Politics

Democrats Can’t Take Latino Voters for Granted Anymore

What we’ve learned about the demographic that could determine the party’s future.

Trump supporters hold signs reading "Latinos for Trump" and "Trump Pence" along with a Trump-branded flag.
Trump supporters protest outside the Clark County Elections Department on Saturday in Las Vegas. Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Latino voters may end up being the most puzzled-over demographic of the 2020 election. Donald Trump’s gains—not just among traditionally Republican Cuban Americans in Florida but in long Democratic Mexican American strongholds in Texas—are setting off alarm bells for Democrats and contradicting some comforting narratives about how the country’s future demographics will favor them. But others, like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, argue the media and Democratic leaders use Latinos as a “scapegoat” to explain away the party’s bigger messaging problems. And it appears that increased Latino turnout in Arizona, Nevada, and midwestern cities contributed significantly to Joe Biden’s victory. Given how diverse America’s roughly 20 million Latino voters are in terms of location, income, race, and national origin, some commentators are questioning whether it’s even useful to talk about the “Latino vote” as a category.

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To figure out which lessons, if any, to draw from the 2020 election, I spoke with Geraldo Cadava, a professor of U.S. and Latin American history at Northwestern University and the author of The Hispanic Republican: The Shaping of an American Political Identity From Nixon to Trump. This conversation, which took place on Friday, before Biden had been declared the winner, has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Joshua Keating: I wanted to ask you about the famous GOP “autopsy” written after Mitt Romney’s loss in 2012, which among other things called for the party to work to moderate its immigration rhetoric in order to appeal to Latino voters. The conventional wisdom is that the party did the opposite by nominating Donald Trump. But it seems almost like it is making some of those inroads it talked about anyway, right?

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Geraldo Cadava: That’s the thing that we have to explain. Donald Trump seems, on the face of things, to be very unlike the second coming of George W. Bush. Bush was famous for having figured out the formula of how to recruit Latino voters and won 40 percent or more of their votes. And in 2013, when the GOP authored its autopsy report, it was almost a call for a return to the kind of big-tent Republican Party. And that’s why it made sense for primary candidates like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio to seem like they would be the front-runners heading into 2016. But yeah, the party went in a completely different direction. Trump’s expansion of support among Latinos is the thing that we really need to explain. And I think there’s no doubt that it is a true expansion of support.

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There are two narratives that are developing right now about the Latino vote in 2020 that are framed as in opposition but really aren’t mutually exclusive.

On the one hand, there was a record number of Latino voters. There were just more Latinos who voted in 2020 than in 2016—8.6 million Latinos voted early in 2020. And 24 percent of that 8.6 million was Latino youth, and that was a sign of surging Latino electoral participation. And related to that narrative is this idea that Latino voters in Arizona and Nevada, and even states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and Michigan, have played a really important role in Biden’s victory.

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But then, on the other hand, there’s this narrative that Latino support shifted toward Trump. I don’t know if you follow Latino Decisions. They were Hillary Clinton’s pollsters, and then Joe Biden’s pollsters. Even according to their election eve polls in 2016, Trump was earning 18 percent of Latino support. In their 2020 election news poll, Trump was earning 27 percent of Latino support. That is not insignificant. And it’s not just that Trump expanded his support in Florida. All of the states that they tracked, in Texas and Arizona and Nevada and Wisconsin and North Carolina, support for Trump went up this year. That needs to be explained.

There’s another narrative that’s started to take hold, in a piece Matthew Yglesias wrote for Vox for instance, that the way liberals talk about racism and identity doesn’t resonate with many Latinos. You also had congressman Ruben Gallego tweeting that Democrats should stop using the term Latinx. Do you think there’s anything to that?

There was an op-ed piece that Ian Haney López wrote in the Times about his research. [His research project] had conducted a whole bunch of focus groups last spring, where they tried to gauge the appeal of different messages for Latinos. And they found the same thing, that Latinos were turned off by appeals that were based exclusively on race. You had to combine that with something else.

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And they found to be particularly effective this argument that Donald Trump isn’t a racist—or that he’s not just a racist, at least—but he’s also a billionaire who’s more interested in representing the interests of the 1 percent. So they found that you had to link a race and class message. I think that’s right.

I think for four years, Democrats’ main response to the 2016 election and the Trump presidency was outrage and resistance. That kind of characterized our whole response to Trump. He was the violator of norms in chief, and everything he said was a lie. It’s not that those things aren’t true, but I think that narrative wore thin and is insufficient. I’m hoping that the narrative coming out of the 2020 election is going to be something more like, “OK, we really need to try to listen to why 70 million Americans, even after Trump was impeached, even after his miserable handling of the coronavirus, still voted for him.”

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I think that is going to be a really important conversation. It includes conversations about how Democrats have thought about identity politics and fashioned themselves as the only party that could represent Blacks, Latinos, women, gay people, the whole thing.

I don’t know if you have been following Marco Rubio’s Twitter account for the past couple of days, but he’s out there talking about how the Republican Party of the future is going to be the party of Latinos, Black voters, and working-class Americans. So I think that’s the first shot at crafting or rethinking or reshaping the Republican Party after Trump.

I think there was a general assumption among Democrats that Trump’s immigration policies, and his rhetoric—“rapists” and “murderers,” etc.—would just turn off significant numbers of Latino voters. And at least we can say the picture is a little more ambiguous than that. Is there a reason why you think Trumpism didn’t provoke the kind of backlash people might have expected?

