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Trump’s (potentially successful) Latino strategy

The president won’t come close to winning the Hispanic vote. But he’s concentrating on maintaining the support he had in 2016. Democrats should take heed.

President Trump displayed an executive order on the "White House Hispanic Prosperity Initiative" at a ceremony on July 9.
President Trump displayed an executive order on the "White House Hispanic Prosperity Initiative" at a ceremony on July 9.Evan Vucci/Associated Press

Almost four years into a presidency that many consider to have been disastrous for Latinos, a significant number of Latinos who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 haven’t abandoned him — not after the anti-Mexican racism of his campaign, not after the border wall, not after children were separated from their mothers, not after a pandemic that had a devastating impact on their communities, and not after the killing of George Floyd cast a spotlight on police violence against minorities.

Whether it’s because Trump is able to convince Latinos that his economy was working for them before the pandemic, or that only he can quell the protests that have rocked the country, or because Joe Biden has failed to excite them, the result could be the same: Somewhere between a quarter and a third of Latinos could vote for Trump, and that result, especially in key battleground states, could help him win re-election. That might sound implausible, but the Republican presidential candidate has gotten roughly that level of Hispanic support in most elections since 1972, when some 30 percent of Latinos voted for Richard Nixon, well beyond the single-digit support he apparently got in 1968. Trump got 28 percent in 2016, which was slightly higher than Mitt Romney in 2012 and slightly lower than John McCain in 2008, according to the Pew Research Center.

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The Latinos for Trump arm of the president’s campaign knows all about this history and is determined to make it repeat. That’s why they began outreach early, and dipped back into a playbook that has worked time and again. They launched their campaign in June 2019, more than a year ahead of Biden or any other Democratic candidate besides Senator Bernie Sanders. Instead of waiting for the Republican convention, which didn’t feature the same appeals to Latinos that the Democratic convention did, the Republicans’ Hispanic outreach bonanza came the month before, during a week that was best remembered for the Goya beans controversy.

Over that single week in early July, which, according to polls, were some of the worst days of the Trump campaign, almost everything the president did was related to Latino outreach. When the president of Mexico visited the White House, Trump celebrated the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement and uttered platitudes about “Hispanic Americans.” He signed a “Hispanic Prosperity Initiative” executive order designed to increase educational and financial opportunities for Latinos. Then he visited South Florida, where he talked with military officials about drug trafficking, met with Venezuelans at a church, and sat for an interview with Telemundo to tease protections, including a “road to citizenship,” for the immigrants known as Dreamers.

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While Trump focused on charter schools, drug trafficking, and religious freedom, some Democrats zeroed in on the Goya CEO’s support for the president. If Biden skates past the substance of Trump’s message, he could be caught off guard in November. But if he engages Latinos with his own plans on these and other issues they care about, then he might be able to peel off some of Trump’s Hispanic support in key states like Arizona.

Even as Trump’s approval has declined with independents and suburban voters, his approval among Hispanics has held steady. A recent survey conducted by Pew Research found that 32 percent of Hispanics plan to vote for Trump or lean Trump. Meanwhile, many Latinos haven’t yet warmed to Biden, especially in key swing states like Arizona and Florida and Texas.

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For decades, Republicans have appealed to Hispanics with conservative arguments about free enterprise, anti-radicalism, national security, educational choice, religion, and “law and order.” The Latinos for Trump campaign has been following this script closely.

Trump’s Hispanic supporters have described how they were living their “American dream” after overcoming childhood challenges. They’ve praised Trump as the champion of faith and freedom, and have argued that, under Trump, rates of unemployment for Latinos have been historically low, while rates of homeownership have been historically high, at least before the pandemic. They’ve called Trump a “beacon of hope” because of his tax cut, financial deregulation, and help for small businesses, all of which, in the words of one Hispanic Republican leader — Daniel Garza of the free-market Libre Initiative — will “unleash an economic bonanza for the Latino community.”

The Hispanic Prosperity Initiative that Trump signed promotes “private-sector initiatives” and “public-private partnerships,” and the establishment of a “national network of individuals, organizations, and communities” that will work together to “improve access to educational and economic opportunities for Hispanic Americans.” It established an Advisory Commission on Hispanic Prosperity to oversee new investments in predominantly Latino colleges — known as Hispanic Serving Institutions or HSIs — charter schools (a third of whose students are Latino youth), and “apprenticeships and work-based learning initiatives” (i.e., vocational training).

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In its language, the Hispanic Prosperity Initiative isn’t all that different from President Nixon’s claim half a century ago that economic uplift for minorities was a plank of the civil rights movement. It didn’t get as much attention as the social and political protests, he said, but it was even more important. It was also uniquely Republican, he argued, because it encouraged entrepreneurship.

Other Trump campaign efforts also mirror the strategies of earlier Republican candidates. Just as Trump touted his administration’s efforts to curb drug trafficking and his “all-out campaign to destroy MS-13,” Republicans since Nixon have appealed to Latinos with promises to crack down on the production and trafficking of drugs from Latin America, as well as the gang violence linked to the drug trade. When Trump claimed he would offer Dreamers a road to citizenship, he was following earlier Republicans who acknowledged that Hispanic Republicans have held more permissive views on immigration than the xenophobes in their party. (Trump, however, quickly backtracked from that position.) Even Trump’s posing with Goya products was similar to the hispandering of earlier Republicans, who took awkward bites into unshucked tamales, staged photo-ops with Hispanic leaders, and peppered their speeches with a few Spanish phrases.

To be clear, Trump isn’t trying to win the Hispanic vote. No Republican presidential candidate ever has. He’s just hoping to hold on to their support and combine it with something else that will help him eke out another electoral victory. He beats the drums of anti-radicalism, educational choice, free enterprise, family and faith, and law and order, because it has worked for Republicans before.

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The history of the past 50 years teaches us that Trump is likely to repeat his performance among Hispanics. Then again, history also teaches us that just because things have been one way for a long time doesn’t mean they’re destined to continue in perpetuity. If ever there were a year for change, this could be it. Trump’s poor response to a pandemic that has left almost 200,000 Americans dead, along with his militaristic suppression of Black Lives Matter protests, may already be causing some Hispanic Republicans to reconsider their support for him. But to chip away at the solid Hispanic base that has voted for Republicans for decades, Biden will also have to explain why his economic, educational, health care, and other policies will be better for them than Trump’s will.

Geraldo L. Cadava is an associate professor of history and Latina and Latino studies at Northwestern University and the author of “The Hispanic Republican: The Shaping of an American Political Identity, from Nixon to Trump.” Follow him on Twitter @gerry_cadava.