Editor’s Note: Ed Morales is a journalist and lecturer at Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race and the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. He’s the author of the book “Fantasy Island: Colonialism, Exploitation and the Betrayal of Puerto Rico.” Follow him on Twitter @SpanglishKid. The views expressed are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
The heightened media attention to the Latino vote reached a spectacular climax during this year’s general election, with a higher total than expected going to the Republican side. Yet while many pundits have pointed to this increase as a significant factor in President Donald Trump’s victory in Florida and Texas, the overall picture shows not only that Joe Biden’s support among the majority of Latinos – around 70% helped deliver victories in key swing states, but also a striking increase in participation that will cement the importance of the Latino electorate in future elections.
It’s clear that Latinos are highly diverse regionally and racially, and for that reason, have different political needs. Yet there are things that unify them, like bilingual/biculturalism, consumption of Spanish-language or Latino-oriented media, and a shared historical narrative that is not only imposed from above by government and marketers, but often chosen by Latinos themselves for political and cultural reasons. Whatever the Latino vote is, it’s growing, and for the most part, aligned with the Democratic Party.
The focus on how well the Trump and Biden campaigns were taking their message to the Latino community had the effect of finally disproving the assumption that it acted as a monolith. In this year of racial reckoning, mainstream America is finally seeing that Latinos in the US have different regional, racial and political orientations, prompting the giddy assertion that there “is no Latino vote.” But it should always have been clear that when the media reports on the “the Latino vote” it’s not making an assumption that all Latinos vote alike. It’s asking the question, who will the majority of Latinos vote for, and how large is that majority? That majority could constitute a significant force in winning or losing a swing state.
Despite how fashionable it may be these days to recognize that there are Latino Republicans, the fact is that the Latino vote in the 2020 election did not deviate much from what we have seen over the last 30 years, where Latinos voted Republican between 27% and 44%. That last figure, which is what George W. Bush got in 2004, is largely attributable to his administration’s inclusive approach toward Latinos, its relatively tolerant message about immigrants from Mexico and Central America, Bush’s home state being Latino-rich Texas, and the fact that his brother Jeb was married to a Mexican woman.
Outgoing President Trump got a large boost from the Latino vote in Florida, where he received a whopping 47% of their vote. Trump’s Florida success, which was several points higher than in 2016, was forged by intense outreach by his campaign there, emphasizing an anti-communist message that appealed to long-time Republican Cuban-Americans, recent Venezuelan immigrants, and even Puerto Ricans. While Democratic activists complained that the Biden campaign did not invest in outreach there, another factor might have been Puerto Rico’s governor and Resident Commissioner (non-voting representative to Congress) both endorsing Trump.
The President’s relatively impressive numbers among Latinos in Texas were at least partially driven by unusually large margins in the Rio Grande Valley, where lack of Democratic presence was also blamed, as well as the presence of many Mexican-American Border Patrol and oil and gas works, as well as those who identify as white. While the parallels with Florida can be seen here, when you look at the larger cities in Texas you see the same kind of overwhelming Latino preference for Democrats that one sees in New York and California. The large Biden advantages in these areas are fueled by younger, progressive voters who represent the future of the Latino vote – 22% of Generation Z voters are Latino, as are 17% of millennial voters.
The same demographic appears to have bolstered Biden in both Arizona and Nevada, the former being quite a shift considering Arizona passed some harsh anti-immigrant laws in the 90s. The early momentum for these victories in the Southwest can be attributed to early organizing by Sen. Bernie Sanders surrogate Chuck Rocha, who turned his energies to supporting Biden with his Nuestro PAC organization. These voters, who represent labor union strength, as well as a convergence of young Latinos with a general left bent among millennials, have been helping to elect new Congressional representatives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Ayanna Pressley, or as they have come to be known, “The Squad.”
The issue driven strength of the Latino vote for Biden contrasts with the “values” motivated support from Trump, one that is often based on disinformation and exaggerated claims. His advantage with anti-socialist Cuban and Venezuelan Florida relied on a dubious smearing of Biden as a socialist, an absurd claim considering the President-elect’s long, centrist Democratic history as well as his disavowal of universal health care and Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal. It got even more extreme than that – disinformation campaigns targeting Spanish-speakers in Florida and other states were distributed through WhatsApp chats aimed to conflate Biden and Black Lives Matter with Latin American dictators.
It would seem that the future of Hispanic Republicans will be more promising in a Republican Party that moves away from Trump’s authoritarian bigotry. The answer may lie in an idea proposed by Ian Haney López in the Washington Post, that Trump “exploited Latinos’ status anxiety.”
The triumph of Trump in the first place seems to have a lot to do with not really addressing political and economic needs and issues, but to create a two-sided structure of belonging that admits marginalized groups in if they agree with his characterization of those who oppose Trump as “bad people.” The strongest example of this logic is the belief among many Trump Hispanics that illegal immigration is wrong, leaving an opening for those who already possess citizenship or had little problem obtaining it. This would include South Florida Cubans, who have benefited greatly from the Cuban Adjustment Act, which gives them the easiest path to citizenship for all Latinos except Puerto Ricans, who are born US citizens.
Trump Republicanism thrives on the oversimplified division of people into “good” and “bad” (or macho or weak) effectively obscuring the uncomfortable realities of Trump’s failed leadership, the collapse of the economy, and the emergence of rampant White supremacy. Economic debate is reduced to identifying bad “socialist” actors, the crisis of democracy solved by identifying the press as “bad people,” effectively relegating serious discussion of issues like minimum wage, climate change and racial inequality to irrelevance.
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Perhaps with President-elect Biden we can return to a version of authentic politics where the question for Latino voters becomes whether he can deliver on issues important to them, ranging from a more effective response to the Covid-19 pandemic, desperately needed economic recovery, a turn away from harsh border policies, and perhaps a better deal for hurricane- and debt crisis-wracked Puerto Rico. The answer may lay in January’s Georgia Senate runoff elections, where Democratic control could return to the Senate if they win in both races. Chuck Rocha is already on that case, and perhaps Latinos can supplement the already Herculean efforts made by African American voters who solidified Biden’s margin there.