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That is what you would think, right? Those kinds of comments have, in fact, doomed Republicans in the past. I mean, John McCain got in hot water for, in his 2010 Senate reelection campaign, shooting an ad that said, “Complete the danged fence.” And that doomed him among Latinos. Mitt Romney got in trouble for calling for the self-deportation of Latinos in 2012. And here you have a candidate talking about undocumented Mexicans, rapists, murderers, and thieves. So you would think that that would have doomed him.

But if you’ve been following the Trump administration’s efforts to cultivate Latino support, you’ve been watching this split-screen reality where, on the one hand, yes, he spends every waking hour sending tweets and making public statements about how we need to limit legal and illegal immigration. But then, there’s this other side of the screen where he has kind of been relentless in his efforts to reach out to Latinos. Not just since spring 2019, when the Latinos for Trump campaign started, but really dating back to January of 2017.

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I don’t know if you’ve heard of this group called the Latino Coalition. It’s this allegedly nonpartisan small-business advocacy group that tries to match private and government vendors with Latino business owners seeking loans. They hold an annual legislative summit in D.C. every March. And every year since 2017, either Trump himself or Mike Pence has spoken, plus a whole roster of Republicans like Ted Cruz, Rick Scott, Will Hurd, others. And the message has been really consistent since 2017. It’s been about Trump’s tax cuts, the smashing of financial regulations, low rates of unemployment, rising base of home ownership, rising family median income.

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So those are the core issues of his economic argument, but they also take the opportunity to make the case for how the administration defends religious liberty. And that’s not just the politics of abortion, but the religious identity of charter schools, the general desire to blur the line between religion and public life.

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Then I remember at one of these summits, Ted Cruz gave a speech where in the same sentence, he talked about Fidel Castro, Nicolás Maduro, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as the same kind of socialist. There was no distinction to be made between Latin American leftist leaders and the Democratic Socialists of America.

So even at this legislative summit of Latino business owners, it was also about religion. It was also about socialism. It was this neatly bundled ball of issues that was consistently used to make a crowd-based appeal to Latinos all over the country.

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When it comes to Florida, I feel like I’ve been reading articles for years predicting that the younger generations of Cuban Americans would trend bluer sooner or later because they didn’t have the same connection to the island, or the Castro issue wasn’t as salient for them. It kind of doesn’t seem like that’s happening, right?

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I think that’s right. I think that narrative about Cuban Americans being more of a potential swing vote came from Obama’s popularity in 2008 and 2012. Some of the prominent Latinos in Florida I talked to try to argue that Obama’s appeal was singular, just because he was so charismatic and charming and popular on a personal level. But they also expected support to return back to the Republican Party.

There are things that Trump did to activate Cuban Americans and other Latinos in South Florida, so I don’t think it’s just a natural, inevitable reversion back to the Republican Party. But it did happen.

The flip side of the socialism issue is that during the Democratic primary this year, self-described socialist Bernie Sanders actually seemed to do very well with Latino voters. Are there things other Democrats can learn from his campaign?

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Totally. I’m super interested in, going forward, how Democrats are going to combat this misapplication of the term socialist. And I don’t know if the answer is to embrace it and say, like Sanders, “This is what socialism is about. It’s about health care, it’s about a decent wage. It’s about all these things.” To make the distinction between that and the socialism and authoritarianism of Cuba.

But I think among Latinos, socialism is also just this shorthand or proxy for all conversations having to do with the role of the government in American life. You can apply it to health care and education and the economy, whether we should lower taxes, raise taxes, things like that. I think it’s just been pretty effective shorthand, by the Republican Party, in place of having very complex conversations about those real issues.

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The other state I was really interested in asking about is Texas, where it seemed like Biden underperformed expectations, especially in counties on the border. Democrats have been excited about the prospect of flipping Texas for a while, mostly on the basis that it has a growing minority population. What do you think about the idea that Texas might be in play going forward, and what role are Latino voters going to play in it?

When it comes to the Latino vote, Texas might be the most interesting state to think about and talk about. Those two contending narratives I talked about earlier, you can see both of those at play in Texas, in a real way.

The margin in Texas is inching closer, probably because of the registration and eligibility of hundreds of thousands of new Latino voters. But then, some of the most dramatic shifts toward Trump happened in South Texas, which has been 85 to 90 percent Mexican and, for a long time, has been reliably Democratic. The thin margins that Biden won by there, compared with Clinton and Democrats before her, it’s really astounding.

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This is a region that is thought of as a kind of backwater of Texas that politicians don’t travel to often because it’s such a Democratic stronghold. And the Democratic Party just kind of takes the Mexican American vote there for granted. It’s a place that has higher-than-average poverty rates, poor educational outcomes, health disparities, all of these things. It’s kind of a downtrodden region, but there’s this other narrative about South Texas and the Rio Grande Valley: that it’s a great place for business opportunity.

I interviewed a Republican candidate for Congress from the Rio Grande Valley named Monica De La Cruz. She was telling me that Trump has given Mexican Americans a political voice. She was talking about the “Trump trains” that drove through the area every weekend and she noted a real enthusiasm. Her argument was that Trump gave them the ability to say loudly, proudly, that they were conservative and they were walkaway Democrats, they were going to leave the party because it had taken them for granted.

That’s why I think Democrats would be wrong to only focus on the part of the narrative that’s about record Latino turnout and ignore the part of the narrative that’s about a pretty dramatic shift toward Trump.

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