Latino voters like to make a grand entrance. They were absent from too much of the political conversation for much of the 2020 Election, neglected by both parties. But they showed up when it was time to be counted.
And Latinos sure counted on election night, showing up big for Joe Biden and helping the former vice president carry the lion’s share of the 10 states where Latinos have a big footprint.
Before we get to the politics, here’s a quick geography lesson. Latino America is based in the Southwest, because that’s where you find the Mexicans and Mexican Americans who make up two-thirds of the nearly 60 million Latinos in the United States. So that’s the de facto capital of Latino America with states like California, Arizona, Texas, New Mexico, Nevada, and Colorado. In the Midwest, you can add Illinois. On the East Coast, you can factor in New York, New Jersey, and Florida. Of those 10 Latino states, Joe Biden won eight. Donald Trump won only two — Florida and Texas.
Now, on to the politics. For much of the 2020 campaign, Latinos were marginalized by both parties.
They were treated as an afterthought by Democrats, who take their support for granted and who were otherwise preoccupied with cozying up to African Americans. After the killing of George Floyd in May by Minneapolis police officers, Black Americans were understandably leery of a Democratic ticket that paired the author of the racist 1994 crime bill with a former California prosecutor who made her bones putting African Americans in prison. Fences needed to mended, especially since African Americans helped save Biden’s presidential bid in South Carolina.
The thing is, when it comes to people of color, Democrats apparently can’t walk and chew gum at the same time. They never have learned how to pander simultaneously to African Americans and Latinos.
Meanwhile, Latino voters were also viewed suspiciously by Republicans who worried that America’s largest minority might hold a grudge against a president prone to recurring racist tirades against Mexican immigrants — and, in the case of Gonzalo Curiel, the son of Mexican immigrants who became a federal judge only to be derided by Trump as a “Mexican” who couldn’t fairly decide a civil case against Trump University because of some assumed ethnic bias.
Judging from what happened on Election Night, it turns out Republicans had nothing to worry about. Trump did well with Latinos, earning — according to some exit polls — as much as 36 percent of the Latino vote overall. Even more impressive, Trump didn’t settle for traditional pockets of GOP support—such as Cubans, Colombians, and Venezuelans in South Florida. He boldly made a play for the support of Mexicans in the Southwest, and it seems to have paid off.
Someone must have shared with Trump, or his campaign advisers, a truth that resonated with George W. Bush (who got 44 percent of the Latino vote in 2004) and Ronald Reagan (who earned 40 percent in 1984): Latinos don’t have to be made into Republicans. To paraphrase Reagan, “Many of them already are Republicans. They just don’t know it.” The Gipper had a point. We’re part of the Democratic base. But we’re also conservative.
And no, despite the conventional political wisdom, that’s not because we’re mostly Catholic and feel uneasy about abortion or same-sex marriage. We’ve actually moved to the center on both those issues over the last few generations. We’re conservative because the center of our world isn’t the individual but the family, and our need to protect it and provide for it.
As for immigration, the gato is out of the bag: Even Mexican Americans don’t go to bat for Mexican immigrants. In fact, many Mexican Americans consider themselves plain ol’ Americans. Immigration isn’t the top issue for many of us, or even in the top five. We care about jobs, the economy, education, health care, and law and order. As someone who is wildly pro-immigrant, I’d personally like to think that Mexicans and other Latinos will continue to rise up and pummel white politicians who engage in fear-mongering toward a group that they couldn’t live without for a week.
But sadly, this election taught me otherwise. Trump is the most anti-Mexican president to occupy the White House since Dwight D. Eisenhower tried to level the playing field for U.S. workers in 1954 by loading Mexicans and Mexican Americans onto railroad cars and shipping them to Mexico during Operation Wetback.
And yet, even so, Mexicans and Mexican Americans were surprisingly receptive to Trump’s pitch. They liked his strength and resolve, and they admired the way he stood up to everyone and everything from China to the media to antifa protesters. Latino men, in particular, swooned at his feet.
Here’s why. We’re a stubborn bunch who don’t like being told what to do, how to think, or how to vote by an East Coast-centric media made up largely of white liberals whose understanding of the Mexican and Mexican-American community is a couple tacos short of a combination plate. And we really don’t like it when other Latinos try to make us feel like we’re cultural traitors for voting in a way that they disagree with. That kind of bullying, which was so evident on social media and elsewhere, backfired.
Other Latinos fell into the same pattern. The day before the election, a Cuban American friend who lives in Miami, a Republican Never Trumper who voted for Biden, called me to chew the fat about la politica. One thing he mentioned was the visceral reaction that Cuban Americans who supported Trump had for comrades who insulted or attacked them because of their candidate preference in this election. My friend pointed out that Cuban Americans have seen this movie before.
“That’s what happened when Cubans left the island,” he said. “You know what the Cubans who stayed behind called those people right? They called them gusanos. Worms.”
Now when Cuban Americans are attacked by their own kind, they’re likely to double down. And they did. In Florida, don’t be surprised if the final count reveals that Trump got as much as 40 percent of the Cuban vote.
The year 2020 is a shitstorm. And so it’s fitting that the Latino effect on the presidential election should be such a confused mess. Exit polls show Trump got as much as 36 percent of the Latino vote, even though Biden racked up most of the states in Latino America. Latinos showed up big for Biden, but a significant percentage of them also showed up for Trump.
The president could still win re-election, and with a helping hand from many members of a group of people that he demonized, insulted, and used as a campaign gimmick. Latinos are who Trump keeps promising white Americans he’d protect them from.
Remember Trump’s line in 2015 about how Mexican immigrants were criminals, rapists and drug traffickers? Now those people — and their descendants — are part of his political base? What sense does that make?
Latino voters are more complicated than most people thought. They’re a puzzle. And, going forward, both parties had better find a way to solve it.