Trump and the Latino Vote
Since the polls closed on Election Day, an increasingly popular contention has been spreading throughout Takeland: it’s the idea that the GOP is increasing its appeal to nonwhite voters, and mainly because President Donald Trump, “Build the Wall” champion and fervent opponent of immigration, is overperforming with Latino voters.
Is this electoral picture accurate?
Some versions of it are true, other versions are wrong, and still others are very wrong. The ones that are accurate are often used to draw further conclusions that are not necessarily, or not yet, supported by the evidence — such as going from Trump overperformed with Hispanics in 2020 to the GOP is the future party of Hispanics.
I want to look at a few versions of this idea to get clearer on what the election has shown — and just as importantly, what it has not shown — about Trump’s appeal and the GOP’s future.
Let’s start with the most audacious claim first, since this one was absolutely blowing up on social media on the night of the election.
This is the claim that Trump won the largest nonwhite share of the vote for a Republican presidential candidate in 60 years.
The president, just as you would expect, repeated the claim himself. The only problem with it is that it’s flat out wrong.
Exit polling showed Trump made some slight gains with Latino voters improving from 29 percent in 2016 to 32 percent in 2020, but this figure is far below George W. Bush’s total in 2004.
The same polls show Trump bagging 26 percent of the overall nonwhite vote, which would represent a five-point improvement from 2016 but would rank below Bush’s 2004 performance.
Forget the last 60 years, this statistic is falsified by the prior Republican president!
Of course, this one was easy to disconfirm. It’s just a fact that Trump did not win the greatest share of the nonwhite vote for a Republican presidential nominee since 1960. But other claims were less straightforwardly factual; they were less about simply looking at past results and more about projecting into the future.
Here’s one: Trump’s bump in the nonwhite vote from 2016 to 2020 suggests the GOP will be the multiracial party moving forward.
What makes this a bad claim is that mere improvement in the absolute doesn’t prove anything.
We need to understand this improvement relative to the baseline 2016 numbers, relative to their rivals’ numbers, and then project outward what we can expect the party to do in future elections.
When we look at those numbers, we see quite clearly that the Democrats remain in pole position to win over every single nonwhite demographic in future elections. That doesn’t mean they definitely will. It just means our current evidence doesn’t justify expecting the GOP to win any of those demographics in future presidential races.
But let’s put that one aside and instead tackle our main claim head on: Trump’s overperformance with Latino voters means he has ushered in the beginnings of a “multiracial, working-class” Republican Party.
Is this true?
As a future-oriented claim, the right way to analyze it is less as a sharp true-or-false claim and more as a reasonable-or-unreasonable claim.
One reason to think it’s reasonable is that if Trump can be as toxic toward ethnic minorities as he’s been and still make electoral gains, perhaps those are good grounds for believing the GOP can subtract Trump’s toxicity in the future, allowing their more palatable message to shine through, and in the end capture a far greater share of the nonwhite vote.
A good reason to think this isn’t the beginnings of a multiracial working-class nationalist Republican Party is that any movement that sees an important part of its identity as carrying out a particularly aggressive crackdown on immigration is just going to struggle to build multiracial support.
What’s more, there are good reasons for thinking that Trump’s modest gains with Latino voters occurred despite his divisive approach to the issue, not because of it.
If that’s so, it suggests these gains could have been a fluke. After all, there’s no good reason to think retaining hardline immigration-restrictionism is going to go electorally unpunished by the very voters it impacts during the next cycle.
Does the GOP have room to make inroads with nonwhite voters? Sure. But doing so will entail making changes to its messaging and policy platform on immigration, especially because that’s something that matters to Hispanics.
It’s possible this will fall on deaf ears, since the narrative that Trump is building a multiracial, multiethnic coalition is becoming entrenched on the right. Still, it’s worth looking at the election results more closely to see why the party should draw a more measured conclusion.
Trump made drastic improvements in Latino-heavy counties in the Rio Grande region of Texas and Miami-Dade County in Florida.
This by itself doesn’t necessarily mean Trump did better with the Latino population. It could have been the case that he did better in these regions but worse in all other ones with Latino voters. But the polling tells us he really has done better with Latinos from 2016 to 2020.
