“Most Latinos identify first as working-class Americans. And Trump spoke to that.”
Donald Trump lost the presidency, but showed Republicans a way to win the culture wars with working-class Hispanics.
Despite four years of being defined as a racist for his rhetoric and harsh immigration policies, Trump improved his margins in 78 of the nation’s 100 majority-Hispanic counties. And he did better with Latinos in exit polls of each of the top 10 battleground states, a POLITICO review of election data found.
Joe Biden still won Latino voters overall. But as post-election data trickles in, Democrats are growing concerned. Trump’s notable gains weren’t limited to Miami’s Cuban Americans or border-region Tejanos. Although Florida and Texas stood out for the notable shift, Puerto Ricans as far away as Philadelphia and Mexican Americans in Milwaukee drifted Trump-ward.
Trump improved his showing among Latinos by scaling back some of his immigration rhetoric and engaging in a sustained bilingual social media and TV ad campaign that courted Latinos based on place of origin, gender and religion.
But, in interviews with more than a dozen experts on Hispanic voters in six states, no factor was as salient as Trump’s blue-collar appeal for Latinos.
“Most Latinos identify first as working-class Americans, and Trump spoke to that,” said Josh Zaragoza, a top Democratic data specialist in Arizona, adding that Hispanic men in particular “are very entrepreneurial. Their economic language is more aligned with the way Republicans speak: pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, owning your own business.”
And then there’s the way the left spoke — or were framed by Trump’s campaign for speaking. Calls to “defund the police,” a boycott of Goya Foods and the threat of socialism turned off some Latino voters. And even using the term Latinx to describe Latinos in a way that’s gender-neutral only served to puzzle many Hispanics.
“About 97 percent of Latinos don’t say ‘Latinx,’” Zaragoza said, referring to a Pew Research poll on the subject. “We’re building strategies around young progressive activists and organizations — and they’re necessary and we appreciate what they do.
“But a lot of Latino voters are focused on ‘I’m a hardworking American trying to feed my family or build a business,’ and a lot of this language doesn’t speak to them.”
Amid the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter protests and the sputtering economy during the pandemic, Trump’s campaign found that Latinos were almost as receptive as non-Hispanic whites to a pro-police and pro-jobs message.
As images of flaming cities played frequently on Spanish-language TV, Trump’s campaign tailored bilingual ads, social media posts and mailers to paint Democrats as radicals. Even though Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) lost the Democratic presidential primary, his embrace of socialism and Latin American leftist leaders was used in swing district races against congressional Democrats — who lost seats in the House and made far fewer gains in the Senate and in state legislatures than expected.
“Let’s face it, ‘defund the police’ is just not the best slogan, especially in a place like Miami, where a lot of people work in law enforcement, or along the border of Texas, where Latinos are in Border Patrol,” said Jose Parra, founder of the consultancy Prospero Latino and a past adviser to Democratic Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada.
Black Lives Matter activists pushed back this week on critics, saying the movement is being scapegoated and ignored for helping drive up Democratic voter registrations.
Activists calling for the defunding of police march on July 24, 2020 in Chicago. | Scott Olson/Getty Images
Parra, who dislikes the “defund” slogan but not its goal of stopping police violence, said Trump’s improved standing with Latinos amid the protests reflects a little-discussed problem in Hispanic communities: anti-Blackness. That’s an opinion held by other Latino commentators as well Black Lives Matter demonstrators.
In context, the debate over Trump’s gains with Latinos is a microcosm of the broader fault lines of American politics that break along race, class, gender, age, religion, region and culture. The GOP increasingly represents an older, heavily white conservative coalition of working-class people, church-goers and small business owners. Meanwhile, the younger Democratic Party includes a more progressive assortment of highly educated whites and people of color of all educational backgrounds.
“Something to those [Hispanic] voters is more important than what we might call cultural issues that a lot of people on the left are kind of obsessing over,” said Ryan Enos, a political geographer from Harvard University who was among the first to tweet a graphic showing the correlation between Hispanic voters and increased support for Trump nationwide.
“Most Latinos in this country are working class,” Enos said. “One would have to assume that this identity of being working class is more important than this identity of being Latino.”
