Looking at Republican gains among Latinos in Florida and South Texas in isolation, you’d think Hispanic voters have discovered a newfound affinity for the GOP.
But for those who’ve been paying attention to the diverse political preferences of the Latino electorate, the outcome this week was far from surprising.
And while Democrats are taking stock of their losses in those states — even as Joe Biden inches toward victory — some are warning against pinning the blame on Latino voters.
“The overall fixation on Latinos is a scapegoat,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) said in an interview with POLITICO. “Because what’s implicit in that is the assumption and the entitlement that a hundred percent of communities of color must turn out for Democrats and anything less is a failure while we just … allow us to lose vast majorities of white voters without any introspection.”
Democrats need to scrutinize why “they continue to hemorrhage white voters,” Ocasio-Cortez said. Still, the progressive congresswoman and other lawmakers agree the party should have done more to prevent Trump’s gains among segments of the Latino population in Florida and Texas. They said the campaign should have paid more attention to the wide diversity of Latinos — and tailored their message accordingly.
But as the vice president was closing in on 270 electoral college votes, his campaign was quick to defend their strategy with Latino voters, which they said reflected the nuances among different Latinos. Matt Barreto, a Biden pollster, said if the campaign absolutely had to win Florida they might have organized the campaign differently.
“I don’t see anything on our Latino strategy, for sure, where we’re looking back saying we should have done that better [or] differently,” Barreto said. “We had multiple pathways — and Trump didn’t.”
But in more than a dozen interviews, Democratic lawmakers at the local and national level said there were lessons to be learned from Trump’s marginal increase with certain Latinos, namely among Mexican Americans in rural Texas and Puerto Ricans in Florida.
Democrats and Republicans told POLITICO Trump’s grandiose style, and what many consider a hyper masculine persona, resonated with men of all races and ethnicities — but not with Latinas. And while votes are still being counted in Nevada, it’s clear that Trump also made inroads with the Latinos there, who are majority Mexican American — a reminder for Democrats that it is not a reliably blue state.
Nationally, Biden won two-thirds of Latinos, according to exit polls, similar to Hillary Clinton’s share in 2016. President Donald Trump slightly grew his share, winning 32 percent this year compared to 28 percent in 2016. But Trump made inroads along the Texas-Mexico border and grew his support among Latinos in Florida — areas that had some of the sharpest swings from Democrats to Republicans this year.
Cuban Americans in Miami who drifted towards the Democratic Party during Barack Obama and Clinton’s campaigns turned out in greater numbers for Trump this year, contributing to his win in the Sunshine State. Plus, other more-reliably Democratic Latinos in Miami moved toward Trump.
“I don’t think that this is on Biden solely or specifically, I think it’s an indictment of the entire Democratic Party,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “If people actually gave a damn to actually be paying attention to the Latino community in Florida over years, none of this is surprising. I don’t know why anyone in this party still clings to this hope that conservative Cubans are like somehow going to break for Democrats.”
Latinos have roots in dozens of countries and can be of any race. What’s more, like most other segments of the electorate, their experiences vary widely, depending on whether they’re urban or rural, what state they live in, their class and how many generations they’ve been in the U.S. Dominicans in New York will have a different set of concerns from Cubans in Miami, or Mexican Americans in Arizona.
And those differences can play out even within the same group in the same state. For example, Trump’s “muscular leadership style” appeals to Latino men in Texas, but not to Latino women, according to an August poll from the Texas Hispanic Policy Foundation. Hispanics who speak Spanish at home tended to vote for Biden, while English speakers tilted towards Trump.
Which, says former presidential candidate Julián Castro, is all the reason to fine-tune campaign strategies to fit different demographics in different states.
“It’s a powerful demonstration of why we need to invest in a 365-day-a-year, full-court press effort to register and turn out Latino voters and to speak to them effectively wherever they are,” Castro said.
“We need higher margins.”
‘We could lose folks for a generation’
Biden’s campaign countered that it prioritized Latino outreach in key battlegrounds as soon as it had the money, including expanding polling to states like Pennsylvania, where the election now hangs in the balance. And even Democrats who were frustrated by Trump’s performance in Texas and Florida said the campaign managed to boost Latino turnout, winning a majority of support in states from Arizona to Wisconsin.
