florida and the Rio Grande Valley, Texas have attracted a lot of attention. But in 2020, Latinos proved once again that their political leanings ran counter to a precise definition: in battlefield states like Arizona, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, Latinos helped achieve the victories that made Joe Biden's rise to the presidency possible.
It could take months before more robust data on the Latino electorate becomes available. The American election night poll based on Latino decisions found that a large majority of Latino voters supported Biden nationwide, possibly higher than the roughly 66 percent of Latino voters Hillary Clinton won in 2016. However, most polls underestimated Trump's performance this cycle, so Biden's actual margin among Latinos may be smaller than Clinton's. Early survey data suggests that it is, although sometimes this type of data is even less reliable.
However, it is clear that most of the Latinos voted for Biden. Grassroots organizers mobilized in battlefield states to achieve this, despite the fact that the Democratic Party had not made any investments until the weeks leading up to election day.
The poll on the eve of the elections found that the majority of Latino voters responded to Biden's news about the coronavirus, the economy and healthcare. The population is not monolithic, however, and their political opinions vary widely based on their country of origin, religion, gender, generation, how long they have lived in the United States and where they live. Although most historically voted for Democrats, there has always been a contingent of Latinos who support Republicans.
Supporter of President-Elect Joe Biden in Miami. Eva Marie Uzcategui Trinkl / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Still, it came as a surprise to some Democrats that Trump was able to eat among Latinos in certain corners of the country within Biden's borders. In Florida's Miami-Dade Counties and the southern Texas border area, both of which are largely Latin American territories once considered democratic strongholds, Biden fell dramatically below expectations in 2020 compared to Clinton in 2016.
Those losses have brought an oversized trial compared to the successes Latino voters had for Biden across the country, and they alone did not cause Biden to lose Florida and Texas, where Trump largely maintained his margins among white voters and improved in some places. For example, even if Biden had won the border counties in Texas with the same profit margins as Clinton, it wouldn't have been enough to bridge the gap between him and Trump in the state that is still red – despite Democratic hopes, 2020 would be the year in which it would tip over.
Still, any erosion of Latino support, which is vital to the democratic coalition, should lead to a re-examination of the party's outreach strategy, something that community organizers have long lacked.
"The Democrats cannot take Latinos for granted," said Domingo Garcia, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), at a press conference. "I think Biden missed a great opportunity to be able to wear Florida and Texas, if only he would have invested more in the Latino community, if he had delivered the right message."
Democrats had to invest early and consistently, and they didn't
Latino voters are an integral part of the democratic coalition, but the party has historically not treated them that way. In recent presidential campaigns, Democrats have typically waited until the weeks leading up to election day to contact the Latino community, confirming the perception that Latinos are an afterthought, said Marisa Franco, executive director of Mijente, a Center for Latino Organization across the country.
And with this crafting about slight POC increases for GOP in some areas – this is also an area where answers are available.
But honestly, when it comes to Latinos, the party has never looked seriously. Mexicans, Central Am, Caribbean, Chicanos – Cubans aren't the only instant community
– Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) November 6, 2020
The Biden campaign was no exception: although he began running Spanish-language ads in Florida and Arizona in June, it wasn't until late August that his campaign really focused on the reach of Latinos. It was clear that the Biden campaign had "work to do with Latinos," senior adviser Symone Sanders said in an interview with ABC News on Sept. 13. By then, the Latinos for Trump campaign was flourishing in Florida, where the president was benefiting from a well-oiled Republican political machine.
Supporters of President Donald Trump demonstrate outside La Carreta, a Cuban restaurant in Miami, on November 5th. Pedro Portal / Miami Herald / Tribune News Service via Getty Images
Biden won Miami-Dade County, where Latinos make up 58 percent of the registered voters, by only about 7 points, compared to Clinton's 30-point lead in 2016.
Cuban Americans are the largest contingent among these voters and historically have more Republicans than Hispanics from other countries of origin. But even Miami's Cuban-American community is not politically homogeneous: They are divided over politics related to the island nation, including the effectiveness of the long-standing Cuban embargo. Cubans born in the United States are more evenly divided between the two parties than their parents and grandparents, who also fled Cuba.
Miami-Dade also has significant Colombian, Haitian, Nicaraguan, and Venezuelan communities, each with their own political idiosyncrasies.
Trump's ability to gain a foothold in these communities – and Biden's failure to make up for those losses in other parts of the state – was significant enough to tip Florida in fierce competition in the president's favor. The result was not entirely surprising to the Latino organizers, who had been warning of Biden's weakness in the community for months.
Chuck Rocha, former senior advisor to Senator Bernie Sanders' 2020 presidential campaign in Vermont and co-founder of the Latino-focused Nuestro PAC, said in a post-election press conference that outside donors also had a huge blind spot when it came to Latinos. In June, Rocha began searching for rare and newly registered Latinos in battlefield states with a tested, layered advertising strategy that spanned television, radio, mail and newspapers, treating them as compelling voters.
