Twenty years ago, during the Republican convention that nominated George W. Bush in Philadelphia, the Republican Party made a concerted effort to talk to Latino voters all across the United States. The party had realized that Bush, who spoke some Spanish and grew up in Texas, could open the door to the country’s fastest-growing minority. Republican strategist César Martínez Gomariz was part of the team that crafted Bush’s message. “We tried to make a real effort to appeal to Latinos from the very beginning of the convention,” Martinez Gomariz told me recently. In 2012, Mitt Romney chose Hispanic Sen. Marco Rubio to deliver the convention’s keynote speech for the same reason.
The Republican Party has changed since then.
Last week, Democrats were criticized, including by me, for the lack of Latino speakers in the primetime slots of the party’s convention. They deserved the flak. Still, compared with Donald Trump’s Republican Party, the Democrats’ efforts to include Hispanics seem almost admirable. The Republican National Convention’s failed attempt at Latino inclusion has shown the limits of Donald Trump’s recent outreach efforts.
In July, Trump dedicated a full week to focus on Latinos. He invited Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to the White House for an official visit (López Obrador reciprocated by publicly praising Trump). The president then hosted a summit of Latino leaders, where Robert Unanue, the fawning Goya Foods CEO, called Trump’s presidency “a blessing.” That same week, Trump announced a plan to support Latino entrepreneurs. Trump’s sudden love for all things Hispanic is no coincidence. Some polls have suggested that Trump could have an opening with Latino voters. One in particular showed Trump inching close to 35 percent support among Latino voters, 7 points above the 28 percent he got in 2016. If those numbers hold on Election Day, they could make a real difference in states like Arizona and Florida. Although some of these polls are controversial (specialized Latino pollsters have long criticized their methodology), the opportunity to appeal to Latinos could be there for Trump’s taking.
If it is, this week’s RNC did not help. On the first night of the convention, the only Latino who could truly speak to the immigrant experience was Maximo Alvarez. Born in Cuba, Alvarez is a controversial businessman. He also represents a very specific demographic. By comparing Joe Biden to Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, Alvarez was appealing not to America’s broad and diverse Hispanic community—whom Trump intended to court during his recent “Latino week”—but to a very narrow and politically valuable sliver of the Latino electorate: the one in Florida. “If you watch the #RNC2020 and listen to the Latino speakers, you would think the only narrative our community has is fleeing Castro’s Cuba,” journalist Julio Ricardo Varela tweeted after listening to another RNC speaker later in the week, Florida Lt. Gov. Jeanette Núñez.
Then there is, of course, the president’s record. Despite’s Trump’s cynical attempt to present himself as welcoming of immigrants by naturalizing five of them at the convention, his record on the issue is abysmal. His presidency has made life miserable for thousands of potential refugees and millions of undocumented immigrants already in the country, the majority of which are Hispanic. The administration has chosen to expose millions of essential farmworkers, many of them undocumented immigrants, to the effects of the coronavirus and the consequences of the subsequent economic crisis. Although Latinos care about a number of issues other than immigration, according to a recent Pew Research poll, “83% of Hispanics say it is a very or somewhat important U.S. immigration policy goal to establish a way for most immigrants in the country illegally to stay in the U.S.” I didn’t see anything at the RNC that would change their minds.
For Latino Republicans, this narrow Hispanic strategy has been disappointing. “Trump’s grand Latino strategy is to put Goya products on his table,” Martínez Gomariz, who is now part of the Lincoln Project, said. He was not surprised by Alvarez’s effort to identify Biden with Castro. It is an attempt to secure two crucial voting blocs: first-generation Cuban Americans and newly naturalized Venezuelan Americans, who might be persuadable after witnessing Trump’s tough stance on Venezuelan strongman Nicolás Maduro. “Trump is trying to frame Biden the way a bully does: by caricature,” he said. “The problem is he is the one who behaves like a Latin American strongman, like Maduro and Ortega.”
Trump’s lack of moral imagination with Latino voters not only hurts his own election efforts, but it also contravenes his party’s. Since Bush first tried in 2000, some Republicans have attempted to adjust the party’s strategy to become more inclusive of the large Hispanic electorate. Various groups, like the Libre Initiative (funded in part by the Koch brothers), appealed to Hispanic entrepreneurship and conservative values. That, Martínez Gomariz insists, was the right path. “Many Latino families are conservative. They are people of faith who also believe in the power of small-business ownership,” he told me. In normal times, that would make them an ideal target for Republican proselytism. But not with Trump, whom Martínez Gomariz calls “the least Republican of any Republican president we’ve ever had.”
By excluding the majority of Latinos from his party’s convention (not to mention persecuting them for years), Trump might have sealed his fate with America’s fastest-growing minority. The Republican Party’s standing with Hispanic voters might take much longer than any one term to recover.
Support Slate’s politics coverage
Slate is covering the stories that matter to you. Join Slate Plus to support our work. You’ll get unlimited articles and a suite of great benefits.