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How Latino voters helped, and hurt, Trump

Election results, from Arizona to Florida, illustrate that ‘the Latino community is not monolithic’

A Trump supporter holds a placard during an October campaign rally in Orlando, Florida.
A Trump supporter holds a placard during an October campaign rally in Orlando, Florida. (Paul Hennessy/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

As voting totals continued to trickle in Wednesday, one result became crystal clear: Latinos are not a single electorate.

The Cuban American voters who helped Donald Trump win Florida have very little in common politically with the Mexican Americans who helped defeat him in Arizona. They also differed from Puerto Ricans in the Sunshine State, who leaned toward Democrat Joe Biden.

The ideological and cultural differences within the Latino community reflect a crucial element that many pollsters underestimated: the influence their roots played in their vote.

“The Latino community is not monolithic, not only within the issue that mattered to them, but also geographically,” said Dorian Caal, director of civic engagement research at the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. “Latinos in Florida, particularly, are different.”

Many of the state’s older Cuban Americans were among an exodus in the late 1950s fleeing the communist rule of Fidel Castro. Those Cubans “literally just needed to step on American soil to get permanent residency,” said Stephen Nuño-Perez, senior analyst at Latino Decisions, a political research firm.

It’s a different story for the Latinos in Arizona. Much of southern Arizona, including Tucson, “one of the oldest cities in the country,” was part of Mexico until the U.S. acquired it as part of the Gadsden Purchase in 1854.

Nuño-Perez said that some Cubans who support Trump don’t want to be lumped into the same group targeted by the president’s immigration rhetoric. So, for many Cubans, “if you came here, and did everything right, you maybe feel like you don’t want to be associated with folks who are being painted as drug dealers and rapists” by Trump.

In Florida, the Latino community also is composed of Colombians, Puerto Ricans and Venezuelans. Cuban Americans in South Florida are being credited for helping to secure the Latino support for Trump in the state. They generally lean more conservative than other Latino groups, and the vast majority have supported how the president has handled immigration, health care and the COVID-19 pandemic.

In addition, Trump frequently painted Biden as a socialist who would turn the nation far left, an image the Democrat could not shake off.

Cuban American voters likely contributed more than 100,000 votes to Trump’s margin of victory in Florida, said Guillermo Grenier, a sociology professor at Florida International University who runs an annual poll of Cuban Americans.

“Democrats come around every four years and cry about what the Cuban vote’s going to do without putting in the prior three years to change it,” he said.

Trump’s inroads in Florida, particularly in the Miami-Dade area, led to a pair of Democratic defeats: incumbent Reps. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell and Donna Shalala. Both were defeated by Cuban Americans who had strong local profiles. Carlos Gimenez, who defeated Mucarsel-Powell in the 26th District, is the mayor of Miami-Dade County. Maria Elvira Salazar, who won in the 27th District, is a television news journalist who advertised and campaigned in Spanish.

Republicans painted both incumbents as socialist-aligned Pelosi liberals and sought to taint them with corruption in their personal lives, attacks that are particularly resonant among Cuban Americans and members of other Latin American communities who fled corrupt, socialist governments to build new lives in the United States.

Alejandro Miyar, a Biden donor and Democratic strategist from Miami who was Barack Obama’s 2008 Hispanic and South Florida communications director, said those attacks were “highly successful” in the state.

The story played differently in Arizona, where Trump and his surrogates campaigned aggressively within the last month. In the end, the historically Republican state flipped and went for Biden, the first Democrat to win there since Bill Clinton in 1996. Arizona also delivered to the Senate one of its few Democratic pickups, with Mark Kelly’s defeat of GOP Sen. Martha McSally.

Eligible Latino voters make up nearly 24 percent of Arizona’s population, according to the Pew Research Center. Most are of Mexican origin and tend to lean progressive, more like their California counterparts than the Cuban voters in Florida.

A key rallying point for Arizona Latino voters came after the state implemented SB 1070, a restrictive anti-immigration law that allowed police to crack down on anyone believed to be an undocumented immigrant. The 2010 law sparked immediate backlash from the state’s Latino community and led grassroots organizations to politically mobilize voters.

“If anyone had said that Arizona is going to turn blue 10 years ago, most people would think you’re crazy,” said Nuño-Perez of Latino Decisions.

“But this didn’t happen overnight. We’re talking about almost over a decade of organizing by Latinos.”

Michael Macagnone and Stephanie Akin contributed to this report.

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