Lessons For Democrats: Trump’s Latino Surge, And Why it Was Avoidable

In the fallout of an intense federal election, President-elect Joe Biden’s underperformance among Latino voters in key states is forcing a political realignment on how to reach diverse communities. By assuming every Latino is just another brown immigrant who ‘votes blue-no-matter-who’ because of the big bad Republican fascists, Democrats are finding out that their messages of referendum on Trump’s America didn’t always land with those most affected by his rule.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez slammed the Democrats for this very same arrogance. “I won’t comment much on tonight’s results as they are evolving and ongoing, but I will say we’ve been sounding the alarm about Dem vulnerabilities with Latinos for a long, long time,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted on election night. “There is a strategy and a path, but the necessary effort simply hasn’t been put in.” She added “we have work to do,” in response to an article that the Biden campaign didn’t consider Latinos “part of their path to victory,” according to Biden’s own political operatives.

As it turns out, ‘victory’ was both a loose and selective term for the campaign. It’s true that Biden did win the election in the electoral college and by the popular vote, however, major failures in areas such as Miami-Dade County, Florida cost Rep. Donna Shalala her House seat and crushed the narrative of an early Biden blowout win. According to Vox, Biden can’t just pin this on Miami’s significant Cuban population who historically votes Republican in post-Cold War America. Numbers from South Florida show that Biden lost ground among diverse groups of voters that included families from Puerto Rico, Venezuela, and Colombia, as well as Cuba.

In addition, Biden narrowly beat Trump by 5 points in Texas areas like Starr County, which Hillary Clinton won by over 60 points in 2016, and actually lost Zapata County, Texas, an area with an 80 percent Hispanic population which Clinton won by over 30 points in the last election. But how could this be? After four years of draconian immigration policies, how could anyone endorse another term of such barbarity? For many Latinos — the 70 percent of whom that broke for Biden, comprising 2020’s second-largest voting bloc — this line of reasoning was enough. “He’s come after people like me,” said Taylor Valencia, a first-year elementary school teacher from Phoenix who spoke to The New York Times. “His entire presidency is an attack on my moral values and who I am.”

For another 30 percent, however, there’s more to political life than the border. “If your starting point is that not a single Latino should vote for Trump, then of course you are going to need a more complex explanation for understanding why Trump would win 25 to 35 percent of the [Latino] vote” explained Bernard Fraga, an associate professor of political science at Emory University who spoke to NBC News. “This year, the law-and-order rhetoric used during the campaign really resonated with an already predisposed population to question things like Black Lives Matter. The Trump campaign was doing in-person events that the Biden people never did.” Essentially, the Trump campaign did voter outreach that focused beyond just a single issue.

In Florida, this strategy was actually a significant investment by the Trump administration, who focused their efforts on effective red-bating to label Democrats as “socialists,” cultivating conservative Hispanic coalitions on reactionary positions such as evangelical congregation during COVID, claiming Democratic candidates were trying to “silence our churches,” as well as speaking at length about abortion. 

“I have been in this country since I was 9, I have been through a lot, and I am American,” said Teresita Miglio, an accountant in her 60s that immigrated from Cuba who also spoke to the Times. “Abortion is the litmus test, Jesus is my savior and Trump is my president.”

Did this investment come out of nowhere? No. For years, key Democrats have been warning the current strategies aren’t going to pan out. “I feel we have taken the eye off the ball of the Hispanics that are necessary to win,” argued former Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, who lost a tight gubernatorial race in 2018. In reference to Venezuela, Gillum added: “Democrats have to speak out forcefully against these types of authoritarian regimes or I fear it does a disservice to give Republicans something to hit us over the head about.” This sentiment was joined by Annette Taddeo, a Democrat and a Colombian American state senator from the Miami area, who predicted these inroads may prove troublesome. “And what are we doing? Nothing.”

How did the Democratic Party respond? Well, it’s complicated. For the Florida Democratic Party, their response to Trump’s rallies in early 2020 was more of the same, using bilingual billboards showing a large image of Trump throwing paper towels at Puerto Ricans after the destruction of Hurricane Maria. The billboards read “Never forget,” or rather “Prohibido olvidar” in its Spanish translation. According to NBC, this was an attempt to reference “an old salsa song some voters may recognize,” though it came across as a cheap comparison to the Holocaust phrase “never forget” regarding the genocide of Jews during the Nazi regime. Such blatant emotional manipulation — even if it’s merited — doesn’t go over well for those who might cite this as ‘Trump derangement syndrome.’

“For years,” writes Times journalist Jennifer Medina, “many Democrats have presumed demography as destiny, believing that Latinos would come to vote for them with the same kind of consistency that Black voters do. A growing Latino population, they hoped, would transform the political landscape and give the party an edge in the Southwest. That dream ran into reality in this election, in which the results confirmed what was evident from conversations with hundreds of Latino voters in dozens of settings from the early days of the Democratic primary until the long ballot-counting hours in Arizona over the last week: The Latino vote is deeply divided, and running as not-Trump was always going to be insufficient.”

For some Democrats, this realization has somewhat stuck. In early 2019, it was the Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Pérez who held roundtable discussions with local Miami leaders on how Obamacare has impacted Latino communities, albeit framed defensively against Trump’s attempts to cut it. It should be noted Florida had the nation’s highest number of ACA enrollments, making it a pivotal issue among Hispanic voters. “Talk is cheap,” Perez said against Trump citing a lack of policies proposed by the White House. “His silence in the aftermath of the earthquakes (in Puerto Rico) has been deafening. This is a president who said, ‘I’m going to help you Venezuelans.’ If he cared about the Venezuelan people, he could enact Temporary Protected Status tomorrow.”

In the immediate aftermath, other Democrats are following suit. “We went in the wrong direction, and we want to make sure that does not happen again,” said Julián Castro, the only Latino candidate in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, arguing for months that Democrats were “underinvesting in Latino voters,” particularly in Texas where the party was “winning the battle but losing the war.” 

Representative Ocasio-Cortez joined in on these criticisms. “I don’t think that our party has ever seriously done the work,” she spoke critically of the party’s strategy of only addressing the community every four years. “That’s not acceptable for any community. I don’t know why it’s acceptable for so many communities of color.” Even though Trump engaged in the same practice, the appearance of being their brash, yet attentive listener was persuasive, even if it didn’t always materialize across the nation.

While Biden is ultimately heading to the White House, the party is unlikely to let his close call go unnoticed. “We were not choosing our savior, we were choosing our opponent,” argued Marisa Franco, the executive director of Mijente, a Latino civil rights organization that originally backed Senator Bernie Sanders in the primary. In explaining her group’s work post-2020, Franco concluded this: “The Biden campaign may have chosen not to spend time in working-class, immigrant and people-of-color neighborhoods, but that is exactly where his victory is coming from and where the solutions he’ll need to champion will have to start.”

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