He called Latinos rapists and criminals. He separated children from their parents at the border. He systematically shut down most of America’s immigration system with relentless vigor. His utter ineptitude with the coronavirus pandemic killed their friends and family members.
And yet, Latinos voted for Trump anyway in the 2020 presidential election — in higher numbers than in 2016. It may appear mindboggling on the surface that they did, but it’s also an important lesson on the priorities of a complex voting bloc that, for the most part, remains on the margins. The dynamic also reflects false assumptions and an ongoing failure to meet Latinos where they’re at.
A new analysis from EquisLabs tells a sobering story about decision-making at the ballot box and the relative effectiveness of Republican messaging to Latinos ahead of the last election. Aside from the highly publicized gains in Florida and Texas, Latino voters shifted toward Trump in heavily Latino precincts in Milwaukee, as well as in heavily Latino cities like Paterson, N.J., and Lawrence, Mass. (Some important context: Nationwide, roughly 16 million Latinos voted in the presidential election — overall, they supported Joe Biden in higher numbers and, in some parts of the country, they were critical for Biden’s victory.)
But a clear takeaway emerges from EquisLabs’ data: Economics trumps vile rhetoric and repressive policies. Words hurt, but it will hurt far more if I lose my job.
It’s a message that Democrats consistently fail to understand.
EquisLabs did its own polling and focus groups in several swing states, including more than 40,000 interviews with Latino voters since 2019. What worked for Republicans? Scare tactics about the economy — Biden was going to shut it down in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Democrats were really socialists and were going to . . . be socialists! And socialism, to Cubans and Venezuelans, means corrupt state control and limited opportunities at best, and economic destruction at worst.
So more of them held their nose and voted for Trump. A Hispanic 31-year-old Amazon delivery driver in Wisconsin who voted for Trump for the first time last year told EquisLabs that voting for Trump “suited me because of my job. This year things have gone much better for me. The way he communicates made me hesitate. But I voted for him more for economic reasons.”
Locally, even though Biden won Lawrence — where 80 percent of the population is Hispanic, making it the most heavily Latino city in the state — the shift toward Trump was notable. Lawrence immigration attorney Zoila Gomez told the Globe last year that she saw her fellow Latinos respond to $1,200 coronavirus stimulus checks a year ago as if Trump himself was solely responsible for issuing the payments. (Breaking news: He was not, but he insisted his signature appear on the checks.)
Republicans figured out how to identify swing Latino voters and message the grave fictional threat posed by Biden. For Latinos, EquisLabs found, “YouTube and Google are more important ad platforms than Facebook — particularly YouTube, where Latinx audiences spend twice the time compared to non-Latinx adults.” In Nevada, for instance, new Trump voters were more likely to get their political news from YouTube, the report stated; nationwide, 64 percent of registered Latino voters said they got election information from YouTube, including 74 percent of Florida Hispanic voters. The Latino YouTube phenomenon offers a key lesson for Democrats, who apparently did not do enough to reach Florida Latinos on YouTube and Spanish-language radio despite outspending Republicans in Spanish-language media.
That Latinos form a highly dynamic voting bloc that cares about a lot more than immigration shouldn’t come as a surprise. “Neither party should assume that a Hispanic voter who cast a ballot for Trump in 2020 is locked in as a Republican going forward,” EquisLabs wrote. “Nor can we assume this shift was exclusive to Trump and will revert back on its own.”
That should serve as one of the biggest lessons for Democrats from 2020. There are many ways to win over Latinos who voted for Trump, but the effort takes targeted investment — and a lot of work that must start now.