But Nuestro PAC, along with the other two big PACs focused on the reach of Latinos, raised a total of just $ 27 million. By comparison, the Lincoln Project – a super PAC formed by ex-Republicans who tried to convince Conservatives to vote for Biden but whose strategy largely stalled – brought in an unjustifiable $ 67.4 million one.
"Nobody else spent money talking to Latinos in June and July," Rocha said. “It's just ridiculous for them to talk about our community and the way we vote, but they still have to invest in it.… These people spent a billion dollars talking to whites because it's a smart one Politics is, if you want to convince someone to vote for someone, spend a lot of money talking to them. Then why don't you do this with Latinos? "
Some Democrats argue that Biden's performance in the Texas frontier is in part a symptom of this neglect. More than half of the Latinos in Texas live in major cities, and the majority of them voted for Biden. This was in contrast to the predominantly Mexican border districts, however: Compared to Clinton in 2016, Biden won in the Cameron, Starr, Hidalgo, Webb, and Maverick districts with significantly lower profit margins despite a sharp increase in turnout.
In Hidalgo County, the largest county in the Rio Grande Valley, where 92 percent of the population is Hispanic, Biden won with 18 points and a total of around 220,000 votes. Clinton won the county by a whopping 40 points four years ago, despite only 167,000 people voting that year. Trump also flipped Zapata County and improved its performance there by 38 points from 2016, even though that equates to just 1,000 votes.
Campaigns have historically been aimed at consistently democratic voters, but voter turnout is usually not high along the border. These districts, where people have relatively low incomes and are less educated compared to other parts of the state, have often been neglected by politicians at both state and national levels.
Julián Castro, a former San Antonio mayor who was running in the Democratic primary against Biden, said at a press conference that the party's response to the 2020 election results should be to invest more in these communities, rather than themselves to withdraw. This is especially important as the Democrats see the opportunity to oust Republican governor of Texas Greg Abbott in 2022.
"In countries like the (Rio Grande Valley), the Democratic Party is at risk of stunted support because the investment is not made," Castro said.
Democrats need to work with Latino organizers
Biden stood on the shoulders of grassroots organizers who have worked for years to activate the Latino community in battlefield states.
In Arizona, organizers mobilized Latinos to vote out Maricopa County's Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was targeting Latinos. They were also at the center of the movement against SB 1070, which was passed by the state parliament in 2010 as one of the “most restrictive immigration laws in the country”, as my colleague Li Zhou said. Although the most controversial parts of the law have since been invalidated by the courts, SB 1070 previously allowed police to stop anyone they believed was an unauthorized immigrant and request their federal registration papers, resulting in breed profiling led.
These organizers are committed to registering voters and encouraging them to develop consistently in the final election cycles. The Voto Latino group reported having registered more than 61,000 Arizonans this year alone.
That paid off for Biden, who defeated Trump with around 15,000 votes in the state, according to Vox's election partner Decision Desk HQ. However, LULAC's Garcia said the community organizers could have increased that leeway with more resources.
"So I think the margins are a lot closer than they should be," he said. "When candidates invest in empowering Latino counselors and Latino community organizations, you can have massive voter turnouts that fluctuate critically in your favor."
Democrats, on the other hand, only appear in the presidential election years. This is "the equivalent of someone who goes to the Olympics every four years if they haven't done a sit-up in three years," said Franco von Mijente. "I don't think the Democratic Party can and should honor Arizona."
Voters in Tempe, Arizona wait in line to vote on 2020 election day. Olivier Touron / AFP via Getty Images
In the future, however, the party could try to promote the community organization that already exists in Arizona and replicate it elsewhere. That starts with prioritizing issues that matter to the Latino community while in office, consulting activists on those issues, and getting their support in the next election, and incorporating Latinos into running their campaign, Franco said .
One of these motivating issues is the rights of immigrants. Franco believed Biden missed the opportunity to signal immigration rights activists that he would prioritize their concerns on the immigration task force jointly convened by the teams from Biden and Sanders, who finished second in the 2020 Democratic Elementary School .
"People want to see results," said Franco. "We're going to be very aggressive and demand that they do more than just the basics to undo the worst of what Trump did."
The Nevada Democrats have already had a fruitful relationship with the Culinary Union, the largest union in the state. The union, which represents tens of thousands of Latinos in the hospitality industry, endorsed Biden and ran the largest field program in Nevada that year. There was a knock on more than 500,000 doors in Las Vegas and Reno as Democrats not personally advertised the pandemic.
In states like Georgia, however, the Latino organization is still in its infancy. The Latino community helped elect two new sheriffs who have vowed to stop working with U.S. immigration and customs to detain immigrants. But there is still room for growth, especially if Democrats want the state to stay blue.
Right disinformation is a powerful force
Overcoming disinformation is a challenge for Democrats in general, but Franco said some Latinos might be particularly vulnerable to it, also because they are politically marginalized and may have language barriers.
