Most Latinos voted for Biden, but the election revealed fault lines for Democrats

President Donald Trump’s gains with Latino voters in Florida’s Miami-Dade County and Texas’s Rio Grande Valley have gotten a lot of attention. But in 2020, Latinos proved once again that their political leanings defy a concise definition: In battleground states like Arizona, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, Latinos helped deliver victories that made Joe Biden’s ascent to the presidency possible.

It could be months before more robust data on the Latino electorate becomes available. The American Election Eve poll from Latino Decisions suggested that a large majority of Latino voters nationwide supported Biden, possibly higher than the about 66 percent of Latino voters Hillary Clinton won in 2016. But most polls underestimated Trump’s performance this cycle, so Biden’s actual margin among Latinos may be smaller than Clinton’s. Early exit poll data suggests that’s the case, though this kind of data is sometimes even less reliable.

Still, it’s clear most Latinos voted for Biden. Grassroots organizers mobilized in battleground states to help make that happen, despite a lack of investment from the Democratic Party until the final weeks before Election Day.

The election-eve poll showed that Latino voters responded overwhelmingly to Biden’s messaging on the coronavirus, the economy, and health care. But the demographic is not monolithic, and their political opinions vary widely by country of origin, religion, gender, generation, how long they have lived in the US, and where they live. Though most have historically voted for Democrats, there has always been a contingent of Latinos who back Republicans.

Supporters of President-elect Joe Biden in Miami.
Eva Marie Uzcategui Trinkl/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Yet it came as a surprise to some Democrats that Trump was able to eat into Biden’s margins among Latinos in certain corners of the country. In Florida’s Miami-Dade County and the south Texas borderlands, both of which are majority-Latino areas once considered Democratic strongholds, Biden underperformed dramatically in 2020 compared with Clinton in 2016.

Those losses have attracted outsized scrutiny relative to the successes Latino voters delivered for Biden nationwide, and they alone did not cause Biden to lose Florida and Texas, where Trump largely maintained, and in some places improved, his margins among white voters. Even if Biden had won the border counties in Texas by the same margins as Clinton, for example, it wouldn’t have been enough to make up the gap between him and Trump in the state, which is still red — despite Democrats’ hopes that 2020 would be the year it would flip.

Still, any erosion in Latino support, which is key to the Democratic coalition, should prompt a reexamining of the party’s outreach strategy, something community organizers have long found lacking.

“The Democrats cannot take Latinos for granted,” Domingo Garcia, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), said in a press call. “I think Biden missed a grand opportunity to have been able to carry Florida and Texas if he had just invested in the Latino community more, if he had delivered the correct message.”

Democrats needed to invest early and consistently, and they didn’t

Latino voters make up an essential component of the Democratic coalition, but the party hasn’t historically treated them that way. In recent presidential campaigns, Democrats have typically waited until the final weeks before Election Day to conduct outreach in the Latino community, perpetuating the perception that Latinos are an afterthought, said Marisa Franco, executive director of Mijente, a hub for Latino organizing nationwide.

The Biden campaign was no exception: Though he started running Spanish-language ads in Florida and Arizona in June, it wasn’t until late August that his campaign began to focus in earnest on Latino outreach. It was clear the Biden campaign had “work to do” with Latinos, senior adviser Symone Sanders said in an ABC News interview September 13. But by then, the “Latinos for Trump” campaign was already flourishing in Florida, where the president also benefited from a well-oiled Republican political machine.

Supporters of President Donald Trump demonstrate in front of La Carreta, a Cuban restaurant in Miami, on November 5.
Pedro Portal/Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Biden won Miami-Dade County, where Latinos account for 58 percent of registered voters, by only about 7 points, compared to Clinton’s 30-point margin in 2016.

Cuban Americans are the largest contingent among those voters and have historically leaned more Republican than Hispanics from other countries of origin. But even Miami’s Cuban American community isn’t politically homogeneous: They’re divided over policies related to the island nation, including the effectiveness of the longstanding Cuban embargo. US-born Cubans are more evenly split between the two parties than their parents and grandparents who fled Cuba, too.

Miami-Dade also has significant Colombian, Haitian, Nicaraguan, and Venezuelan communities, each with their own political idiosyncrasies.

Trump’s ability to make inroads in these communities — and Biden’s failure to make up for those losses in other parts of the state — were significant enough to tip Florida in the president’s favor in a tight contest. The outcome wasn’t entirely surprising to Latino organizers, who had been warning about Biden’s weakness in the community for months.