In Arizona, where there was a more targeted effort to turn out Latinos, the demographic backed Biden by roughly 63 percent, matching Clinton’s 2016 number. In the three most populous counties — Maricopa, Yuma and Pima — the precincts with the highest density of Latino voters backed Biden by more than 74 percent, according to a UCLA analysis of Latino voters in the state. In Milwaukee and Philadelphia, an analysis of majority-Latino precincts by Latino Decisions showed Biden received more than 75 percent of the vote.
But the Latino vote in Texas was more of a mixed bag for Biden, a state Trump won. The vice president’s losses in Rio Grande Valley are a “conundrum,” said Rep. Joaquin Castro, head of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. But, Biden did well in Texas cities with large Latino populations like San Antonio and Houston. There, Castro said, Biden did as well or better than Clinton in 2016, proof the South Texas results were an “anomaly.”
Among all Texas voters, Biden picked up 1.34 million more votes than Clinton, cutting Trump’s margin of victory from 9 points in 2016 to 5.8 points this year. In El Paso County and Hidalgo County, the two most populous Texas border areas, Biden won nearly 30,000 more votes than Clinton. But Trump added about 67,000 voters.
Based on preliminary precinct numbers, it’s clear Trump saw marked improvement in Texas’s densely populated Latino counties along the US-Mexico Border. For example, Trump lost Starr County by about 5 percent of the vote — boosting his numbers in the county by 55 percent compared to 2016.
“I do think unless the Democratic Party as a whole really begins taking seriously this flight of Latinos from Democratic Party to the Trump party we could lose folks for a generation,” said Democratic Rep. Veronica Escobar, who was reelected on Tuesday in her El Paso district.
Escobar and other Texas Democrats said that winning votes in border communities requires considerable resources, but it’s an investment, they argue, that will help national candidates make gains in Latino communities.
Democratic Texas Rep. Vicente Gonzalez in Hidalgo County, which had been one of the fastest growing counties in Texas until recently, said he took a 7-point hit in his reelection bid, which he attributes to the presidential race. (He still won.)
“We had 49,000 new voters come out in my district that didn’t vote in 2016. Trump brought enthusiasm to young Latinos to put a Trump flag in the back of their pickup truck and drive around town,” Gonzalez said.
But Barreto, Biden’s pollster, said viewing the uptick of Latino support for Trump in the Rio Grande Valley as a bellwether for Latinos, or Texas, is misguided.
The Rio Grande Valley is “its own region and it’s only 15 percent of the Latino vote” in Texas, Barreto said. If people think Latinos in the Rio Grande delivered Texas to Trump, Barreto added, they aren’t doing the math correctly. The “biggest place we underperformed as a party was in white rural and white exurbs”
“Do not pin this on [Latinos],” he said. ”We expanded Democratic margins in the cities.”
The Biden campaign, like most national campaigns, chose to focus its their resources in Pennsylvania, Arizona and Michigan, spending in Texas only in the final days. Jill Biden and Kamala Harris made one stop each in the state in the final stretch. But the Trump campaign and Texas Republican candidates visited the area, organizing Trump events in the valley over the summer.
“I visited Eagle Pass over 20 times,” said Republican Tony Gonzales, who defeated Democrat Gina Ortiz Jones on Tuesday for a congressional seat that includes a large swath of the Texas-Mexico border. “There’s no doubt that the enthusiasm for the president specifically along the border was real. I mean people were energized and excited. Here you had first generation Hispanics wearing MAGA hats. It was very real.”
‘It was the red wedding’
In Florida, Democrats and strategists across the state knew the race between Biden and Trump would be tight. Latino Democratic leaders spotted red flags in 2018 when Republicans labeled Democrats socialists and radicals to help secure the governorship. But they didn’t think the president would perform as well as he did with Latinos in 2020.
Biden won Cuban-heavy Miami-Dade County by just 7.3 percentage points, after Clinton had won it in 2016 by almost 30 points. Trump also performed better than expected in heavily Venezuelan and Colombian precincts of South Florida also shows Trump performing better than expected — making double-digit gains compared to his 2016 performance.
