WASHINGTON — Dinah Vargas grew up knowing that in her native New Mexico “you are born Democrat and Catholic.”
But in late 2019, as she renewed her driver’s license at a kiosk in a drab Department of Motor Vehicles office in Albuquerque’s South Valley, a question on the machine about her voter status sparked an inner wrestling match.
You are registered as a Democrat. Is this correct?
No, she thought, it wasn’t any more. She had become a staunch opponent of abortion and an admirer of Donald Trump, and in recent years it seemed, to her at least, that Democrats no longer stood for the values she most cared about: “family, faith, and freedom.”
“I was holding up the line,” recalled Vargas, a former political campaign photographer who is now a conservative radio talk show host. “And I said, ‘You have to give me a minute, this is a big deal for me.’ I had been a Democrat my whole life — and then, I changed my party affiliation.”
The relationship between Trump and men — including Latino men — has been closely studied. The former president’s embrace of an unapologetically blunt ”made-in-the-USA” brand of masculinity drew support from white men and some men of color and was seen as a significant reason for his political success. Some analysts even predicted it could produce the largest gender gap ever in the 2020 election as women voters opted in droves for Joe Biden.
But as researchers probe more deeply into Trump’s strong showing with Latino voters in November, the data reveal a surprising finding: Trump’s inroads were powered not so much by men but by Latina and Hispanic women like Vargas.
“There was a shift among women, and in particular conservative women” toward Trump, said Stephanie Valencia, a special assistant to former president Barack Obama who cofounded the progressive polling firm EquisLabs Research. “The why piece is the most complicated piece.”
A new analysis by EquisLabs found that Trump was able to rally Latino conservatives and brought new Latino voters into the fold, mainly people poorly informed on issues or less likely to have cast a ballot in the past, as immigration fell out of the national conversation and his campaign hyped up fear of unemployment and the economic impact of coronavirus restrictions under Democrats. Trump and his strategists also poured heavier resources into reaching Latinos in the media spaces where they spent the most time, including YouTube, according to the analysis. The report was based on results from polling and focus groups that included more than 40,000 interviews with Latino voters nationwide since 2019.
The shifts happened everywhere, in battleground states like Arizona, Florida, and Texas and in less contested and heavily Latino cities like Lawrence, Mass., and Paterson, N.J. And they were particularly acute among Latina women, who researchers said might have grown more prone to listen to Trump’s economic appeals given that Latinas are now the fastest-growing group of small business owners and were among the workers hardest hit by the pandemic.
“They experienced the economic impact and shutdowns in a very real way,” Valencia said.
Latina women less than 50 years old remained anti-Trump overall, but their job approval rating of the former president jumped more than that of their male peers in 2020 compared to 2019. Conservative Latina women in particular were galvanized in their desire to vote, with 77 percent of women more motivated in 2020 compared to only 68 percent in 2019, according to the report. By comparison, 80 percent of men were more motivated to vote in 2020, up from 76 percent in 2019.
“There are many Hispanics who voted for [Trump] because … for example, Obama talked about immigration and didn’t do anything,” one Peruvian-born Latina respondent who was 42 and voted for Trump for the first time told the researchers. “He says, he promises, and he didn’t act. Meanwhile, Trump didn’t say and he didn’t promise and he didn’t act. ... He says things clearly and directly. Unlike presidents who talked and didn’t act.”
Analysts have been scouring Latino voter data ever since election results and preliminary exit polls showed that Biden and Trump both did well with that important slice of the electorate. Nationwide, a majority of the estimated 16 million Latinos who voted in the presidential election supported Biden, and in some districts, were key to his victory. But Trump was able to boost his performance with Latinos compared to 2016 — even as he took a hard-line approach to immigration that included separating migrant families at the US-Mexico border, and used racist and incendiary rhetoric against immigrants and Latinos that experts say helped fuel a 16-year high in hate crimes in 2018.
Broad generalizations about a multiracial voter bloc are difficult to make. An estimated 60 percent of Latinos in the US are Mexican Americans. Puerto Ricans make up the second largest subgroup at 11 percent. But the most political power has typically resided with Cuban Americans, who make up roughly 4 percent of the population and largely reside in the key swing state of Florida. In more recent years, Latinos in the United States have increasingly traced their roots to El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, and Guatemala. But the majority of Latinos are not immigrants — roughly two thirds were born in the United States.
