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Latino voters swayed by sustained effort, groups say

Democrats can’t expect loyalty with outreach that only takes place every four years, advocates say

Supporters of President Donald Trump protest on Nov. 7 outside the Clark County Election Department in Las Vegas.
Supporters of President Donald Trump protest on Nov. 7 outside the Clark County Election Department in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Both parties continue to tout success stories among Latino communities in the presidential election — but a detailed look at results indicates that Democratic expectations of overwhelming Latino support for President-elect Joe Biden were wildly optimistic.

National exit polls by news organizations suggest Biden captured about two-thirds of the Hispanic vote, or roughly 66 percent. But President Donald Trump gained significant ground from his 2016 totals, particularly in key communities. Those Republican gains suggest missed opportunities for Democrats.

In Texas, where the state’s Democratic Party hoped to register millions of new voters, Biden’s 46 percent of the vote closed the gap from 2016 nominee Hillary Clinton’s 43 percent, but he still ended up losing by nearly 6 points.

The defeat was felt acutely in traditionally Democratic counties in South Texas that swung 30 points or more toward Trump. In Zapata County, which is more than 80 percent Hispanic, Trump won with more than 52 percent of the vote. The county had last voted for a GOP presidential nominee in 1920; Clinton took 65 percent of the vote there in 2016.

Results in Florida’s Miami-Dade County, which Clinton won by 29 points in 2016, were similarly surprising for Democrats: Biden won the county by a mere 7 points, and two House members elected in 2018 were defeated.

But Democrats have trumpeted their gains where Latino communities proved instrumental, like in Arizona, which flipped blue for the first time since 1996.

Results in Texas and Florida don’t “point to an overall problem” with the Latino community, said Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., adding that Latino voters “helped put Biden over the top in Georgia, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.”

Gallego pointed to uniquely tailored outreach online, like specific YouTube, Hulu and Pandora channels that helped in key areas. One program run by the Democratic National Committee reached out to to cell phones with Puerto Rican area codes in Pennsylvania, he said.

Already, Gallego and activists on both sides of the aisle are looking to capitalize on gains they’ve made in this election before the midterms in 2022. Gallego analogized it to the decadelong campaign to turn Arizona into a battleground state; Democrats kept organizing, kept consistent and kept showing up.

“Branding matters, consistency matters,” Gallego said. “Unfortunately, it was too late to turn around Florida, but that doesn’t mean Florida is dead to us.”

Flips in Texas, Florida

Texas native and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro said there’s no “easy or one-dimensional answer” to South Texas’ big swing toward Trump. On one level, the Democratic Party has not made long-term efforts in turning out voters there.

“I don’t think the same level of investment has been made competing for those votes as needs to be made or … as we have made in other places,” Castro told reporters on a recent call organized by Voto Latino.

But he also said demographic differences with the state’s big cities could be a factor, pointing to large vote swings toward Democrats in the Dallas-Forth Worth area, Austin and San Antonio. “I do think there may be something to the urban-rural split.”

In the heavily Cuban American region of South Florida, the Biden campaign allowed Trump to define his candidacy at the local level, according to former Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a Republican who represented the area until 2019. Curbelo said it took months for Biden to rebut Trump’s charge he was a socialist. A late surge of television ad spending did not help either.

It wasn’t until the end of the campaign that Biden noted “he had defeated the socialists in the race in the primaries,” Curbelo said. “And by the time the Bloomberg organization tried to rescue Biden with the Florida Hispanic community, it was way too late.”

Trump’s decision to continue in-person campaign outreach amid the pandemic also may have been a factor.

“Not to be stereotypical, but Latino communities tend to be more touchy-feely than most,” Curbelo said. “So those who show up, who have a presence, will have an advantage. It’s typical for a Latino family in South Florida to invite a door knocker into their home for coffee.”

Guillermo Grenier, a sociology professor at Florida International University who runs an annual poll of Cuban Americans, pointed out that Republicans have spent decades building up their outreach in South Florida. They don’t just try to organize once every four years.

“What’s more important in these kinds of elections is that the soup, the water we swim in down here, is a very Republican soup. Republicans never leave, Cuban Republicans never leave,” Grenier said.

Thomas Kennedy, the Florida coordinator of Latino advocacy group United We Dream, pointed out that just replicating Clinton’s results in Miami-Dade would not have won Florida for Biden. Democrats would have had to make a concerted long-term effort to do that, he said.

“We must strengthen civic participation and infrastructures that work so that we’re not just reaching out to voters in an election year, but that we’re making the case for them throughout the year — that we’re fighting for the issues that directly impact their lives, and make our communities a better place,” he said in a Nov. 13 press call.

Arizona victory

Gallego pointed to the strength of Latino and Native American turnout in flipping his home state blue and sending Democrat and retired astronaut Mark Kelly to the Senate. Latino leaders have been organizing in Arizona for a decade, after the state in 2010 passed the controversial SB 1070 law allowing local police to stop anyone they simply suspected of being undocumented immigrants.

“We never stopped organizing to the point where, by the time 2020 was right, we were ready to go,” Gallego said.

Activists in Arizona knocked on tens of thousands of doors and made more than 1 million phone calls, said Tomas Robles of Living United for Change in Arizona, or LUCHA. Even amid the pandemic, they targeted Latino voters across the state with calls, billboards and advertising using narratives from popular Mexican American TV shows.

“We really wanted to make sure that every single voter had the opportunity to hear from us to be able to understand what LUCHA’s [goal to] turn the state blue with 1 million voters to the polls signifies,” he said.

As parties look at how to address changes in Latino and Hispanic voting patterns, Esteban Garces, co-executive director with Poder Latinx, cautioned reporters during a press call against considering those communities monolithic — or thinking there is a single political solution.

“I think folks from outside of our organizations and communities tend to just kind of group us all together and think, ‘This is a message that works with Democrats or Republicans,’ or, ‘Just translate this into Spanish and there you go,’ but that’s not it,” Garces said. “It takes time, it takes understanding and it takes a careful analysis.”

Gallego thinks it’s still useful to think of voters as Latino or Hispanic — but not let that label define them.

“There’s a lot of crossover. I’m a Mexican Colombian American. My dad’s from Mexico, my mom is from Colombia, I was born in the United States. I speak Mexican Spanish, but I dance like a Colombian and I listen to Colombian music,” Gallego said.

“There’s a pan-Latino label for all of us, and I think it’s fine. Does it mean that you just treat us as a monolith in terms of our politics or how you deal with us politically? No, but you wouldn’t do that with any group that is as diverse as we are.”

Bridget Bowman contributed to this report.

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