Sure, exit polls are historically imprecise and this year’s pandemic-induced spike in absentee voting has rendered them even more dubious, but if it turns out that Trump really has outperformed his past record in these regions, it might suggest that there is enough about the GOP’s message that is resonating within demographic groups many political observers had believed the GOP could no longer meaningfully reach.
But, again, it’s possible to draw the wrong conclusion from these results. Let’s assume the polls are accurate and Trump has somewhat improved his standing with Latino voters, driven primarily by increases in a handful of counties in Florida and Texas.
Is this grounds for optimism?
First, consider how weird it is to use winning just under a third of a voting bloc as a reason to celebrate. That’s still a drubbing, even if it’s mildly less painful than it was four years ago.
After all, shouldn’t we consider it a huge leap in logic to jump from we’re doing slightly better than the historically awful haul from 2016 to we are witnessing the beginnings of a multiracial, multiethnic coalition?
Second, “Latino” is a category that includes lots of different types of people. In fact, the two regions under discussion — the Rio Grande and Miami-Dade — themselves have vastly different populations. There’s no guarantee that winning one region, or winning one type of Latino voter, is going to ensure winning the others.
With those important qualifiers out of the way, to what can we attribute Trump’s slight uptick in Latino support?
Like anyone else, Latinos aren’t single issue voters who only care about immigration. In fact, the top three issues for this group going into the election were the economy, the pandemic, and healthcare. Just like for many Americans who voted Republican, the Latino vote for Trump was at least to some degree a referendum on lockdowns and reopening the economy.
Loads of anecdotal evidence also suggest the turnout of Cuban and Venezuelan voters in Miami-Dade owes to a general anti-socialist worldview and years of superior Republican outreach efforts.
Other reporting has revealed how religious and socially conservative Latino-Americans recoil at some of the socially progressive views espoused by Democrats, particularly on abortion. Missing from any survey data or field interviews, however, is evidence of Latino voters supporting Trump on the basis of his immigration agenda.
To the contrary, a recent survey of registered Latino voters — 37 percent of which had voted for a Republican in the past — asked participants which immigration policy they would prefer a new president to address first. Only 15 percent of respondents wanted a new president to build a wall on the Southern border, while the other 85 percent favored policies such as a pathway to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants, a repeal of zero tolerance and family separations at the border, and protections against deportation for DACA recipients.
Of the 63 percent of respondents who affiliated themselves with Democrats, 38 percent said they would consider voting for a Republican candidate who “spoke out against President Trump’s harsh (immigration) policies, treated Latinos with respect, and worked to create more humane immigration laws.”
Likewise, the majority of Republican-voting participants agreed that, “It is hard to support Republican candidates right now, but if Republicans got focused on issues I care about, and treated Latinos with respect,” they would continue supporting them. That leaves only 16 percent of registered Latino voters claiming satisfaction with the GOP in its current form.
This data backs up earlier polling showing that overwhelming majorities of Latino voters — well in excess of the share of Latinos who vote Democratic — support policies such as a pathway to citizenship and accepting refugees.
This doesn’t mean Republicans need to mirror the left’s position on immigration. Majorities of Latino-American voters also support measures to improve border security and decrease illegal border crossings. But the evidence demonstrates the Republicans have a prime opportunity to increase their share of the Latino vote if they tone down anti-immigrant rhetoric, eschew arbitrarily punitive enforcement policies such as zero tolerance, and embrace a more humane (and massively popular) set of reforms. And this will only become more important as Latinos comprise an increasing share of voters.
Clinging to the draconian immigration policies of Stephen Miller means Republicans must bank on Democrats continuing to advocate unpopular positions and neglecting to turn out Latinos. But, as this past election demonstrated, even that isn’t a recipe for electoral success.
Another, more sustainable path, would seize the chance to bring large numbers of Latino-Americans into the fold by maintaining conservative values and offering a fair and dynamic immigration system. The kind of system championed by Bush and Reagan.
The 2020 election revealed many potential Democratic weaknesses and paths to future electoral success for Republicans. Becoming the Party of the Wall isn’t one of them.