HOUSTON – Donald Trump descended the golden escalators of Trump Tower in New York City and launched his bid for the White House in 2015 with a nativist, “America First” approach to immigration, trade, and the economy, along with claims that Mexico was sending “rapists” to the United States.
That message was a major part of the reason that Veronica Juarez, 39, a longtime Republican of Mexican heritage born and raised in Houston, for the first time in 2016 declined to vote for president. She did not like Trump, who frustrated her with his arrogance and his inflammatory rhetoric maligning Mexican immigrants, and didn’t find Democrat Hillary Clinton an acceptable option. But after much deliberation just before this Election Day, Juarez, 39, a stay-at-home mother, had made up her mind: “I am going to go vote for Trump,” she said.
She wasn’t “too happy” with him, she admitted. She didn’t like his character. But as a Christian, Juarez believed the Republican Party’s stances fell in line with her “biblical point of view,” and she admired Vice President Mike Pence for his strong Christian values. “I am mainly focused on who is around him, who walks with him, who guides him, I am looking at all that,” she said of Trump.
Since Election Day, Democratic political analysts and strategists have been trying to understand the decisions of Latino voters like Juarez as they dig into preliminary data that appear to show diametrically opposed trends: Both Trump and Biden won big with Latino voters.
Vote tallies and preliminary exit polls show Latinos overwhelmingly came out for Biden in record-shattering numbers, helping him score victories in the heavily Latino populated states of Arizona and most likely Nevada, as well as potentially playing a key role in wins in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and possibly Georgia. But at the same time, Trump improved his performance among Latino voters across multiple states compared to 2016. Along the Texas border with Mexico and in Florida, he even appeared to expand his base, though Biden ultimately won the majority of Latino voters in both states.
The results have spurred debate among Democrats over whether those inroads are warning signs of new enthusiasm by Latinos for the Republican Party or part of the predictable share of Latino voters — about a third — that has gone to every Republican presidential candidate since 1996.
Longtime Latino advocates and activists who have been organizing Mexican Americans, Salvadorans, and other Latinos in California, Arizona, and Nevada have been exasperated with the focus on Democrats' losses in races in Texas and Florida in Tuesday’s election, saying it ignores Trump’s consolidation of white rural voters nationwide. It also threatens to overshadow the massive gains from a decade of canvassing and grass-roots organizing, they said, despite receiving historically little to no attention from national Democrats or presidential candidates.
“People have been taking Latino voters for granted on both sides for a decade,” said Antonio Arellano, the interim executive director of Jolt, the largest Latino progressive organization in Texas. “Latinos are not going to show up for a party that we are not invited to.”
And yet, Latinos came out in droves for Biden, he added. "I’m so proud of the record participation of Latinos who are finally stepping up and pushing back against a narrative that has painted us not engaged or not powerful. It couldn’t be further to the truth,” he said.
Geraldo Cadava, associate professor of history at Northwestern University and author of “The Hispanic Republican,” insists the trends do not have to be “mutually exclusive.” A national survey by Latino Decisions in late October and November found about 70 percent of Latinos said they voted for Biden, as opposed to 27 that went to Trump. A similar survey in 2016 found those numbers had split 79 percent for Clinton and 18 percent for Trump.
“You can have both: a record number of Latino voters who helped Biden in places and a greater share of Latino voters who went to Trump,” Cadava said. “Those narratives have to be seen at the same time."
Nearly all Latino political analysts, organizers, and canvassers agree the results underscored the diversity of a multiracial slice of the electorate that for the first time this year was expected to be the largest group of voters of color — and one still little understood in mainstream American politics, often primarily viewed through a binary black-and-white lens.
Interviews with Latino voters in the battlegrounds of Texas, Arizona, Michigan, North Carolina, and Florida over the past year have captured the complexity. In an election that Black Americans saw as a referendum on race, some conservative Afro-Venezuelan activists in Miami and its suburb of Doral debated whether to support Trump for fear of the US descending into a dysfunctional, socialist regime like that from which they were exiled.
In El Paso, Houston, and the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, many, if not most, Mexican Americans believed Trump’s rhetoric fueled a white supremacist who unleashed a deadly attack on Latinos in El Paso last year. But as staunch Republicans weighed their politics ahead of the presidential election, some voiced resentment for what they described as “violent” Black Lives Matter protests, though most were largely peaceful. And conservative pro-business and law and order views still took precedence for other Latinos along the border and across the Southwest, many of whom work in law enforcement and for the US Border Patrol.
For Juarez, her opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage ingrained in her religious beliefs were unshakable, she said, even as most of her family and friends were Biden supporters.
“I have always stood for equality and the right for immigrants, but overall I have to say my priority, as a believer, has been [to ask] — is immigration more important than life?” she said.