In Texas’ majority-Hispanic Rio Grande Valley and along the Texas border, where Trump did well for a Republican, progressive organizer Ofelia Alonso pointed out that “Latino” is a broad and imprecise catchall term for members of an ethnic group in which people identify as Black, white, indigenous, Asian, Middle Eastern or mixed race.
“A lot of people who voted for Trump, while they’re Latino, they’re also white,” she said, pointing to the city of Harlingen as a Trump-supporting “white city with money,” or South Padre Island, where “the class and race demographic is different than other parts of the Rio Grande Valley. More people have money and they’re really organized around the fact that they might not get taxed as much, and they feel the need to protect their wealth.”
Biden did far better with Hispanic voters in the more-populous Latino-heavy areas around Houston, Dallas and San Antonio. But overall, Trump lost the nation’s majority-Hispanic counties by a combined 12-point margin to Biden. In 2016, Trump lost them by 20 points.
From the start of his candidacy, through the primary and well into the general election, Biden’s outreach to Hispanic voters came under fire from critics in his own party. In South Texas, Alonso said, Biden gave the community “nothing to organize around.” The President-elect distanced himself at times from voters who weren’t threatened by socialism or “defund the police” — or who backed Sanders.
New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a democratic socialist like Sanders, spent the days after the Nov. 3 elections similarly pushing back on moderates who blamed Latinos for Biden’s close call in swing states or losses by down-ballot Democrats. She noted that moderate candidates who rejected her help lost their races.
But unlike those congressional seats, Ocasio-Cortez’s Bronx-based district is more progressive, although that didn’t stop Trump from performing better there. Preliminary election returns show the president earned 29 percent of the vote in the district, compared with the less than 20 percent he received in 2016 against Hillary Clinton.
In Texas, Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar took issue with her comments about their colleagues who lost, pointing out that their California colleague Gil Cisneros was defeated in a race where his opponent featured him in mailers about socialized medicine that included Sanders’ photo.
“What Trump did is understand the basic values of Hispanics,” said Cuellar, a conservative Democrat who survived a primary challenge by the Justice Democrats group that helped propel Ocasio-Cortez to Congress. He said Latinos along the border are deeply patriotic, pro-business and favor fossil fuel development because of the jobs it brings, he said. Oil industry jobs and law enforcement were the top two issues Republicans ran on.
“This message about defunding the police, it’s real. When they talk about taking oil and gas jobs away, it’s real,” Cuellar said.
Republicans tarred Democratic candidate Gina Ortiz Jones in her race for Texas 23rd Congressional District as a “radical socialist,” according to one of her consultants, who did not want to speak on record and described the candidate’s bio as “the hat trick of conservative terror: a woman, a person of color and gay.”
While the Trump wave rose in Latino communities along the Texas border, it was a tsunami in Miami-Dade County that drowned two Democratic congresswomen, Debbie Mucarsel-Powell and Donna Shalala.
Miami-Dade is the state’s largest county with the largest Latino population. Trump lost there by almost 30 percentage points in 2016. He lost it by just 7 points in November, the result of spending four years lavishing time and attention on communities scarred by leftist dictatorships and guerrillas: Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Colombia.
“The fear of socialism is real and engrained for those of us who fled dangerous places in search of the American dream,” Mucarsel-Powell tweeted on Wednesday.
Supporters of President Donald Trump drive in caravan down Calle Ocho in the Little Havana neighborhood of Miami, Oct. 31, 2020. | AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell
Socialism wasn’t only to blame for her loss, said Mucarsel-Powell, who, as a native of Ecuador, became the first South American immigrant ever elected to Congress in 2018. It didn’t help that a broad Spanish-language disinformation campaign targeted Florida Hispanics. And, she said, the Democratic party “thinks racial identity is how we vote.”
“We must step back and deeply analyze how we’re talking to Latinos and every voter,” she said.
Carlos Odio, a Democratic co-founder of the Hispanic research firm EquisLabs, said the scope of Trump’s win in Florida overall, and his vastly improved margins over 2016 with Hispanic voters in the state, was troubling. Trump, he said, was able to maximize turnout among Republican-leaning Cuban Americans and appealed to swing voters with roots throughout Latin America.
In Florida’s Puerto Rican-heavy Osceola County, for instance, Trump did 11 points better than in 2016.
