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Latino Trump supporters gather at Ace Speedway for a Trump rally on September 19, 2020, in Elon, N.C. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)  
Latino Trump supporters gather at Ace Speedway for a Trump rally on September 19, 2020, in Elon, N.C. Photo: Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images  

The New Swing Vote: How the Democratic party keeps getting Latino voters wrong

At its core, this is a story of underestimating the nation’s second-largest voting population, and simplifying it until its diversity becomes meaningless. 

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Five months after the 2020 presidential election, something’s finally become clear for the masses: that Latino voters across the nation were never “asleep,” and those who have remained dormant for years have the capacity to thwart even the most solid of projections in a single election. 

That’s what low-turnout Latino voters did to the Democratic party in 2020. But if you look closer, the Democratic Party played itself, relying on past trends and a campaign strategy that took a last-ditch approach at the diverse Latino demographic. It gave way for an unexpected mobilizer to fill the empty space: former President Donald Trump. 

Mobilization, that is, direct contact with the people you want to appeal to in order to get them to go to the polls, matters. It can make all the difference, as it did when Arizona flipped blue, but it’s not the only factor in play, research has found.

Turnout and persuasion matter, and just as there are swing states, there are also swing voters. The nation is only just figuring out that Latinos could be in this category too. 

The most well-known place where this narrative played out was Miami-Dade County in South Florida. By Election Day, it was already understood that President Biden would underperform in the area. 

The results still proved surprising after it became clear that the shift to red wasn’t just in Miami-Dade. It was a nationwide trend.

While historically a large portion of voters sat out of elections, in 2020 a many came out to the polls and narrowed the margin. It’s a gap that’s worth studying for the future. 

There is no concrete reason or explanation for the shift to red in these areas, but Equis Labs, a Democratic Party-aligned research firm, released a preliminary report, or “post-mortem,” on what happened in 2020, challenging the overly-simplistic accounts of what happened to merely stating that “yeah, Latino voters can be Republican.”

While this is true, beyond the data, the report presses current and future campaigns to consider nuanced categories and demographics, and their capacities to make or break them, especially because the Latino shift to red was more widespread than originally thought to be. 

“The results of 2020 challenge some facile assumptions about the Latino vote, and speak to the dangers of taking an overly simplistic view of any demographic group in the electorate,” the post-mortem reads. 

Just the term “Latino vote” in itself adds to the issue, and while the study examines solely those who identify themselves as such, the term signals uniformity, of which there is little. 

“Latinos aren’t a monolith, but they remain a group,” Equis Labs wrote in its report, saying that Trump’s gains seemed to be unique among those who identify as Latinos across the board. 

A UCLA Latino Policy & politics initiative analysis published in January revealed that there was a voter increase of more than 30% from 2016 — the highest level of Latino participation in history. Increased participation is positive overall, but Equis Labs found that as the density of the Hispanic and Latino population increased, metrics also shifted “dramatically” towards Trump. 
 

The report found that certain demographics within the Latino voting bloc, in the end, voted in favor of the former president in 2020, including conservative Latinas and those “sleeping” voters with historically low political engagement.

The complete report can be found here.

For this, there is no encompassing reason for the national baseline shift towards Trump among Latinos, and to try to fit in all voters into a facile reason would undermine the study. 

Equis itself writes that it cannot explain the shift toward Trump and connect the decision to a specific region or nationality. 

“Border dynamics don’t explain changes in New Jersey. Cuban/ Venezuelan fear of socialism doesn’t explain movement in Milwaukee.” the report reads. 

Merely asking, “why did this happen?” simplifies the approach to better understand a complex portion of the United States electorate. 

Such simplification is what campaigns and parties keep getting wrong. 

Trump was a familiar face. Biden, on the other hand, wasn't declared the official Democratic Party candidate until well-into 2020. 

By that time, he had precious time to appeal to voters of various backgrounds and demographics. Frankly, he failed in comparison to Trump, who had been actively campaigning for months, and he made targeted choices for where to hold his rallies — oftentimes communities with a high concentration of conservative-leaning Latino business owners. 

As Equis Labs makes clear, it’s not for certain whether this trend in votes will repeat itself, especially now that there will likely be new candidates with their own swing and appeal to certain demographics. 

This uncertainty shouldn’t be a reason to cast aside Latino voters again until a handful of months before the next consequential election. The data points to populations with high Hispanic and Latino populations, and indicates that they have the most swing. 

It’s the middle-class business owners with a clear reliance on a stable job market and economy across the nation. Some rely on employment within oil and gas plants, others have their eye on immigration and border security — all platforms Trump campaigned heavily upon. 

“Even if Biden had matched Clinton’s performance in Miami-Dade County and the Rio Grande Valley, he still would’ve lost both Florida and Texas handily; the underperformance in those states was not limited to Latino voters” Equis Labs makes clear. 

Still, the gap became too close for Democrat’s comfort. The shift flipped two of Florida’s congressional districts, ousting former Reps. Debbie Mucarsel Powell and Donna Shalala.

Apart from underestimating the diversity of Latino voters, political analyst Chuck Rocha says that the trend indicates a lack of overall investment in Latino voter participation. Recently, he criticized the late show of investment by Biden’s campaign into Spanish language advertising in the final weeks before the election. 

“In the final 30 days before the general election, combined they spent over $14 million on Spanish-language radio and TV in Miami,” Rocha wrote for the New York Times. In contrast, the Trump campaign maintained its already-present outreach efforts that went back to 2018. 

It “went beyond TV advertising,” Rocha continued, saying that Trump’s strategy won, having relied on relentless campaigning and targeted efforts on “low information Latino voters,” on media channels they most frequent, such as YouTube, where the Trump campaign made big moves on visibility and viral content. 

According to Equis Research, 64% of registered Latino voters said they got election information from YouTube. In Florida, it was even higher, at 74%.

It’s this sort of easily attainable data that the Democratic party didn’t act on in 2020. 

There seems to be the notion that all Latinos exclusively watch Telemundo and Univision, when in reality it’s places like Youtube, Whatsapp, Facebook, and even the Google algorithm. Each of these platforms have the capacity to sway voters when traditional political strategy fails. 

This is about voters who weren’t mobilized in the past, and those with the capacity to be swayed. Time will tell whether the Democratic party will be able to regain some ground. 

After all, Latinos are the new swing vote.

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