The main culprits could be Facebook, whose fact-checking failed to usefully contain the spread of false and misleading information, and private threads on WhatsApp where disinformation spreads more organically through people's family and friend groups. But Spanish-speaking conservative media such as Noticias 24 and PanAm Post also play a role. As a result, absurd conspiracy theories about Joe Biden and Democrats permeated Latin politics in Florida.
Trump and his allies have also used disinformation as a weapon, microtargeting Latinos in Florida with false claims that Biden is a socialist, and exploiting Hispanic fears of failed socialist regimes. The president Spanish-language ads that aired in Florida back in June compared Biden to unscrupulous Latin American caudillos such as Cuba's Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez and Nicolás Maduro from Venezuela.
Supporters of President Donald Trump at a "Stop the Cheat!" Rally on November 5th in Orlando, Florida. Stephen M. Dowell / Orlando Sentinel / Tribune News Service via Getty Images
Biden ran as the center-left moderator, and even Sander's democratic socialism bears little resemblance to the regimes in Latin America. But Biden never really formulated the distinction for the voters, but shook off the characterization. "I'm the guy who ran against a socialist," he said on October 5th Campaign event in Miami.
"If you don't respond to the label that you are being labeled a socialist and you think it doesn't affect you, I think it was a big mistake by the Biden campaign," Garcia said. "I think that has hurt much of Florida as well as parts of Texas that I think are there to win."
Democrats have not yet figured out how to effectively combat disinformation. But Franco said one way could be to hire people from these communities to act as trusted ambassadors and help voters become responsible media consumers.
There was a record turnout among Latinos – but they are still facing voter repression
Latinos showed up in record numbers with an early estimate of 14.8 million by UCLA's Latino Politino and Policy Initiative. Young Latino voters supported this turnout ahead of schedule with around 1.7 million votes – an almost three-fold increase compared to 2016, according to the political data company TargetSmart. Women who suffered disproportionately from job losses during the pandemic also came out in droves, helping Biden win in states like Wisconsin.
This record turnout is despite the barriers that stand in their way before actually casting a vote in certain states.
"When candidates invest in empowering Latino counselors and Latino community organizations, you can have massive voter turnouts that fluctuate critically in your favor."
Texas has closed about 750 polling stations since 2012, including 542 in 50 counties where the population of African Americans and Latinos has grown significantly in recent years. This resulted in long waiting times at some polling stations in mostly black and Latin American neighborhoods during the 2020 Democratic primary.
This year alone, state Republican lawmakers limited the number of voting venues to only one per district, banned counties from sending postal ballots to all registered voters, and attempted to restrict drive-through voting. Even so, Texas saw a record-breaking turnout among early voters with highly motivated Republican and Democratic bases – fueled in part by outrage over attempted voter suppression – who have overcome these obstacles.
Arkansas has pursued a similarly restrictive measure, now being challenged by Mexican-American activists in court, that limits the number of people a person can assist in voting. For Latino voters who may not be familiar with the US electoral process or who may have limited knowledge of English, this could prevent them from receiving the help they need to participate in US democracy.
For some Latinos, Trump had an inherent appeal
It may seem unlikely that Latinos would vote for a man who demonized immigrants, especially Mexicans, and who has repeatedly refused to denounce white supremacists directly. In the 2016 campaign, Trump claimed the US should keep "bad hombres" out of Mexico, suggested that Mexicans were mostly criminals, and promised his followers that they would build a "big, beautiful wall" across the southern border outside.
But for some people on whom Trump made these attacks, he nonetheless remained a palatable, even attractive, candidate.
Supporters of President Trump take part in a car parade in El Paso, Texas on October 24th. Paul Ratje / AFP via Getty Images
In South Texas, for example, Trump's "law and order" news and opposition to police defunding have had some resonance in Latino communities where law enforcement, particularly Border Patrol, is a major employer, Garcia said. Many residents also work in oil fields, fearing Democratic calls for a transition from oil and gas to clean, renewable energy. And many are Catholic or Evangelical Christians who find the Democratic stance on abortion rights abhorrent.
The biggest factor, however, could be the president's focus on reopening the economy at a time when many of these communities have been economically devastated by the pandemic and are also suffering from high numbers of coronavirus-related deaths. The economy depends on solving this public health crisis, but a perceived choice between one or the other can still resonate with voters.
"We have to be able to address their concerns in order to win them over," said Garcia. "And hopefully this is one of the lessons learned from this electoral process."
Are you helping keep Vox free for everyone?
Millions of people rely on Vox to understand how Washington policy choices, from health care to unemployment to housing, can affect their lives. Our work is well-sourced, research-oriented, and thorough. And that kind of work requires resources. Even after the economy recovers, advertising alone will never be enough to support it. If you've already contributed to Vox, thank you. If you don't, you are helping us keep our journalism free for everyone by making a financial contribution of just $ 3 today.