Feature

The Latino vote

Trump's inroads among Hispanics in the last election shocked Democrats. What happened?

Trump's inroads among Hispanics in the last election shocked Democrats. What happened? Here's everything you need to know.

Aren't Latinos reliably Democratic? Not after last November's election surprise. With some 61 million Latinos in the U.S., Democrats have dreamed of the day when the fast-growing Latino vote gives them decisive majorities in Sun Belt states like Florida, Texas, Arizona, and Nevada. But President Trump actually improved his results among Latino voters in 2020, getting 32 percent of their vote, according to exit polls — 4 percent more than in 2016. This improvement came despite his frequent attacks on Hispanic migrants as criminals and invaders, his policy of deliberately separating children from parents at the border, and his widely panned, ineffective response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. While Joe Biden still won the national Latino vote by 2 to 1, he lost Florida largely due to having just a 5-point edge among Latinos, compared with Hillary Clinton's 27-point advantage in 2016. Democrats' hopes of swinging Texas were dashed when Trump narrowed the Latino margin there by 10 points. Down ballot, Hispanic support for Democrats slipped 9 percent.

What drew Latinos to Trump? A combination of factors. His fierce opposition to abortion resonated with many Latinos, about three-quarters of whom are Christian, including many devout Catholics. Trump targeted Latinos whose families fled socialist regimes in countries such as Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Colombia, branding Democrats as "socialists" and even "communists," and warning that Biden would be the far left's "Trojan horse" in the White House. The Left's campaign to "defund the police" also alienated many Latinos, who fear urban crime and make up about 13 percent of local law enforcement and nearly 40 percent of Customs and Border Protection. Latinos who've become citizens after immigrating legally often resent being associated with the plight of poor illegal immigrants. When Sergio Arellano of Arizona was 18 and in the Army, he went to register to vote, asked what separates Democrats and Republicans, and was told that Democrats are for the poor and Republicans support the rich. "That made it easy," Arellano told The New York Times. "I didn't want to be poor, I wanted to be rich, so I chose Republican." Many Latino men who've built businesses of their own admired Trump's success and wealth, as well as his pugnacious, no-apologies attitude.

Why was that appealing? Many Latino men were raised in traditional households, with socially conservative values. "We were brought up the old-school way, that men are men, they have to provide, that there's no excuses and there's no crying. If you don't make it, it's because you're a pendejo," said Ricardo Portillo, 45, of McAllen, Texas, using Spanish slang for "idiot." Last year's election revealed a stark gender gap: Biden won Latino men by 23 points but Latinas by 39 points, and the divide was even more dramatic in swing states like Nevada, where Latinas favored Biden by 47 points but Latino men by just 6 points. Latina women are more likely to attend college, while many Latino men in the South work in oil fields and fear the impact of environmental regulations. They're are also turned off by the gender-neutral term "Latinx" preferred by academics; just 1 percent of Latino men in their 20s use it.

How else do Hispanics differ? Country of origin is a huge factor. Cuban refugees who fled to Florida in the 1960s after the rise of Fidel Castro have long gravitated toward anti-communist Republicans. They were given quick paths to U.S. citizenship and voting, and their political power grew as a result. Today there are 2 million Cuban-Americans but three U.S. senators of Cuban descent; there are also three U.S. senators of Mexican ancestry but nearly 37 million Mexican-Americans. How Latinos identify racially also shapes their politics. Many Hispanics whose families immigrated generations ago identify as white, and 32 percent of U.S. Latinos view themselves as more like assimilated European immigrants than "people of color." Biden did 50 points better among Latinos who feel more in common with Black Americans than with whites.

What's the future of the Latino vote? Republicans are optimistic. They point to Texas' Rio Grande Valley, where Trump lost rural Starr County — which is 96 percent Hispanic — by a mere 5 points compared with 60 points in 2016. Democrats, meanwhile, are banking on the disproportionate youth of U.S. Latinos: 22 percent of Generation Z voters are Hispanic, and 1 million Latinos in the U.S. are expected to turn 18 every year for the next two decades. Hispanics are adamant that both parties should stop treating their vote as monolithic — and must stop taking it for granted. A few ads in Spanish, they say, won't get it done. "Latinos are engaged like never before," said Antonio Arellano of Jolt Action, a Latino civic engagement organization in Texas. "They know that the next chapter of American history will be written by them."

A history of GOP support Black voters fled the GOP after the 1964 election, when Republican nominee Barry Goldwater opposed that year's Civil Rights Act. Since then, Republicans have sought to even out that deficit by winning over Latinos. Ronald Reagan tried to bring Latinos into his conservative movement, emphasizing his support for family values, self-determination, patriotism, and anti-communism. As president, Reagan toughened border security but offered amnesty and permanent-resident status to 2.7 million migrants who entered the U.S. illegally before 1982. Reagan got 37 percent of the Latino vote in 1984. When George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004, he set the GOP's high-water mark with Latinos, earning 44 percent of the vote. A Texan, Bush frequently spoke in (limited) Spanish during speeches and appointed several prominent Latinos to his Cabinet, such as Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, and his brother Jeb was married to a Mexican woman. Trump's appeals to socially conservative Latinos were more blunt. "America was not built by religion-hating socialists" he said at a Miami church, but, rather, "by churchgoing, God-worshipping, freedom-loving patriots." Trump gained nearly 200,000 votes in Cuban-heavy Miami-Dade County last year, a swing that cost Democrats two seats in the House.

This article was first published in the latest issue of The Week magazine. If you want to read more like it, you can try six risk-free issues of the magazine here.

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