Who are the Latinos who voted for Trump? New analyses provide deeper insight

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This is the April 9, 2021, edition of the Essential Politics newsletter. Like what you’re reading? Sign up to get it in your inbox three times a week.

One of the major surprises of the 2020 election was President Trump‘s relatively strong showing with Latino voters.

Just four years after running a campaign fueled by anti-immigrant rhetoric, including the accusation that Mexican immigrants were “rapists,” Trump significantly improved his standing with Latino voters.

Understanding why that happened and what it portends for future elections — whether movement of a sizable minority of Latinos to Trump was a one-time event or the start of a longer trend — involves enormous stakes for both parties.

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In the immediate aftermath of the election, analysts offered a lot of guesses about what happened. Now, detailed, precinct-level voting data has started to yield better-grounded assessments.

The latest and most detailed look comes from the Latino-focused firm Equis Research, which earlier this month published the first part of a detailed analysis of the Latino vote in 2020. Their analysis, based on some 40,000 interviews with Latino voters over the 2020 cycle, plus precinct-level returns from battleground states — has attracted attention from political professionals in both parties.

An electorate up for grabs

Despite the focus on who shifted, Latinos remain an overwhelmingly Democratic group and formed a major part of the party’s coalition in 2020. Democrats would not have their slender majorities in either house of Congress — and President Biden would not have won — without carrying a large majority of Latino voters, the Equis analysis notes.

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At the same time, the 2020 results showed that true swing voters make up a much bigger share of the Latino population than many Democrats believed. Trump won over many of them, including a large share of younger voters and those who rarely take part in elections.

A lot of those Latino swing voters think of themselves as conservatives, a group that made up more than one-third of the Latino electorate in 11 battleground states that Equis surveyed.

The swing to Trump was not small. Compared with his vote total in 2016, Trump’s 2020 vote in the Miami area grew by 51% in heavily Cuban precincts, Equis found, and by an astounding 120% in non-Cuban, heavily Latin American precincts. His vote in heavily Latino precincts in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley was up 83%.

And the shift went far beyond those two areas. In Milwaukee, Trump’s vote in Latino precincts was up 38% compared with 2016. In Patterson, N.J., the percentage increase in Trump’s vote topped 100%, albeit from a relatively low level. Even in the Phoenix area, which Biden carried strongly, Trump’s Latino vote surged — up 64% in heavily Latino precincts in Maricopa County. The difference in Arizona was that Biden’s vote also rose significantly compared with Hillary Clinton’s in 2016.

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Local factors helped drive that increase in some places, such as South Florida. But the fact that the shifts occurred in widely disparate places suggests those local concerns were not the heart of what happened.

The data contradicts some other popular notions, as well: Although Latinas remained heavily Democratic, their vote shifted more toward Trump than did Latino men, the numbers show. That undermines the stereotype that Trump had a unique appeal to Latino machismo.

Instead, Equis’ analysis suggests that Trump reached Latino swing voters in part because of a significant change in his own campaign and also in part because of the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on Latino communities.

One of the most notable differences between Trump 2016 and 2020 was that anti-immigrant rhetoric went from being a primary focus of the first campaign, as well as of Trump’s effort to win the 2018 midterm elections, to something of a footnote.

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“In 2020, there were no caravans,” Stephanie Valencia, the president of Equis, said, referring to Trump’s constant warnings during 2018 about groups of migrants moving through Mexico toward the U.S. border.

That may have made a big difference.

While immigration may not be the No. 1 issue for Latino voters, it remains “the gateway,” Valencia said. “It’s still the issue that voters use to measure whether a candidate is with us or against us — do they see us as rapists or as contributors.”

The relative absence of immigration from the 2020 debate opened the door for more conservative Latino voters to shift to Trump, Equis’ analysis suggests.

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That underscores the stakes for both parties in the renewed debate over the border and immigration policy. Republicans run the risk of “overplaying their hand” and reviving their image as an anti-Latino party, Valencia said. For Democrats, the risk would lie in a failure to deliver on longstanding promises to reform immigration laws and provide a pathway to citizenship for millions of long-term U.S. residents, many of them Latino, who lack legal authorization to live here.

Obviously, voters didn’t suddenly forget everything they had learned about Trump’s immigration positions from the earlier campaigns. But in 2020, a different issue — the pandemic and the economic devastation it caused — dominated their attention.

The economic crash disproportionately hurt Latino entrepreneurs and small-business owners as well as workers in industries like construction. It made many of them receptive to Trump’s image as a businessman and his warnings that Biden would reimpose lockdowns.

“Many Latino voters who are entrepreneurs, especially men, see themselves in Trump; they want to achieve the same levels of success he’s achieved,” Valencia said.

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Republicans hope that 2020 will set the pattern for future elections, the way Trump’s success with working-class white voters in the Midwest in 2016 seems to have presaged a permanent realignment.

“You have a lot of Hispanics who are culturally conservative,” said Republican pollster Patrick Ruffini, who praised the Equis research. Democrats “have tried to mobilize them based on appeals to group solidarity,” he said, “and that doesn’t necessarily work.”

Those voters could fit well into the Republicans’ culturally conservative, working-class constituency, he said.

Biden can hope to blunt that appeal with a booming economy. There’s also little evidence so far that other Republicans can profit from the same outsider image that Trump so carefully cultivated.

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But another piece of Equis’ analysis provides reason for Democrats to worry: The surge for Trump among younger voters and those who seldom participate in elections contradicts the enduring Democratic assumption that higher turnout, especially in Sunbelt states with large Latino populations, will always advantage their side.

Democrats have spent a lot of money targeting Latino communities with voter registration drives and get-out-the-vote efforts, but in some cases have forgotten the middle step — persuasion, Carlos Odio, Equis’ senior vice president for research, said on a podcast this week for the 538.com website.

“You can’t treat Latinos like these Democrat robots that all you’ve got to do is plug the batteries in, and they’re going to in lockstep turn out and vote,” Odio said.

Trump, by contrast, ran a very aggressive campaign aimed at persuading Latino voters — making a huge investment in social media that went beyond what any other presidential campaign has done, Valencia said.

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Democrats, she said, need to learn from that and “approach Latinos, and particularly Latino swing voters, with the same level of curiosity and investment they have given to white swing voters.”

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