Much has been made of Donald Trump's better-than-expected performance with Hispanic voters. But a close look at his showing in key battleground states suggests a missed opportunity: A less-nativist candidate might well have ridden that wave to a second term in the White House.
Exit polls suggest that Trump won a third of the Latino vote overall, a little better than last time around. But what put him close to the edge was his impressive performance with Hispanics in Florida and Texas, both states he won.
To the extent that exit polls can be believed, Trump got a thumping 45 percent of Florida's Latino vote, an 11-point improvement over his 2016 performance. This is squarely because 58 percent of the Sunshine State's sizeable Cuban American community in the populous Miami-Dade County voted for him, an improvement of four points from last time. This cut Joe Biden's overall county-wide lead to merely seven points, in contrast to Hillary Clinton's 30-point one.
Why did Biden lose ground with these groups? One reason is that Trump successfully associated Biden with socialism, and raised the specter that the Democrat would turn America into the countries they'd escaped. In one masterstroke of microtargeting, Trump invited Fabiana Rosales, the wife of an imprisoned Venezuelan opposition leader, to the White House and then used the video with her to woo the community. Meanwhile, Biden took the Latino vote for granted and did little to refute this branding, even as political commentators like Linda Chavez, a conservative who opposed Trump, were sounding the alarm telling him to wake up. Biden could have also done more to point out that Trump had rejected half the asylum petitions of Cubans and Senate Republicans five times in 18 months spurned efforts to extend the Temporary Protected Status for undocumented Venezuelans. If these communities had been more aware of Trump's record, they might have been less inclined to support him in such numbers. It was missed opportunity on Biden's part.
The Latino vote in Texas was even more surprising in some ways. Despite the heavy Latino turnout, Dems could not realize their perennial dream of turning this red state blue. Biden increased his vote count among Hispanics in large, more liberal cities like Dallas and Houston over Hillary Clinton's totals. But he lost the state by six points after an eye-popping 41 percent to 47 percent of Hispanic voters in several heavily Latino border counties in the Rio Grande Valley region, a Democratic stronghold, backed Trump. In Starr County, which is nearly 97 percent Hispanic, Biden had only a five-point margin with the group compared to Clinton's whopping 60-point 2016 lead. Nueces County in South Texas went for Trump by a wider margin now than four years ago, after Beto O'Rourke flipped Corpus Christi and its surroundings in 2018. Why did this county return to the GOP camp? One reason is that Latinos, like other groups, reflect the rural-urban split with rural voters being naturally more conservative and urban more liberal. The other is that Hispanics in border towns have been living there for generations. So they don't self identify as immigrants and Trump's interior enforcement raids didn't directly affect them.
But Trump's threatened border wall, which would have cut through their cities and towns, was more relevant to their daily lives. They were vehemently opposed to it. Compared with 2016, Trump chose to de-emphasize his border wall specifically and his anti-immigration stance generally. This decision likely kept Texas red by allowing border-dwellers to focus on his economic message of creating jobs and boosting growth, both of which are huge concerns in this poverty-stricken region.
By contrast, the states where Latinos came through in decisive numbers for Biden—and against Trump—were Colorado, Nevada, and Arizona. Colorado was an early win for the vice president. Nevada was a squeaker. And Arizona has yet to even be called by The New York Times. In all three, preliminary reports suggest upwards of 70 percent of Hispanics voted for Biden. Why in such large numbers? Because unlike Florida, Hispanics in these states tend to come from Mexico or Central America. And unlike Texas, they tend to be immigrants or first-generation. Hence Trump's rhetoric and policies directly threatened them, especially in Arizona, which has long been Ground Zero for the restrictionist movement and where Trump's interior enforcement policies have hit the Hispanic community hard.
Had his immigration positions been less extreme to begin with, he could have pulled off the same feat in Arizona and Nevada that he did in Florida and Texas, namely, gained Hispanic support without sacrificing too much other support to win. Not just that, such a stance might have also put Michigan, one of the key Midwestern battleground states that cemented Biden's victory, in Trump's corner, handing him the presidency. Biden won Hispanics by an estimated 54-point margin in the Great Lakes state. And although Hispanics constitute only 3.1 percent of the eligible voter population in Michigan compared to 22.7 percent in Arizona and 18.4 percent in Nevada, losing just a modest share of them (along with other more immigration-friendly voters) might have wiped out Biden's narrow 0.6-point margin.
To be clear: Trump had plenty of restrictionist plans ready to go for his second term, he simply chose to de-emphasize them on the stump. Top aide Stephen Miller had already cued up a series of executive orders to further limit grants of asylum, punish and outlaw "sanctuary cities," expand the travel ban to include more countries, require even more extreme vetting for visa applicants, and impose new limits on work visas. As if that wasn't ambitious enough, he was also planning to act on a perennial item on the ultra restrictionist wish list by using an executive order to end birthright citizenship, forcing the matter to the Supreme Court.
But he didn't campaign on those plans. In fact, he barely mentioned them. This was in sharp contrast to his first campaign when he called Mexicans "rapists and criminals" and promised to build a wall on the entire Southern border to keep them out and make Mexico pay for it. No doubt the shellacking Republicans received in the 2018 midterm, thanks to his unfair depictions of Central American asylum seekers and the cruelties that his zero-tolerance policies visited on the border, had something to do with this re-calibration.
Even this minor reset generated rich political dividends for Trump with a demographic group that is now the second biggest after whites. (There are 32 million eligible Hispanic voters, 2 million more than blacks.)
Hispanics are a diverse group with varying interests, not a monolithic voting block. The lesson from a granular analysis of both the Hispanics that Trump won and those that he lost is the same: They aren't seeking welfare handouts before extending their support to candidates, contrary to conservative mythology. They also aren't party loyalists, as liberals would like to believe. They are up for grabs for anyone who does not declare open season on them and shows them just a little respect or at least doesn't rain hate on them. Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush understood that. Rejecting their party's traditional antipathy, they courted Hispanics without turning into Santa Claus—and did quite well, especially the latter who won 40 percent of their vote in 2004 when he was re-elected.
Although Trump lost, the pattern of his support from Hispanics points the way to a strategy that can work for future Republican presidential candidates—if they are willing to turn away from nativism and focus on economics instead.