US President Donald Trump’s success with Latino voters has become a focal point in the post-election autopsy of a tight contest, and the initial findings are causing heavyweights in Latino organising to worry Democrats may adopt a failing approach with a diverse – and essential – voting bloc.
Latinos were expected to be the largest minority voting group in 2020 and according to exit poll data from Edison Research, about 32 percent of Latino respondents cast their ballots for Trump, up four percentage points from 2016.
But Latinos broadly supported Democrats across the US, and President-elect Joe Biden “may not have won without the Latino vote”, Domingo Garcia, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), told Al Jazeera.
Trump has not conceded the election and is contesting the results in some close battleground states in the courts.
Early reports suggest Latino turnout doubled in Georgia, where Biden held a narrow lead when the secretary of state announced a manual recount this week, and also helped the Democratic candidate in Nevada, Arizona and Wisconsin.
But Garcia warned that Latino support for the Democratic Party was not a given. If Democrats want continued support, the “first thing [Democrats] gotta realise in DC, is that Latinos are not a monolith”, Garcia continued.
“There’s Mexican Americans or Puerto Ricans who are very progressive and Democrat … and then down in Florida, you got Republican Cuban Americans who are more conservative, and they’re all about trying to get rid of the Communism in Cuba,” Garcia said.
Latinos – especially Cubans – played a pivotal role in the important swing-state of Florida, which Trump won. Republican rhetoric and a disinformation campaign painted Democrats as “socialists”, and the state saw about 55 percent of Cuban Americans, vote for Trump in 2020, according to exit polls.
Trump increased his support in the important, Latino-majority Miami-Dade County, going from roughly 333,999 votes in 2016 to about 529,160 votes in 2020, causing Biden to underperform compared with expectations.
Support went down the ballot. Maria Elvira Salazar and Carlos Gimenez, two Latinos endorsed by Trump, beat Democratic incumbents in competitive House races for seats that cover part of Miami.
“Socialist” accusations stuck in Florida, and at least one centrist Democrat has broadly called on the party to never “use the words ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ ever again”, citing the surprise losses in House races.
Though many have focused on Cuban Floridians’ increased support for Trump, Garcia worries a retreat from the economic populist messaging of the ascendant democratic-socialist wing of the party, headed by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, could be disastrous for Democratic outreach in Latino communities.
Though Latino voters are diverse, there is one political approach that can unite them, according to Garcia, “In my opinion, it’s economic populism.”
The LULAC president pointed to 61 percent of Floridians voting to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, a measure that formed part of Biden’s platform after years of progressive organising and support from the Sanders wing of the party.
“They seem in conflict, but Trump pushes a populism on economic issues such as [being] against NAFTA, or against the [Pacific Trade Partnership] deal that appeals to blue-collar Democrats”, Garcia said.
Many Latinos are blue-collar: More than half “are employed in retail, hospitality and food, construction, and service occupations”, according to figures cited in a 2016 Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute report.
Middle-income Latino families have faced a dramatic drop in wealth since 2007. According to a 2017 Pew Research survey, the average wealth of middle-income Latino families dropped by about 55 percent from the Great Recession of 2007 to 2013. By 2016, the figure had increased less than 10 percent.
Latinos have also been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, facing hospitalisation rates 4.4 times higher than among whites, while the unemployment rate for Latinos reached 14.5 percent in June, higher than during the Great Recession, Pew found.
I won’t comment much on tonight’s results as they are evolving and ongoing, but I will say we’ve been sounding the alarm about Dem vulnerabilities w/ Latinos for a long, long time.
There is a strategy and a path, but the necessary effort simply hasn’t been put in ⬇️ https://t.co/HljnWYgeju
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) November 4, 2020
Though Latino support for Trump appears to have increased, the Democrats’ approach to reaching Latino voters, including a focus on Trump’s harsh immigration policies, is still effective, according to Christine Neumann-Ortiz, executive director for Voces de la Frontera Action (VDLFA), a grassroots Latino organisation that did voter outreach in Wisconsin.
Neumann-Ortiz told Al Jazeera that immigration is a “top priority for Latino voters” in Wisconsin, many of whom come from mixed-immigration status families at increased risk of deportation under Trump.
@VDLF_Action "Wisconsin experienced an impressive turnout = 74% of Latinx voters.
-183,000 eligible Latinx voters in Wisconsin (Pew Research Center)
-135,000 of them voted in 2020 elections (Latino Decisions) -2016 pres. race = 46.7% Latinx turnout statewide; 2012 = 52.5% (Pew)"
— Nneka (@nneka_eze) November 7, 2020
Hilary Clinton lost Wisconsin in 2016 by about 22,000 votes, but Biden edged it in 2020 by roughly 20,000. The Trump campaign has said it would request a recount in the state.
According to Neumann-Ortiz, resistance to Trump’s immigration policies, including disdain for family separation, helped motivate Latino voters.
Wisconsin’s Latino turnout was 47.6 percent in 2016, but reports have suggested it jumped to 74 percent in 2020. Neumann-Ortiz said her organisation registered roughly 20,000 new or infrequent Latino voters in Wisconsin, through a years-long voter outreach campaign that began in 2018.
But if Democrats and the Biden administration want these results to continue, they must deliver on platform promises like keeping families together, Neumann-Ortiz said.
Results from Latino-majority counties along Texas’s border with Mexico, especially Zapata and Starr which is found in the Rio Grande Valley, gave Democrats pause. These counties are found on the front line of Trump’s harsh immigration policy and have long been Democratic strongholds.
Trump won Zapata, which is 93 percent Latino, according to the US census, by five points with about 53 percent of the vote.
Some have pointed to Zapata’s Border Patrol station, a source of employment for Zapata residents and conservative rallying cry, as a factor. But former President Barack Obama won in 2012 by 43 points, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2016 by 33.
The president also nearly won Starr County, which is 96 percent Latino, with more than 47 percent of the vote.
Several factors can help explain these losses in support according to Chuck Rocha, a former senior adviser to Sanders’ presidential campaign who heads Nuestro PAC, an all-Latino political action committee, who told Al Jazeera that Democrats “shouldn’t be losing Latinos in any county at that level”.
Outreach is important, and Rocha raised alarms about Democratic efforts with Latinos.
The Texas Tribune reported Biden’s performance raised questions about Democratic outreach in Democratic strongholds along the Mexican border. “They didn’t do anything in the Valley, and the president crushed them in terms of overperforming” there, Dave Carney, Governor Greg Abbott’s chief political adviser, was quoted as saying.
Bertica Cabrera Morris, a Republican strategist and one of the 20 board members of Latinos for Trump, told NBC News that “Trump showed up in Florida. He asked us what our issues are and he addressed them. He didn’t take us for granted.”
“Donald Trump outsmarted us lots of ways, and we didn’t do the outreach at the House level that we should have”, Rocha continued, reflecting on Florida.
Rocha said these losses can further be explained by a lack of understanding of the electorate. Rocha recommended Democrats start staffing their campaigns with more Latinos and giving Latino PACs more money.
According to Nuestro PAC’s research, Latino PACs received $27m, while non-Latino PACs received more than $985m.
Rocha acknowledged there was an ideological valley between younger Latinos and older conservative Latinos.
To appeal to Latino voters across these divides, strategists “need to nuance [their] words to talk about a rigged system” and focus on economic issues.
Regarding calls to limit economic populist messages for fear of being cast as socialists, “Everybody who’s saying that has no clue what they’re talking about,” Rocha concluded.