Trump’s sustained organizational pursuit of right-leaning Latinos likely provides part of the answer to Odio’s query. Two other factors might explain even more, and each offers a reason for Democrats to be optimistic that Biden could recover at least some of the ground lost with Latinos in 2020.
The first is that across both parties, many analysts I’ve spoken with believe that the single most important reason for Trump’s Latino gains was greater trust in him than in Biden to manage the economy, particularly amid the pandemic. Compared to 2016, Trump last year dialed down his anti-immigrant rhetoric and focused much more on promising economic recovery. Many observers on both sides believe that even as the Latino community was disproportionately dying from COVID-19, Trump benefited from this single-minded insistence on reopening the economy.
While much of Trump’s rhetoric downplaying the virus was clearly unrealistic and irresponsible, Democrats “doubled down on the pessimism associated with the virus, and I think that was a major turnoff for a lot of Latino communities,” Curbelo told me. For many Latinos, he said, the “Democratic messaging was all about death and despair, and how much longer this was going to be, and how kids couldn’t go to school and people couldn’t work—and if you are a fairly recently arrived immigrant, that is just the last thing you want to hear.”
From his vantage point in Texas, where he led a major grassroots-organizing effort around state legislative races in 2020, O’Rourke saw the same dynamic. “Trump was able to seize on this false choice of: Do you want to be locked down and have to wear a face mask and not have a job, or have a job?” he told me. Trump’s message, he said, came through as “Fuck the scientists … I’m for jobs.”
But while Trump benefited from a promise to reopen the economy, Biden, if he runs for reelection, will almost certainly be able to say that he actually did reopen it—and, moreover, that the economy is stronger than when he took office. That means the economic tailwind that lifted Trump last time could shift in Biden’s direction in 2024.
A similar dynamic would apply to the final explanation for Trump’s gains: Incumbency really matters in the Latino community. Since 1980, almost every incumbent president won a higher share of the vote among Latinos in their reelection campaign than they did in their first race. (The sole exception was George H. W. Bush, whose vote share fell when he sought reelection in a three-way race during the economic downturn of 1992.) Compared to the other incumbent presidents, Trump’s gains from 2016 to 2020 were about average or a little better than average, depending on which data source you use. But either way, they were far from the most impressive. “Latinos will always vote for an incumbent at a higher rate than they did last time,” Gallego said—a tendency driven by some combination of “respect for authority, a certain level of patriotism, too, [and a belief that] we don’t want to change ships in the middle of a crisis.” If Biden runs again in 2024, that same inclination could help him.