Although the exact numbers nationwide won’t be tabulated for months, early estimates suggest that more than 14 million of roughly 32 million registered Latino voters cast ballots, exceeding projections, according to the polling firm Latino Decisions.
Republican Cuban Americans in Florida have dominated the national political discourse for years because of their clout in that state, but they are only a small portion of a nationwide Latino population largely composed of Mexican Americans in the Southwest and Puerto Ricans in the East. In more recent years, Latinos have increasingly traced their roots to El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, and Guatemala.
After Trump launched his 2016 campaign, his incendiary rhetoric coupled with his administration’s hardline and punitive approach to immigration led to the political awakening or reawakening of many Mexican Americans and other Latinos nationwide to their “perpetual outsider” status in the United States.
For longtime Latino organizers, the momentum fueled hopes of the emergence of a new “blue wall” for Democrats across the Southwest, driven primarily by a younger generation of Latinos and newly naturalized citizens. Many drew comparisons to the political shifts that helped flip California from red to blue in the 1990s after voters there passed a series of statewide ballot propositions that sought to enforce English-only teaching in schools, ban affirmative action, and deny immigrants without legal status access to public education and social services.
Just after Trump’s election in 2016, Sonja Diaz, a civil rights attorney and founding director of Latino Policy and Politics Initiative at the University of California Los Angeles, remembers noticing Trump piñatas at a Texas store on a cross-country drive. The sight inspired a flashback to children in a Los Angeles park hitting a piñata of California Governor Pete Wilson, a Republican who like Trump blasted Mexican immigrants as criminals.
“I wondered whether the country was about to have its Proposition 187 moment,” Diaz said referring to one of those key anti-immigrant propositions in California. And this time, she believed, it wouldn’t just be Mexican Americans who were galvanized but South Americans and Muslim Americans as well.
Those forces looked most likely to play out in the fast-growing cities and suburbs of Arizona.
In 2010, state legislators there passed what critics called the “show me your papers” law, requiring officers investigating other crimes to question the immigration status of people they believed to be in the country illegally. It was there, too, that Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County ― which encompasses Phoenix — had been convicted of criminal contempt over “a tent city” he set up to detain immigrants that he brazenly described as "a concentration camp.”
Over the past decade, grass-roots organizations in Arizona such as the League of United Latin American Citizens and Mi Familia Vota have worked successfully to build political power. In 2018, Latinos helped elect Kyrsten Sinema, the state’s first female senator and the first Democrat it sent to the Senate since 1988.
Both Trump and Biden made campaign stops in Arizona. Groups worked nonstop to register voters and persuade people to mail in ballots or head to the polls, even as the pandemic disproportionately ravaged Latino communities.
Latino organizers and pollsters credit the efforts for the 600,000 votes cast by Latinos that helped Biden notch a narrow win in Arizona, a state that has not gone to a Democratic presidential candidate since 1996. Precinct data showed Latinos overwhelmingly picked Biden in the critical counties of Yuma, Maricopa, and Pima.
Biden also saw similar successes in battlegrounds across the country, where Latinos are small but growing parts of the population and mattered in an election won at the margins. In Wisconsin, Latinos more than doubled their amount of early ballots cast, according to the voter database Catalist.
“All of this was made possible not by political parties, pollsters, or expensive strategists," Diaz said. "It happened because Latinos were being vilified by purposely racist policy making in key areas of our communities in Arizona, Texas, Georgia, and North Carolina.”
But Democratic strategists and pollsters are sounding alarms to blunt what some believe could be eroding Democratic support among Latinos. They are calling for constant, systematic investment in Latino voter outreach and political leadership, as well as counter-messaging to address a deluge of disinformation about Democratic candidates and platforms.
Some of those deficiencies in resources could have played a part in Florida, where Republicans have organized a largely Cuban American led political machine and network exit polling found almost half of Latinos voted for Trump, organizers said.
But many see Texas as the next real battleground. Here, a younger, multiracial generation of largely Democratic Latina voters in major cities is increasingly concerned about racism, immigration, and climate change, as Republicans seem to be holding steady or gaining ground with working class Latino men and older conservatives on the economy.
Democratic strongholds along the Texas-Mexico border also have seen declining shares of voters for Democratic presidential candidates. Trump saw huge swings in his favor this election in largely rural, working class and Latino counties: The shift to Trump in Zapata County was 38 points — he beat Biden 53 percent to 47 percent after Clinton won with 66 percent four years ago. Trump improved to more than 40 percent of the vote, in some cases nearly 50 percent, in Cameron, Starr, Willacy, Webb, and Hidalgo counties
Maggie Ozuna, 59, a lifelong Republican and assistant administrator in the border city of Brownsville, could feel the enthusiasm for Trump building in the months before Election Day. Trump trains of trucks and other vehicles often rolled through town, photos of the events splashed across social media groups.
“I know trains don’t vote, signs don’t vote, but people with passion certainly do,” she said.