Scratch the surface on any story about the surprisingly close results of the 2020 elections and you’ll very likely see something about Latinos. Immediately on Election Night it was obvious Trump and most down-ballot Republicans were doing well in places like South Florida and the Rio Grande Valley, which had a lot to do with Trump’s relatively easy wins in the two large states of Texas and Florida. But as more data drifted in, it became apparent the fiery nativist president who had insulted Mexican, Central and South American immigrants repeatedly, improved on his 2016 performance among Latinos, which in turn was an improvement over Mitt Romney’s share of that vote in 2012.
The rapidly increasing size of the Latino vote has been central to Democratic hopes of a demographically driven semi-permanent majority coalition in the near future, so flagging strength with that group is scary to them. And Trump’s ability to win a decent and growing share of Latino votes cheers Republicans who now figure they can have their race-baiting cake and eat minority votes too. But as Ron Brownstein explains in a characteristically thorough assessment of various theories about the direction of the Latino vote, it’s not exactly clear what to expect next or what if anything either party can do about the trend-lines.
One problem is that there have long been myriad problems in defining and measuring the Latino vote which bedevil any analysis. But the trend lines are pretty clear through 2020:
If Trump won about one-third of Latino voters nationally (the figure most analysts agree on), that’s roughly the same share won by several previous Republican nominees, including John McCain in 2008, George W. Bush in 2000, George H. W. Bush in 1988, and Ronald Reagan during his two races in the 1980s. (George W. Bush did better than that in 2004.)
But it’s troubling to Democrats that the immigrant-baiting Trump did as well among Latinos as McCain, who famously favored comprehensive immigration reform, or Reagan, who won by national landslides twice. So an immediate question is whether 2020 was simply a reversion to the mean or if Republicans can do better going forward, particularly if the Latino-unfriendly aspects of Trump’s persona and message are discarded.
Unfortunately, there’s some evidence 2020 Republican Latino gains were partially attributable to, not simply in spite of, Trump. A number of analysts argue that Latino men liked what Brownstein calls “Trump’s swaggering and belligerent persona.” But the Latino gender gap wasn’t particularly large, so others believe Trump’s “law and order” message resonated with the sizable segment of the Latino population who feel little if any solidarity with Black social justice advocates. Trump’s mildly ludicrous attacks on Joe Biden as a “socialist” were not taken humorously by Caribbean and South American immigrants who had experienced leftist dictatorships. And the incumbent almost certainly benefitted from his prioritization of the economy over public health in the COVID-19 pandemic among Latinos highly vulnerable to job losses.
These last 2020 Trump assets (along with simple incumbency) could certainly accrue to Democrats in 2022 and 2024 if the pandemic subsides and the economy continues to boom. But partisan cleavages on “socialism” and “law and order” will not likely go away even if Trump is no longer his party’s leader. Nor will the clear differences on cultural issues like abortion and “religious liberty” that push Latino Evangelicals and Pentecostals, along with traditionalist Catholics, towards the GOP. In general, it’s pretty clear that the Democratic assumption that most Latino voters would steer clear of a Republican Party associated with immigration restrictions was not warranted, particularly in a political environment like that of 2020 in which there were so many urgent competing concerns. And what may be going on, as David Shor has suggested, is that the intensifying climate of partisan polarization is pushing Latino conservatives who used to vote Democratic towards their more natural ideological home.
Almost everybody agrees Republicans have recently done immensely better in Latino voter engagement. Indeed, one reason for Democratic optimism is that the self-imposed restrictions Democrats placed on direct personal contacts with all kinds of voters during the pandemic will give way to a more even playing field in the future. But the regular complaints of Latino activists about inadequate outreach by Democrats to their communities indicate one simple way Republican success can be limited: just by trying more. Perhaps the party as a whole should pay better attention to Bernie Sanders’s strong Latino base during the 2020 Democratic nominating contest, which is often written off as just a byproduct of Bernie-mania among young voters.
The stakes for both parties in getting this right grow more each election, Brownstein’s sources tell him:
The nonpartisan States of Change project anticipates that Latinos will grow from about one in seven eligible voters today to nearly one in five by the middle of the next decade…. [I]f Democrats can maintain the roughly two-to-one advantage they have traditionally enjoyed among Latinos, most in the party would probably be satisfied. But…it’s a mistake to assume that no Republican could do better than Trump, particularly if they sanded down some of the roughest edges of his approach on immigration.
It’s as good a time as any to remember that in the end a vote’s a vote, and that major national political parties can win by losing big demographic groups by less than before. Beyond winning and losing, though, Democrats should beware giving Republicans grounds to believe that racism and nativism have no negative electoral consequences. That way lies Trumpism for as far as the eye can see.