Why the Democrats failed to court Latino voters

The Latino electorate is geographically and ethnically diverse. The Democrats made key errors when campaigning—and it cost them a larger victory

November 18, 2020
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Latinos in the US have been hit especially hard by this year’s recession, are more vulnerable to the virus than any other race, and have been subject to the prejudiced outbursts of President Donald Trump. Democrats may never face a Republican candidate as unfriendly to Latinos than the outgoing president.

And yet, data from detailed exit polls suggest that compared to 2016, Trump increased his share of Latino votes by four percentage points in the latest election.

The Latino electorate is geographically and ethnically diverse. Some voters were drawn to Trump’s economic record; others to his foreign policy, and others to his social conservativism. And although Latinos were critical in helping Joe Biden flip the Rust Belt states, Trump’s gains suggest the Democrats made significant strategic errors when trying to court Latino voters.

The case in point is Florida, home to roughly 1.5 million Cubans and a rapidly-growing Venezuelan diaspora. 58 per cent of registered voters in Miami-Dade, the state’s most populous county, were Latino, and more than one in four of its eligible voters were Cuban. There, Trump’s share of vote rose by 22 per cent.

Trump has courted anti-socialist Venezuelan and Cuban exiles throughout his presidency. In February 2017, during his first month in office, he hosted the wife of a jailed Venezuelan protest leader at the White House. Six months later, he imposed severe economic sanctions on the regime of Nicolás Maduro. Further sanctions followed, and opposition leader Juan Guaidó was Trump’s guest at this year’s State of the Union address. As for Cuba, Trump rolled back several Obama-era measures to normalise relations. In 2017, he reinstated travel and business restrictions. He made them stricter in 2019 and, just six weeks before the election, he tightened them further.

On the other hand, as Obama’s vice-president, Biden could be seen as soft on Latin American socialism. Despite his denunciations of Maduro as a dictator, he was unable to shake off an association with left-wing figures in the Democratic Party such as Bernie Sanders, who praised elements of the Cuban revolution during the primaries; and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has been equivocal in her condemnation of Maduro. Trump lost no opportunity to present Biden as a crypto-socialist.

A 30-year-old Cuban-American and Miami-Dade resident, who campaigned for the Democrats in the county, witnessed the phenomenon on the ground.

“The ‘socialism’ label worked,” she said. “There wasn’t a clear response from the Democratic Party—or really much of a response at all—to the socialism accusation, especially in those final weeks before the election when the Republicans’ message was so loud.”

But despite his rhetoric, Trump’s confrontational policies in Latin America have yet to bear fruit. And there’s little evidence that they will. Except for a few years under Jimmy Carter, and two under Barack Obama, the US has held a hardline approach to the Cuban regime for six decades. The Democrats’ pitch to Latino anti-socialists in Florida ought to have highlighted the overwhelming failures of the aggressive approach. The Cuban regime is still there. And despite Trump’s “maximum pressure”, Maduro still governs Venezuela.

At the moment, aside from promising temporary protected status for Venezuelan refugees—which has previously been blocked by anti-immigration Senate Republicans—the Democrats have little to offer the exiles who vote based on candidates’ Latin America policy.

What’s more, the Democrats only began campaigning in earnest in Florida in mid-September. As pollster Fernand Amandi told The Washington Post, “They were trying to do in six weeks what the Republicans have been doing for five years.”

The Democrats also suffered a major reverse in Zapata, a county along Texas’s border with Mexico that has a 95 per cent Latino population. Hillary Clinton won the county easily in 2016, but this year Trump took it with 52 per cent of the vote. To put Trump’s achievement—or the Democrat’s disaster—in context, the last Republican to take Zapata was Warren Harding—in 1920.

The result in Zapata was a particular blow for Biden because Texas, although traditionally Republican, was a Democrat target state. It is often assumed that changing demographics will turn the Lone Star State blue. But the Democrats seem to be taking it for granted that Latinos will keep voting for them at a consistent rate, and that as their share of the electorate increases, the new voters will propel the party to victory. This year, however, the Democrats had to contend with support for Trump’s economic development of the region. The Trump administration’s anti-immigration policies have brought jobs in the law-enforcement sector to Zapata County, and his defence of fossil fuels—contrasting with Biden’s climate change agenda—is seen as protecting the oil and gas economy of south Texas.

This is not to say that Biden should uphold Trump’s measures on immigration or fossil fuels, but that Democrats have to maintain strong levels of employment if they are going to regain the county in four years’ time.

But there are bright spots. In states with emerging Latino populations, such as Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, their votes were decisive. And in Arizona, where there is a long-established Latino population, the Democrats’ effective outreach efforts could provide a blueprint for operations in Texas and Florida.

As the fastest-growing demographic in the US, the electoral importance of Latinos is only going to grow, especially if trends of migration to states with lower Latino populations continue.

But if the Democrats want to avoid defeat in 2024—possibly against Trump—then they’d better learn the lessons of 2020. Having a strategy to take Florida would be a start.