Latinos showed their strength at the polls, but Democrats will have to do a lot more to flip Florida

Nov. 3, 2020, marked a turning point in U.S. politics: the first time Latinos comprised the largest group of nonwhite voters in a presidential election. About 32 million Latinos were projected to be eligible to vote in this year’s election, which saw record-high turnout with about 142 million ballots cast nationwide.

It was a demographic shift that Democrats have long anticipated and Republicans feared — especially this year, with Donald Trump running for reelection in the shadow of his administration’s notorious family-separation policy. Not to mention the COVID-19 pandemic, which has been particularly hard on Hispanic and other minority communities.

There were widespread predictions that Latino votes could nudge Florida into the Democratic column, and even bring about the long-deferred Democratic dream of becoming competitive in Texas.

But at the same time, there was a counternarrative building, that Biden’s campaign, focused on winning back the upper Midwest, on suburban women and Black voters, had neglected Latinos and would be punished at the polls for it. And in the end, Trump won comfortably in Texas and Florida, as Biden won 70 percent of the Latino vote nationally but underperformed among Latinos in those two states: 67 percent in Texas, and 59 percent in Florida, according exit polls by Latino Decisions, the African American Research Collaborative, and Asian American Decisions.

Black voters chose Biden by an overwhelming 89-to-9 margin both nationally and in Florida, and by almost as much in Texas.

Latino supporters of the Biden/Harris ticket
Latino supporters of the Biden/Harris ticket in Las Vegas. (Melina Mara/Washington Post via Getty Images)

This hardly came as a surprise for Latino voter advocates and experts. Rather, the data that has emerged on Latino voter turnout and behavior in Tuesday’s election only seemed to reinforce the arguments they’ve been making for years. First, that Latino voters are not a monolith but a diverse and complex demographic with conflicting interests. And second, that turnout among Latino voters is directly proportional to the level of outreach their individual communities receive from political parties and candidates.

“Investment translates into action,” Maria Teresa Kumar, CEO of Voto Latino, on a call with reporters Wednesday, where she and other leaders from top Latino advocacy and civil rights groups offered a post-election analysis on the role of Latino voters in 2020.

Kumar and others on the call pointed to Biden’s lead in Arizona, where grassroots progressive groups have been working on the ground in Latino communities for several years, as proof that direct and sustained outreach, especially targeting younger Latinos, can yield significant rewards for Democrats in historically red states with growing populations of eligible Latino voters.

“Arizona is the bellwether of where the rest of the country is going to go,” Kumar said, and predicted that “this election is going to be decided by the Latino vote.”

According to the exit poll data, Biden did only slightly better with Latinos in Arizona than he did nationally, beating Trump there 71 percent to 26.

Some Latino activists said they think the Democratic Party has been taking Latinos for granted.

“I think Biden missed a grand opportunity to have been able to carry Florida and Texas, if he had just invested in the Latino community more, if he had delivered the correct message” said Domingo Garcia, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC.

Latino supporters of Donald Trump
Latino supporters of President Trump in Miami. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

The Trump campaign, Garcia said, did an effective job of tailoring its messages to different subgroups, especially in South Florida, where efforts to paint Biden as a socialist resonated with Cuban, Venezuelan and Nicaraguan voters who had fled communist regimes in those countries. Democrats fought back with ads comparing Trump to Latin American strongmen, but it may have come too late in the campaign to make much of a difference.

In Texas, Garcia thinks Biden should have worked harder to counter Republican messages tying him to the defund the police movement, which Biden in fact opposes. Garcia thinks that that accounts for his underperformance compared to Hillary Clinton in the predominantly Latino Rio Grande Valley, such as Zapata County, which Clinton won with 66 percent of the vote in 2016, where preliminary results showed Trump in the lead. “A lot of the Border Patrol, law enforcement, are heavily Latino in the Rio Grande Valley,” Garcia said, which left “an opening for Republicans to come in and take advantage of that.”

In an interview with Yahoo News, Matt Barreto, a political scientist and pollster who was hired by the Biden campaign to conduct its polling of Latino voters, said there’s “No question that throughout this campaign we were facing an onslaught of just lies and misinformation that required us to do extra pushback.”

Still, Barreto said, the campaign’s polling in Texas consistently showed that the coronavirus pandemic was a top concern for Latino voters.

“We felt like we had a good message for Latinos on that because they trusted our plan,” he said, attributing Biden’s losses in the Rio Grande Valley to other factors, like the statewide switch away from straight-ticket voting, which had previously benefited Democrats in areas like the Rio Grande Valley.

Despite these setbacks, Barreto firmly disputed the notion that Trump’s gains among Latinos in the Rio Grande Valley, which he said makes up about 15 percent of the Latino electorate in Texas, is what prevented Biden from turning the state blue.

“Those counties are very small populated and not representative of the entire Latino vote in Texas by any stretch,” Barreto said. According to precinct-level data analyzed by the campaign, turnout among Latino voters in the heavily populated cities of Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Austin and El Paso was not only very high, but support among Latinos for Biden “running equal or higher than Hillary in almost every single majority precinct.”

Voters wait to cast ballots
Voters wait to cast their ballots in Brownsville, Texas. (Denise Cathey/Brownsville Herald via AP)

“Even if every county in the valley matched Clinton numbers,” Barreto said, “that would’ve made up 100,000 votes,” not early enough to beat Trump who, as of Wednesday afternoon, was winning Texas by 662,000 votes.

But the bigger lesson this year was that Latino voters are, and will continue to be, a major force in American politics. Chuck Rocha, a Democratic strategist who was a senior adviser to Bernie Sanders and helped lead a Latino outreach effort that contributed to victories for Sanders in the California and Nevada primaries, founded Nuestro PAC, a progressive super-PAC that raised $10 million in bilingual communication in 8 states “to reach out and persuade infrequent and newly registered Latinos in battleground states.”

On a call with reporters Thursday, Rocha admitted that Biden underperformed in the Miami-Dade area, but says his group has learned from the results — and one of the lessons was not to leave Latino outreach to mainstream Democratic PACs targeted at white voters.

“All I'm going to say about Florida is we only spent about $1.9 million. I should have spent $20 million [and] Florida would have looked a lot different,” said Rocha. “What I would call the establishment super-PACs in America said they had Florida handled, specifically Miami. So we spent the money that we spent talking to Latinos in the I-4 corridor [the middle of the state], which actually Joe Biden won at a large percent.”

In the future, he said, “Democrats are going to continue to talk about how Latinos are important to them, they are going to continue to talk about how they have a couple of Latinos on staff, but until we fix this problem we are going to continue to see what we saw Tuesday night.

“These folks spent a billion dollars talking to white people because it’s smart politics. If you want to persuade somebody to go vote for somebody, spend a lot of money talking to them. Then why don’t you do that with Latinos? And why aren’t your campaign managers Latino? Why aren't your consultants Latino?

“Things are going to change dramatically,” Rocha said. “I look forward to being part of that change.”

Cover thumbnail photo: LM Otero/AP


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