Chuck Rocha, a former senior adviser to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign and co-founder of the Latino-focused Nuestro PAC, said in a post-election press call that outside donors also had a big blind spot when it came to Latinos. In June, Rocha started seeking out infrequent and newly registered Latinos in battleground states with a tested, multilayer ad strategy encompassing TV, radio, mail, and newspapers, treating them as persuadable voters.

But Nuestro PAC, along with the two other major PACs focused on Latino outreach, raised only a combined $27 million. By comparison, the Lincoln Project — a super PAC founded by former Republicans who sought to persuade conservatives to vote for Biden, but whose strategy largely fell flat — raised an unjustifiable $67.4 million.

“Nobody else was spending money talking to Latinos in June and July,” Rocha said. “It’s just simply ridiculous that they talk about our community and the way we vote, but they have yet to invest in it. … These folks spent a billion dollars talking to white people because it’s smart politics: If you want to persuade somebody to go vote for somebody, spend a lot of money talking to them. Then why don’t you do that with Latinos?”

Some Democrats argue that Biden’s performance in the Texas borderlands is, in part, a symptom of that neglect. More than half of Latinos in Texas live in major cities, and they overwhelmingly voted for Biden. But that marked a contrast with the predominantly Mexican border counties: Compared to Clinton in 2016, Biden won by substantially slimmer margins in Cameron, Starr, Hidalgo, Webb, and Maverick counties, despite a significant jump in turnout.

In Hidalgo County, the largest county in the Rio Grande Valley where Hispanics make up 92 percent of the population, Biden won by 18 points with about 220,000 total votes cast. Clinton won the county by a whopping 40-point margin just four years ago, though only 167,000 people voted that year. Trump also flipped Zapata County, improving his performance there by 38 points over 2016, though that represents a swing of only 1,000 votes.

Campaigns have historically targeted consistently Democratic voters, but along the border, turnout isn’t typically high. Those counties, where people earn relatively low incomes and are less educated compared with other parts of the state, have often been neglected by politicians at both the state and national level.

Julián Castro, a former San Antonio mayor who ran against Biden in the Democratic primaries, said in a press call that the party’s response to the 2020 election results should be to pour more investment into those communities going forward, not to withdraw. That’s especially important as Democrats eye an opportunity to unseat Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, in 2022.

“There is a danger for the Democratic Party in places like the [Rio Grande Valley] that support will start to atrophy because the investment is not being made,” Castro said.

Democrats need to work with Latino organizers

Biden stood on the shoulders of grassroots organizers who have been working to activate the Latino community in battleground states for years.

In Arizona, organizers mobilized Latinos to vote out Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who targeted Latinos. They were also at the center of the movement against SB 1070, which was passed by the state legislature in 2010 as one of the “most restrictive anti-immigration bills in the country,” as my colleague Li Zhou explained. Though 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, leading to racial profiling.

Those organizers committed to registering voters and encouraging them to turn out consistently over the last several election cycles. The group Voto Latino reported registering more than 61,000 Arizonans this year alone.

That paid off for Biden, who beat Trump by about 15,000 votes in the state, according to Vox’s election partner Decision Desk HQ. But LULAC’s Garcia said community organizers could have widened that margin with more resources.

“That’s why I think the margins are much nearer than they should be,” he said. “If candidates invest, if they empower Latino consultants and Latino community organizations, then you can have massive turnouts that will swing decisively in your favor.”

Democrats, on the other hand, only show up in presidential election years, which is “the equivalent of someone competing in the Olympics every four years when they haven’t done a sit-up in three,” Mijente’s Franco said. “I don’t think that the Democratic Party can and should take credit for Arizona.”

Voters in Tempe, Arizona, wait in line to cast their ballots on Election Day 2020.
Olivier Touron/AFP via Getty Images

But going forward, the party could try to foster the community organizing that already exists in Arizona and replicate it elsewhere. That starts with prioritizing issues that matter to the Latino community while they’re in office, consulting activists on those issues, and, when the next election rolls around, seeking their endorsements and integrating Latinos across their campaign’s leadership, Franco said.

One of those motivating issues is immigrant rights. Franco thought Biden missed an opportunity to signal to immigrant rights activists that he would prioritize their concerns in the immigration task force jointly convened by the teams of Biden and Sanders, who finished second in 2020’s Democratic primary.

“People want to see results,” Franco said. “We are going to be very aggressive and demanding that they do more than just the basics of undoing the worst of what Trump did.”

Nevada Democrats have already fostered a fruitful relationship with the Culinary Union, the largest union in the state. Representing tens of thousands of Latinos working in the hospitality industry, the union endorsed Biden and ran the largest field program in Nevada this year, knocking on more than 500,000 doors in Las Vegas and Reno when Democrats weren’t doing in-person canvassing due to the pandemic.

