For years, pundits and demographers have been predicting that 2020 would be the year of the Latino voter. It was a likely scenario—according to Pew, Latinos are already the second-largest ethnic or racial group in the United States, and their population has grown by about 4 million since Donald Trump was elected. Though Latinos have historically voted at lower rates than white people, with population growth has come greater political relevance and a decisive position in states like Florida, Texas, and New Mexico. However, in a year dominated by coverage of suburban women, Black voters, youth motivated by Black Lives Matter, and even older voters impacted by COVID-19, the Latino vote has seemingly become an afterthought. As Daniel Garza, a conservative activist and the president of the Libre Initiative, told me, “one party ignored us, and the other took us for granted.”
On the Democratic side, the lack of focus on the Latino vote reflects in part the dynamics of the primary. While the Bernie Sanders campaign built a coalition of younger voters and Latinos, Joe Biden’s team focused on Black voters, moderates, and older, mostly white, voters. Once primary season ended and the Biden campaign pivoted toward the general election, it was hobbled by the lack of a Latino infrastructure and then consumed by a need to navigate COVID-19 and the complicated politics of Black Lives Matter. Latinos, according to Stephanie Valencia, a cofounder of the progressive research hub EquisLabs, were “put on the back burner.”
Another factor at play is Democrats’ overconfidence about the loyalties of Latino voters—the belief that they are, for the most part, inherently part of the Democratic coalition of color and couldn’t possibly rally to a demagogue like Trump. But a healthy percentage of Latino voters have consistently rated Trump highly on economic issues and have been willing to look past his offensive rhetoric. Geraldo Cadava, a History professor at Northwestern University and the author of The Hispanic Republican: The Shaping of an American Political Identity, From Nixon to Trump, told me that, “with Latinos in particular, this is where they talk a lot about rising rates of homeownership, rising family incomes, low rates of unemployment. Their argument is that those are the things at the end of the day that matter.” The racial upheavals of 2020 haven’t moved the needle towards Democrats. While polling indicates that Latinos are sympathetic to the sense of injustice fueling the Black Lives Matter movement, they don’t identify with it—most Latinos do not think of themselves primarily as people of color—and they “are very susceptible to messaging around law and order, protecting your family, because we live in rough neighborhoods lots of times and we want our families to be safe,” according to Chuck Rocha, the former senior adviser to the Sanders campaign and a prominent Democratic strategist.
While the Democrats have largely been passive, the Trump campaign has aggressively cultivated Latino swing voters. Given the president’s fulsome history of race baiting, it borders on the bizarre that the Trump administration has launched a sustained and effective outreach to Latinos. But Garza of the Libre Initiative told me how Trump has “opened up the White House to Latino evangelicals, pastors, women, youth business owners across the board.… They’ve gone out of their way to accommodate for Latino voices.” This extends beyond the confines of the White House; Vice President Mike Pence and senior officials have conducted listening tours with Latino voters beginning in the early days of the administration. The seriousness of the administration’s efforts was signaled at the Republican National Convention, both by what happened (a handful of Latino speakers) and what didn’t (the familiar chants of “build the wall” were conspicuously absent). As Democrats were going dark on Latino outreach, the Trump campaign was ratcheting up its own messaging—an effort that hit home because Biden “was well-known but not sharply defined with Latino voters. And Trump has spent much of the last six months defining him for us,” according to Valencia.
All this has proven to be an effective strategy. Polls of Latino voters are now consistently more favorable for the president than one might expect. In the latest Economist/YouGov poll, 34% of Latino voters favor Trump, with roughly 9% still undecided. At this point, Trump is running well ahead of his own vote share in 2016 (28%), as well as that of Mitt Romney in 2012 (27%) and John McCain in 2008 (31%). It’s still a heavily Democratic vote, but the movement of somewhere between 6% and 15% of Latino voters is potentially significant enough to impact the outcome in states like Florida and North Carolina. The polling has shaken Democrats, who have rapidly expanded their efforts to engage with Latinos over the last month. Rocha told me that Democrats are now outspending Republicans in Latino media three to one, and a Democratic PAC led by Rocha recently launched a new, aggressive Spanish-language media effort. But at this late date, even a vigorous effort to court Latino voters may be too late to move more than a relatively small group of undecided voters.
That may not matter in 2020, even in key states, given the inroads Biden has made with suburban women in general, white women without college degrees, and older voters. But it may matter enormously in future election cycles. The Latino vote will only increase in importance as the Latino population grows (Latinos are projected to make up 29% of the U.S. population by 2050) and as their voting participation ticks up over time. Many assume that this is unequivocal good news for the Democrats. But that may not be the case—at least not entirely. Even Valencia, the progressive pollster, sees opportunity for conservatives, noting that messages of economic opportunity and personal freedoms would play even better for Republicans if they didn’t “have an idiot as the head of the party…[and] if Democrats don’t wake up.” Republicans have generally taken between 30% and 40% of the Latino vote since the 1970s, reaching a high of 44% for George W. Bush in 2004. If they continue to listen and engage Latinos while Democrats take a back seat, that ceiling could be broken.
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