Trump also was able to chip at the margins of Puerto Rican voters’ support for Biden. While there aren’t solid numbers yet, Trump did 7 points better than he did in 2016 in Osceola County, a Puerto Rican-heavy county in Central Florida. He also performed better in neighboring Orange County.
As for heavily-Cuban precincts in Miami, Trump won as much as 70 percent of the total Cuban vote there, when strategists had been projecting he’d receive much closer to 60 percent.
However, veteran strategists and pollsters in Florida argued Latinos weren’t the reason Biden lost the state. Trump won Florida by more than 370,000 votes, and Democratic strategists are estimating that Trump will have won 120,000 more Cuban Americans than Biden.
“Biden got 38% of the white vote in FL. He was polling at an avg of 42% in Oct. Had that white support held, he would’ve won FL,” Carlos Odio, co-founder of Democratic firm Equis Research, wrote on Twitter.
Still, high turnout for Trump caused Democratic losses down the ballot. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel Powell, the first immigrant from South America to be a member of the U.S. House, was ousted by Republican Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez. In an unexpected loss for Democrats, Rep. Donna Shalala lost to GOP’s Maria Elvira Salazar.
Shalala said the entire Democratic establishment, not just Biden, must improve the party’s strength in Miami-area districts like hers. “This administration’s been working the Latino electorate since day one when they arrived.”
When Puerto Ricans migrated en masse from the island after Hurricane Maria, Ocasio-Cortez said, “we didn’t invest in educating those voters, finding them, organizing them and making the case for them to become Democrats for the rest of their lives.”
“There’s no Democratic Party in the Island of Puerto Rico. There’s no Republican party in the Island of Puerto Rico. It’s a completely different political spectrum,” she added. “When we rely only on just pictures of Trump throwing paper towels as us being our case for why the Latino community should support the Democratic Party, you’re not going to win.”
Democrats needed more radio ads and more door knocking. And they should have started sooner, Ocasio-Cortez said.
“It was the red wedding,” said a Miami Democratic operative, who spoke on the condition of anonymity over concerns of antagonizing fellow Democrats in the state. “It was truly the culmination of four years of anti-socialist messaging on behalf of the Trump campaign.”
“We were late to putting people on the ground. No question about it,” the operative added. The small Democratic footprint, the operative said, “sets Democrats in South Florida two decades.”
Local Democrats acknowledge they saw the signs when Republicans turned out in massive numbers for early voting in South Florida. But early on, some pushed the Biden campaign and Florida Democratic Party to step up their game with more money and a full-fledged ground game.
Biden’s campaign defended their Florida strategy. Campaign Manager Jen O’Malley Dillon told reporters the Biden team canvassed “in person to 10s of millions of voters in the last weeks of the election alone.”
“We made sure that we were not putting our volunteers or any voters at risk,” she said.
O’Malley Dillon acknowledged Trump over-performed his numbers with Cuban Americans but said the campaign had a “robust” and “customized program” across the key battlegrounds to engage Latinos.
Democrats said they hope the outcomes force the party to rethink its long-term messaging and strategy for Latinos — one more tailored to the unique experiences of Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Venezulans, Cubans and more. Still, they insist, Latino turnout for Biden was largely a success.
“The totality of the entire Latino story illustrates the promise and the peril of the Latino vote and why Democrats have to make a long-term commitment to further understanding the nuance of this community,” said Stephanie Valencia, co-founder of the Latino-run Democratic firm Equis Research.
Still, Ocasio-Cortez said, things are not beyond repair for Democrats.
Though she hopes the party takes time after the election to evaluate the changes in the Rio Grande Valley and Miami-Dade, to avoid a future “generational shift,” the congresswoman warned her party and its leaders against missing the more glaring problem in front of their noses.
“This is also indicative of that failure of whiteness and the overwhelming whiteness of just Democrats in our institutions in general,” she added. “That there’s so much finger pointing and trying to examine the fact that you may have lost like 20% or 30% of an electorate … as opposed to looking at the obvious question [that] white support for Trump went up."
Trump won a majority of white voters and white women, according to exit polls, despite multiple polls in the battleground leading up to the election forecasting a greater erosion for the president with white women.
“That is the failure. That is the story," Ocasio-Cortez said. "And there’s no amount of Latinos that will be able to make up for that if that trend continues.”
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