In states like Georgia, however, Latino organizing is still in a nascent stage. The Latino community helped elect two new sheriffs who have vowed to stop cooperating with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement to detain immigrants. But there’s still room to grow, particularly if Democrats want the state to stay blue.

Right-wing disinformation is a powerful force

Overcoming disinformation is a challenge for Democrats in general, but Franco said some Latinos might be particularly susceptible to it, in part because they are politically marginalized and may face language barriers.

The primary culprits may be Facebook, whose fact-checking operation has failed to meaningfully curtail the spread of false and misleading information, as well as private threads in WhatsApp, where disinformation spreads more organically through people’s family and friend groups. But Spanish-language conservative media such as Noticias 24 and PanAm Post also play a role. As a consequence, absurd conspiracy theories about Joe Biden and Democrats came to permeate Latino politics in Florida.

Trump and his allies have also wielded disinformation as a weapon, successfully microtargeting Latinos in Florida with the false claim that Biden is a socialist and capitalizing on the fears of Hispanics from failed socialist regimes. The president’s Spanish-language ads, which began airing in Florida as early as June, likened Biden to ruthless Latin American caudillos like Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela.

Supporters of President Donald Trump at a “Stop the Cheat!” rally on November 5 in Orlando, Florida.
Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Biden ran as a center-left moderate, and even Sanders’s brand of democratic socialism bears little resemblance to the regimes in Latin America. But Biden never really articulated the distinction in concrete terms for voters, instead shrugging off the characterization. “I’m the guy who ran against a socialist,” he said at an October 5 campaign event in Miami.

“When you do not respond to the label of you being called a socialist and you think that’s not going to affect you, I think that was a big mistake by the Biden campaign,” Garcia said. “I think that hurt in large parts of Florida, as well as parts of Texas, which I believe are there for the winning.”

Democrats haven’t yet figured out how to effectively combat disinformation. But Franco said one way might be hiring people from these communities who can act as trusted messengers and help educate voters on how to become responsible media consumers.

There was record turnout among Latinos — but they still face voter suppression

Latinos showed up in record numbers, with an early estimate of 14.8 million by UCLA’s Latino Politics and Policy Initiative. Young Latino voters helped drive that turnout, with roughly 1.7 million voting early — a nearly three-fold increase over 2016, according to the political data firm TargetSmart. Women, who have suffered disproportionately from job losses during the pandemic, also turned out in droves, helping Biden to victory in states like Wisconsin.

That record turnout is in spite of the obstacles in their way before they actually cast a ballot in certain states.

Texas has closed about 750 polling sites since 2012, including 542 sites in 50 counties where African American and Latino populations have grown significantly in recent years. That led to long wait times at some polling sites in predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods during the 2020 Democratic primaries.

This year alone, Republican lawmakers in the state limited the number of ballot drop-off locations to just one per county, banned counties from sending mail-in ballots to all registered voters, and sought to curtail drive-through voting. Nevertheless, Texas saw record-breaking turnout among early voters, with highly motivated Republican and Democratic bases — driven in part by outrage over the attempted voter suppression — who overcame those obstacles.

Arkansas has pursued a similarly restrictive measure, now being challenged in court by Mexican American activists, that places a limit on the number of people that any one person can assist in voting. For Latino voters who may not be familiar with the US electoral process or who have limited English proficiency, it could preclude them from receiving the help they need to participate in US democracy.

For some Latinos, Trump had inherent appeal

It might seem improbable that Latinos would vote for a man who has demonized immigrants and Mexicans in particular and refused on several occasions to outright denounce white supremacists. On the campaign trail in 2016, trump claimed the US needed to keep out “bad hombres” from Mexico, suggested that Mexicans were overwhelmingly criminals, and promised his supporters that he would build a “big, beautiful wall” across the entire southern border to keep them out.

But for some people at whom Trump levied those attacks, he nevertheless remained a palatable, even attractive candidate.

President Trump supporters participate in a car parade in El Paso, Texas, on October 24.
Paul Ratje/AFP via Getty Images

In South Texas, for example, Trump’s “law and order” messaging and opposition to defunding the police had some resonance in Latino communities where law enforcement, particularly the Border Patrol, is a major employer, Garcia said. Many residents also work in oil fields and fear Democrats’ calls to transition away from oil and gas and towards clean, renewable energy. And many are Catholic or Evangelical Christians who find Democrats’ pro-abortion rights stance abhorrent.

But the biggest factor may be the president’s focus on reopening the economy at a time when many of these communities have been economically devastated by the pandemic, in addition to 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 may still resonate with voters.

“We need to be able to address her concerns in order to win them over,” Garcia said. “And hopefully that’s one of the lessons that will be learned from this election process.”

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