The Future of the Latino Vote, If There Is Such a Thing

An overreliance on identity politics may drive these voters away from the Democratic Party.


If Hispanics swung for former President Donald Trump in some states and against him in others in the 2020 election, is there such a thing as a generic Latino vote? Among the most unorthodox answerswhich is not for that reason mistakenis that of Miami writer Alex Perez. He argues that his hometown is unique insofar as traditional polling, policy wonkery, and ideological point-scoring fail to capture what appeals to its voters: not "'serious' politics," but rather aesthetics that reflect the city's tropical, party atmosphere, in itself a result of a blend between Latino culture and the "classic American idea of 'work hard, play hard.'"

Perez attributes the former president's success in South Florida to a "Trumpian aesthetic" that projected "a carnivalesque, raucous good time: where the energy of a tailgate, and not of politics, carried the day." Trump's showpiece was a salsa song by Cuban group Los 3 de la Habana, whose video highlighted Latino families living "the good life" due to a booming, presumably pre-COVID economy under Trump (pronounced in its Latinized version: Tron). Meanwhile, President Joe Biden's dreary campaign reflected the Democrats' conversion into the party of H.R. department scolds. The maximum expression of this worldview is the use of the term Latinx to refer to Hispanics, who are mostly confounded by the word's meaning. 

While Perez claims that Trump's choice of salsa beats added several percentage points to his Florida vote, Spanish journalist Emilio Doménech even tweeted that the song led to outright victory in the state. This theory fails to convince Daniel Garza, executive director of the LIBRE Initiative, who argues that the salsa theory insults the intelligence of Latinos, an increasingly sophisticated group of voters "when it comes to making election decisions based on policy."             

Latinos in South Florida and the Rio Grande Valley in southern Texas showed similar swings toward Trump, who gained 23 percentage points in Miami-Dade County and flipped Zapata County, Texas, for the first time since the 19th century. The difference, Garza points out, was that the Republican Party invested heavily in mobilizing Hispanics in South Florida, where it has a well-oiled political machine. That is not the case in the Texas border area, where Latinos mobilized spontaneously and educated each other around the key issues: the Second Amendment, energy policy, economic opportunity, school choice, and the importance of constitutionalist Supreme Court justices who would uphold the freedoms of worship and free speech. 

Like the rest of Americans, Garza says, Latinos tend to distrust the media and political parties, whereas their neighbors, fellow churchgoers, and other parents at their children's schools have much greater credibility. Garza, a Rio Grande Valley native, noticed that these communities, which are united by "the shared experience of scraping their knees on the economy," began to turn against efforts to impose a cancel culture, dismantle the nuclear family, or defund the police. As in Florida, this hurt candidates who had supported Black Lives Matter. A Miami Democrat told Politico: "We came out strong for BLM and then saw the Hispanic push back and went lukewarm and got killed."

Many Texas Latinos also resisted policies that threatened high-paying jobs in the energy sector, which many of them hold. They understood, Garza says, that "a country with energy is a country with a future." The importance of energy jobs for Latino voters in Texas also shows how the Hispanic vote is "just as varied as in the rest of the country." Latinos in North Carolina, for instance, are more interested in preserving private health insurance. In Florida, a strong stance against Latin American socialism was important. Overall and contrary to the media narrative, however, immigration was not among the top seven issues for Hispanics in the 2020 election according to the Pew Research Center.

In Georgia, a number of left-leaning PACs invested heavily to mobilize Hispanics prior to the Senate runoff elections. While they maintained turnout levels, Latinos "were not the reason [Democrats Raphael] Warnock and [Jon] Osoff [sic] defeated Republicans Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue," according to Suzanne Gamboa of NBC News.

Although the Hispanic vote in Georgia provided no surprises, Garza does see a general north-south divide. Latinos' shift in some Sun Belt states toward Republicansa turn that he associates with faith, patriotism, and greater economic opportunitiesfailed to materialize in northern states such as New York and Illinois, where Hispanic voting tendencies remained mostly intact. This proved disappointing for Democrats. 

As Bloomberg's Joshua Green notes, the party just about managed to maintain turnout among Latinos in the battleground states that granted Biden the presidency. In part, the problem was that New York City–based strategists were often mistaken about what appealed to Hispanic voters, thus realizing that their best bet was to decentralize ad production and outsource it to people in the communities. This reflects Garza's insight that, at some point, leftist leaders overtook Latinos in the trend toward the extreme progressive ideas, to the point that "they are now projecting their priorities onto the Latino community and we're rejecting them."

The culture wars certainly loom large. Perez argues that Democrats face a challenge since they are "so often embarrassed by America's more 'uncouth' elements," while there is a "jovial Latino Americanism" evident in campaign rallies that combine mostly spoken Spanish with "all-American, good-times Nascar vibes." Latinos, he adds, "see themselves not as Latinx, or even Latinos, but as Americans." If he's right, then betting the house on identity politics will prove costly.

Although the failure to bring about a blue wave at the congressional level shocked many Democrats, Garza still sees the party moving more toward "democratic socialists" like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D–N.Y.) than toward moderates like Rep. Henry Cuellar (D–Texas). This conservative Blue Dog Democrat defeated Jessica Cisneros, a candidate Ocasio-Cortez endorsed, in the latest primary in Texas' 28th Congressional District, but he's increasingly isolated in his own party. 

Does this mean that Republicans can make further gains with Latinos if they reject the woke agenda and embrace a philosophy of removing barriers to opportunity? Garza agrees that superficiality cannot be ignored since the messenger is important: "You still need a charismatic personality, a good retail politician who sells the policies well."

But there seems to be a fine line between relying on Reaganesque charisma and descending toward Latin American levels of caudillismo. In March 2016, David Luhnow of The Wall Street Journal compared Trump to a number of caudillos, leaders who use superior showmanship skills to "confront an ossified political establishment, develop a strong bond with their followers and attack their opponents and the media with no holds barred—sometimes even encouraging violence." ​

That warning seems ominous after the assault on the U.S. Capitol on January 6. Politics relying on props and visuals can lead to danger; after all, the absolute masters of political aesthetics were 20th century totalitarian socialists. Trump's failures, however, should not leave a message of state dependency and wokeness to carry the day unopposed, especially with the Hispanic community. According to Garza's experience, when Latinos hear a compelling case in favor of free market ideas, their reaction tends to be, "That's what I always believed, where have you been?" 

Perhaps there is ground to gain when you sell a freedom message with some joie de vivre. To borrow Perez's term, Trumpistas should not have a monopoly over being "the party of the party."