In-depth interviews with several Republican Latina women in New Mexico, Texas, and Massachusetts captured a glimpse of the complexity and enduring popularity of Trump.
“The fact that Trump didn’t have women behind him was a lie,” argued Dinorah Garcia, 63, a housewife who was born in the Dominican Republic and lives in Lawrence, where Latinas mobilized for Trump through churches and businesses. She herself watched Trump on television in 2016, and liked him so much she took a girlfriend to watch him on stage in New Hampshire. “I told her this is our man.”
A perception of Trump as a successful businessman unfairly persecuted by the media persisted for many. His aggressive immigration policies were a motivating factor — not of opposition — but of support, as was his stance against abortion and his approach to the economy. And all the women seemed to echo sentiments in line with several studies published in January that found that a voter’s acceptance of a dominant male hierarchy was more likely to predict support for Trump over and beyond attitudes on sexism, racism, homophobia, and xenophobia.
“What I liked about him was the way he proceeded to clean the country and he was trying to keep out illegal immigrants,” said Jacqui Marmol, 55, who was born in New York and is of Dominican and Spanish ancestry. She added that many of the businesswomen that she knew in Lawrence, where she now lives, voted for Trump but “kept it quiet.”
She and others admired Trump’s dominant personality and appearances with his children, while Biden’s calls to increase the supply of vaccines, stimulate the economy, and curb the pandemic were met with skepticism or outright rejection. None mentioned Biden’s reputation as a family man and devout Catholic who attends Mass nearly every weekend.
Some of the admiration for Trump could be attributed to diets of far-right media, like One America News Network or social media channels, and some to the differences between Trump and Biden in campaign and governing styles: Trump cultivated a brand; Biden doesn’t market himself in the same way.
In New Mexico, Vargas originally didn’t take Trump seriously as a candidate.
“The moment he said build a wall ... I took offense to it,” said Vargas, who identifies as Hispanic and unsuccessfully ran for a state Legislature seat last year. But she said she came around after he became the first president to participate in a March for Life rally last January. It also helped that his campaign opened an office in West Albuquerque where people could get signed Trump T-shirts.
Some of Trump’s inroads with Latina women might help Republicans in 2022 and 2024. But Latinos are a young demographic, and young Latinas in particular have been found to be “more liberal and progressive in their views than their male peers,” said Vladimir Enrique Medenica, an assistant professor at the University of Delaware and a research consultant with the University of Chicago’s GenForward, which surveys voters ages 18-36.
He and other analysts such as Geraldo Cadava, an associate professor of history at Northwestern University and author of “The Hispanic Republican,” instead see the uptick as a return to politics as usual. Since the 1970s, Republican Hispanics have helped the GOP draw in a third of Latino voters in presidential elections, and the gender divide hasn’t always been as pronounced as it was in 2016.
“The Republican Party has always crafted appeals to Latinas, and it has been a particularly gendered appeal,” Cadava said. He pointed to the appointment by nearly every Republican president since Richard Nixon of Mexican American women to be treasurer of the United States, a job that carries the high-profile advantage of their signature printed on all paper currency.
On the one hand, the businesswomen chosen were meant to represent the rising power of women, Cadava said. On the other, they fell into traditional roles. During the height of the civil rights movements, for example, Romana Acosta Bañuelos, the treasurer under Nixon, started scholarship funds for Mexican Americans at the University of California of Los Angeles, but she was very much against the radical activism of the Chicano rights movement.
“All of these female treasurers of the United States were important symbols of their appeal to Latinas in particular and what kind of women the Republican Party supported,” Cadava said.
Republicans appeared to have been quicker than Democrats to realize that Latinas and Latinos are ideologically diverse and open to being persuaded, even if they do generally lean Democratic. In a study commissioned and funded by the Texas Organizing Project Education Fund last year, researchers who held in-depth conversations with 100 voters across the state found partisanship was weak or low among many Latino voters.
“Some people like to say that Latinos are moderate,” said Cecilia Ballí, a journalist and anthropologist who co-conducted the study. “I think it’s more that they are ideologically hybrid and that is what makes them at least open to hearing a different message from someone else.”