The Democratic Party’s failure to effectively engage Latino voters has thwarted its efforts to decisively knock out Donald Trump in the last two battles for the White House, and highlights the importance of this multifaceted voting bloc in future elections.
In 2016, Trump skimmed enough Latino votes to win the first fight. Hillary Clinton won 66% of Latino voters in that election — lower than the 71% garnered by Barack Obama in his 2012 reelection campaign.
Then in 2020, Trump increased his following of Latino voters to succeed in Florida, avert a tumble in Texas, and make the Democrats sweat in Nevada.
A record 32 million Hispanics were projected to be eligible to vote in 2020, a total that for the first time exceeds the number of Black eligible voters in a presidential election. The total turnout for this growing bloc has yet to be finalized for 2020, but its impact was felt coast to coast. How campaigns work with it in the future is now indisputably important in our politics.
If this election has shown anything about the Latino voting bloc, it’s that it’s more complicated than politicians think. And if Pennsylvania wants to serve its changing population, we need to catch up.
The dichotomy of Trump starting his 2016 presidential campaign by insulting the largest group of Latinos in the country, yet doing well in wooing Latinos in two presidential contests, can be explained by two sayings: One, 80% of success is showing up, and two, paying attention to detail takes care of the big picture.
The activities of the Trump and Joe Biden campaigns in Florida, Arizona, and Pennsylvania — the three battleground states with the highest number of Hispanic eligible voters, according to the Pew Research Center — gives insight on how to engage Latinos.
First, the importance of showing up: In Florida, the Trump campaign began early and targeted the Cuban and Venezuelan diaspora. In addition to evoking the socialism boogeyman to scare people, it used a multifaceted and bilingual approach to reach Florida’s 3.1 million Hispanic eligible voters, 20% of the eligible voting population. The effort helped Trump secure the support from 55% of Cuban American voters and 48% of other Latinos in the Sunshine State. So effective was his campaign that he garnered 30% of Puerto Rican voters in Florida, despite his disdain toward the U.S. territory in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. In contrast, Biden was late in starting his Latino outreach and failed to combat misinformation and disinformation in Spanish against him and other Democrats.
In Arizona, the Trump campaign was less aggressive. That left the 1.1 million Hispanic eligible voters more open to Biden although he did not do much campaigning in the Grand Canyon State. Biden instead latched on to homegrown grassroots efforts in Arizona that have been active for years in nurturing the Latino vote for Democrats. Preliminary estimates point to Biden having secured close to 70% of the Hispanic vote in Arizona.
Pennsylvania brings us to the importance of detail. While the state has only 521,000 Hispanic eligible voters, it was cataloged for the 2020 election as the third-largest battleground state with respect to this group. Trump’s efforts in the Keystone State began in 2019, when Latinos for Trump signs began appearing prominently on the TV broadcasts of his political rallies in Pennsylvania. He also targeted evangelical Latinos. His son Eric made a campaign stop in October at a Latino church in Philadelphia. As in Florida, Latino leaders in the Democratic party of Pennsylvania felt ignored by the Biden campaign.
Although Sen. Kamala Harris, Biden’s running mate, met with a small group of community leaders at Taller Puertorriqueno, many Latinos felt that the Biden campaign did too little too late, considering that Pennsylvania was labeled as the gateway to victory for both campaigns. If the 2020 race in Pennsylvania is determined by 1% of the electorate as it was in 2016, then the Latino vote was a factor in the outcome.
The importance of the so-called Latino vote will increase for elections to come. Nationwide, a young Latino turns 18 years old every 30 seconds. Between 2010 and 2019 in Pennsylvania, according to Pew, the Latino population jumped by 273,900, while the state’s population overall increased by 90,800. Of the 12 states with at least one million Hispanics, Pennsylvania saw the fastest population growth for that group.
To understand this group, I agree with Inquirer columnist Helen Ubiñas when she writes: “Busting the ‘Latino vote’ myth is one silver lining of this hellacious election.”
The Latino community is not a monolith. We come from two continents connected by a diverse isthmus and the Caribbean archipelago. Yes, we share a common language and elements of religion and culture. But no size fits us all. For example, despite Latinos being among the poorest ethnic groups in the country, we also had a higher rate of new entrepreneurs than any other racial group in the U.S. prior to the pandemic.
Our communities have been uniquely hit by COVID-19, affecting our rates of demographic and economic growth. Still, Latinos are destined to be an important factor in the future of the U.S. — and an increasingly relevant one in Pennsylvania.
The major parties, all candidates, and nonpartisan voting efforts must improve their knowledge of this voting bloc. Understand our diversity. Increase your working relationship with community-based organizations already in Latino neighborhoods. Now, more than ever before, we are your constituents and your potential voters.
Will González is executive director of Ceiba, a community-based organization in Philadelphia’s Latino community.