Latinos are not a uniform voting bloc. We are spread across the country and have wildly different backgrounds. Over the years, Latinos ourselves have struggled to articulate what unites and divides us. The first question I ask in my Latino History course at Northwestern University is “Who, or what, is a ‘Latino’ anyway?” The class never resolves the question, but the students go back to it over and over as they study the evolving conceptions of Latinos.
We are so diverse that we often say the “Latino vote” doesn’t really exist. Yet certain trends emerge when you look closely at the voting preferences of our motley demographic. According to my calculations based on early exit polls, almost 60 percent of eligible Latinos voted this year—more than 19 million voters—compared with about 50 percent in prior elections. That turnout means that a huge number voted for Joe Biden, but also that a large number voted for Donald Trump. Trump earned 28 percent of Latino votes in 2016 and approximately 32 percent in 2020. He was able to expand his support not only in southern Florida, where many typically conservative Cuban Americans live, but also among Latinos of different stripes across the country—in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, North Carolina, Texas, and Wisconsin.
How did a president who has continually maligned immigrants grow his portion of Latino voters? Hispanic Republicans and Latino Trump supporters are not “self-hating,” as the actor John Leguizamo and many others have argued. I’ve studied Republicans’ relationship with Latinos over the decades and have conducted many interviews with voters and political operatives during this election. The political beliefs of these voters are deeply held and sincere. Trump understood what motivated his Latino supporters—economic individualism, religious liberty, and law and order—and he made sure they knew he did.
In almost every election since Richard Nixon’s in 1972, the Republican presidential candidate has won from a quarter to a third of the Latino vote, even as the GOP tacked right on immigration and border enforcement. In 2004, Latinos, drawn to George W. Bush’s moderation and compassion on a range of issues, including immigration and bilingual education, gave him about 40 percent of their votes. Trump was a very different candidate and president from Bush, but a sizable percentage of Latinos had come to identify as loyal Republicans, and they wouldn’t switch sides easily.
Trump’s administration built on existing Republican support by relentlessly courting Latinos since 2017, focusing on his economic policies and support for religious freedom. Even as Trump made family separation and the border wall central parts of his platform, the White House engaged Latino business owners early and often. Trump lowered taxes, slashed financial regulations, and named a Latina Small Business Administration administrator, Jovita Carranza, who helped Latino business owners. He also claimed credit in speeches for low unemployment numbers, rising rates of homeownership, and growing family incomes for Latinos, trends that started during the Barack Obama years.
While Democrats focused on Trump’s slanders, they missed a bigger picture. Take, for example, the week in early July when Goya CEO Robert Unanue’s praise of Trump resulted in calls to boycott Goya products. That week as a whole was about Trump’s relentless recruitment of Latino voters—the visit by Mexico’s president to celebrate the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement; the announcement of the Hispanic Prosperity Initiative, which promised more support for Latino business owners, charter schools, and Hispanic-serving institutions; and the meeting with Southcom, a joint military command based in Florida that’s responsible for operations in Central America, South America, and the Caribbean, during which the president promised to halt the flow of drugs from Latin America.
Trump also successfully exploited the economic frustrations of many Latinos, young and old. He clearly stated that he had answers to their problems, would help them find jobs, and would grow the economy. This rhetoric resonated with those in South Texas, a heavily Mexican American, traditionally Democratic area of the state with high rates of poverty, poor educational outcomes, and health disparities, including a particularly high rate of COVID-19 infection and mortality.
Republican boosters in the region talked about improved quality of life, business opportunities, and educational access to institutions such as the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Trump amplified this narrative of regional progress and gave many in the area hope. Monica De La Cruz–Hernandez, a Republican who narrowly lost her race for a congressional seat in the Rio Grande Valley, told me that Trump had helped Mexican Americans “find their voice.” Now they’re “walk-away Democrats” who shifted their support to Trump more dramatically than Latinos in other parts of the country.
Trump aggressively talked about law and order in a way that appealed particularly to Latino men in the Border Patrol, military, and police departments. In the days before the election, Latino leaders of the National Border Patrol Council expressed support for Trump’s immigration and border policies. Art Del Cueto, the council’s vice president, said, “We must continue to support the rule of the law and continue to support President Trump.” Trump also received the endorsement of the National Latino Peace Officers Association Advocacy.
The Trump administration focused on Latino churchgoers, deputizing Vice President Mike Pence to visit gatherings with Latino evangelicals and tell them that Trump was the defender of their religious liberties. Members of this religious group have deeply ingrained anti-abortion-rights beliefs, and they also responded to the administration’s support for religious charter schools and its general desire to blur the lines between religion and public life. Latino evangelicals aren’t all Republicans. One of their leaders, Gabriel Salguero, has called them classic swing voters whose political allegiance is divided. But they do support Republicans at greater rates—46 percent—than the general Latino population does.
Finally, the idea, spread through scaremongering campaigns, that most Democrats are socialists worried Latinos whose families had fled leftist-controlled governments in Latin America. Socialism was also shorthand for a range of ideas related to government overreach in healthcare, the economy, and education.
Latinos certainly contributed to Biden’s margin of victory. The former vice president’s campaign and its pollster Latino Decisions point to the dramatic rise in Latino participation. However, the campaign has been criticized for not beginning its outreach earlier. It didn’t really start until the days before the Democratic National Convention and focused on us during Hispanic Heritage Month in the fall, despite the fact that Latino political strategists have long argued that a candidate can’t expect our support if he shows up only in the final months or weeks of a campaign.
But to believe that earlier outreach would have led to a dramatically different result is to ignore the political agency of Latino Republicans and Trump supporters. Republicans in 2024 will look to replicate Trump’s relative success among Latinos, perhaps without the racism. Democrats, meanwhile, should grapple with the reality that a growing number of Latinos voted for the Republican Party’s policies. They should engage Latinos across the country, beginning today, to understand how to better represent their preferences on issues including healthcare, education, the economy, and immigration. If Democrats hope to reverse the gains Republicans made this year, they should also pay attention to what about Trump drew Latinos in.