Donald Trump called them “bad hombres”, “drug dealers, criminals and rapists” in a stream of Latino insults in his four years in office.
Yet his improved showing among Latino voters, both men and women, almost brought him Arizona, secured Texas and, crucially, won him Florida, so turning the election into a nail-biting race. How did he do it?
That many Latinos reliably vote conservative is nothing new. The population, now a larger ethnic group than African Americans, has contributed Republican voters ever since the “Latinos con Eisenhower” movement began in California in the 1950s.
Latinos, for all their diversity, share certain cultural conservative traits, such as the importance of family, language, the Church and work. George W Bush capitalised on that when he spoke Spanish and emphasised issues like faith in his 2000 election campaign.
Even so, to understand why Mr Trump won more Latino voters in 2020 than in 2016 — boosting his national share by two percentage points, and by 15 points in Florida — review the Doral rally he gave in late September.
To a Floridian audience of Cubans, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans, all of whom have fled socialist dictatorship, Mr Trump emphasised a simple point: the supposed socialist threat of “Castro-Chavismo”. Taking aim at Joe Biden’s role as vice-president, Mr Trump pointed out he “met with [Venezuela’s] Maduro,” prompting boos. Barack Obama also “betrayed the Cuban people and enriched the Castro regime.”
His message contrasted with Democrats such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who embraces the “democratic socialist” label. It also resonated with exiles seeking new lives in the US, on the better side of Mr Trump’s “wall”. Mr Trump made voting for him about “leaving the crappy country you left behind [and] buying into the false image of the business mogul as capitalist salvation”, says Michael Bustamante, a Florida International University scholar. “The Biden campaign never came up with an effective response to the ‘socialism’ charges.”
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Racial attitudes may have been another factor, especially as polls suggest most Latinos don't identify as people of colour. In the wake of George Floyd’s death, “conspiracy theories that linked Black Lives Matter to a global communist vanguard provoked a particularly virulent pro ‘law and order’ response”, Mr Bustamante adds.
Clearly, these factors have less traction in other Latino communities with different histories. In Florida, for example, 47 per cent of Latinos voted Republican, according to exit polls, dropping to just 21 per cent in California, where most Latinos are Mexican.
Culture wars and socialism weren’t the only reasons why Mr Trump won Florida. He allied with a potent Republican machine, built during the Ronald Reagan years and led by Senator Marco Rubio, who once opposed him. He ran a better ground game with frequent rallies and car caravans blasting blaring pro-Trump tunes, with lyrics like “Oh my God, I’m going to vote for Trump” from émigré band Los 3 de La Habana.
Indeed, his success in Miami — a city hard hit by Covid-19, with some of the nation’s highest Obamacare enrolment rates, and a vulnerability to climate change — is a wake-up call for Democrats about their failure to attract new Latino voters. “Democrats have never found a way to speak to Cubans the way Republicans do, joining them to a bigger geopolitical battle,” said Guillermo Grenier, another FIU scholar.
More existentially, Mr Trump’s success raises the question of why Latino émigrés vote for the same strongman authoritarianism they once fled. My conclusion, having grown up among exiled Cubans and with my son born in Venezuela, is that the US, in its political division and gaping social inequality, is becoming more Latin American too.
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