In the fall, Equis Research sounded the alarm about Trump’s growing strength in Florida and his marginal gains in Arizona among Latinos, but some Democrats dismissed the concerns as fear-mongering. Now that the election is over, and Biden won, Odio said Democrats need to learn from it to keep Republicans from building on Trump’s success with working-class Hispanic voters.
Trump’s TV brand as a successful businessman and his all-out efforts to ignore the coronavirus pandemic to get people back to work also may have paid dividends with some Hispanic voters, especially blue-collar workers — despite the disproportionate impact on their health. But Odio and others worry another Republican, without the racist baggage Trump had, can regain the suburban white voters Trump lost while continuing to make inroads with Latinos.
“I’m worried that there is a chink in that armor — that what Trump did sends a signal that now allows more Latinos to feel like they have permission to think about the Republicans, that’s it’s perhaps socially acceptable to do so,” Odio said. “Right now, I think like, it’s still limited … but nobody knows how it’s going to play out.”
In Florida, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, a Miami native of Cuban descent, faces reelection in two years. He said Trump assembled a strong coalition in the state that the GOP could improve as it appeals to Hispanics as patriotic Americans and working-class people.
“There are people in this community who happen to be Hispanic — from Cuba, Colombia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic or wherever — but their primary political identity is not Hispanic. Their primary political identity is worker,” Rubio said.
They’re “working people who believe that the people that Trump is against are just crazy.” Rubio said. “‘They want to defund the police. They defend rioters.’”
And then there’s what people eat.
Rubio noted that progressives like Ocasio -Cortez even tried to persuade people to boycott Goya Foods — an iconic brand in almost every Latino household everywhere — after the company’s president praised Trump.
The boycott failed as conservatives rallied to the company, including Trump and his daughter, Ivanka Trump, who posted widely mocked photos of themselves plugging Goya’s products. Trump’s campaign also issued a string of social media posts and a Spanish-language TV ad attacking the boycott. And the campaign took similar aim at progressive insistence on using the term “Latinx,” a term Arizona Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego also objected to on Twitter after the election.
Cans of Goya food products are displayed on a shelf in a store on July 16, 2020 in New York City. | Spencer Platt/Getty Images
In Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, which have far smaller Hispanic populations, Biden flipped the states from red to blue, just as he did in Arizona. But Trump’s gains in Mexican American precincts in Milwaukee and Puerto Rican-heavy neighborhoods in Philadelphia alarmed Democrats.
Julio Guerrero, a veteran Democratic community activist and organizer in Milwaukee, said his community has lots of third-generation Mexican-Americans for whom Democrats’ messaging about undocumented workers and immigration has relatively little salience, and progressives aren’t speaking to them as the working-class voters that they are.
“There’s a genuine disconnect,” Guerrero said. One symbol of that disconnect, he said, is “Latinx.”
“Latinos are traditional and just the word ‘Latinx’ is just kind of wild. They’re like, ‘What’s this garbage?’ It’s a thing from academia that isn’t relevant to people.”
In Philadelphia, Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, who started out as a progressive organizer, credited Biden’s campaign for coming up with good Puerto Rico policy that her constituents cared about, but it did a poor job of engaging voters in her community.
Meanwhile, Trump’s campaign dispatched his son Eric Trump to an evangelical Latino ministry in the community, which she said helped the president improve his margins in her district.
“All the Trump campaign did was remind people what was important to them. … They used terms like socialism, defund the police. It wasn’t engagement. It was about fear,” said Quiñones-Sánchez, recalling how strongly her constituents reacted to the “defund the police” message at a community meeting.
“The residents were like, ‘That’s bulls—. We didn’t send you downtown for that, Maria,’” she said. “We’re not a community that needs to be outreached to. We need to be engaged. And we need to see more of that engagement.”
Giancarlo Sopo, one of the Trump campaign’s Hispanic communication strategists, who used to be a Democrat, said he has doubts about his former party’s ability to learn from Trump’s gains.
“Many Hispanics view the Democrats and their allies as moralistic snobs,” Sopo said. “No one wants to come home after a long day of work to be wokesplained that they need to change their language, stop buying Goya, and that they’re bad people if they’re concerned about border security.”