Even as Latino voters played a meaningful role in tipping the Senate and the presidency to the Democrats last year, former President Donald Trump succeeded in peeling away significant amounts of Latino support, and not just in conservative-leaning geographic areas, according to a post-mortem analysis of the election that was released today.
Conducted by the Democratically aligned research firm Equis Labs, the report found that certain demographics within the Latino electorate had proved increasingly willing to embrace Trump as the 2020 campaign went on, including conservative Latinas and those with a relatively low level of political engagement.
Using data from Equis Labs’ polls in a number of swing states, as well as focus groups, the study found that within those groups, there was a shift toward Trump across the country, not solely in areas like Miami or the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, where the growth in Trump’s Latino support has been widely reported.
“In 2020, a segment of Latino voters demonstrated that they are more ‘swing’ than commonly assumed,” the report stated.
Ultimately, Trump outperformed his 2016 showing among Latino voters, earning the support of about 1 in 3 nationwide, even as President Joe Biden won those voters by a roughly 2-1 margin overall, according to exit polls.
All told, close to 17 million Latino voters turned out in the general election, according to a separate analysis published in January by the UCLA Latino Policy & Politics Initiative. That represented an uptick of more than 30% from 2016 — and the highest level of Latino participation in history.
With the coronavirus pandemic and the related economic downturn taking center stage on the campaign trail, Equis Labs found that many Latino voters — particularly conservatives — had focused more heavily on economic issues than they had four years earlier. This helped Trump by putting the spotlight on an issue that was seen as one of his strong suits and by drawing some attention away from his anti-immigrant language.
In focus groups, Equis Labs’ interviewers noticed that Trump’s history as a businessman was seen as a positive attribute by many Latino voters, who viewed him as well positioned to guide the economy through the pandemic-driven recession. Partly as a result, the analysis found, many conservative Latino voters who had been hanging back at the start of the campaign came around to supporting him.
Driving up turnout among low-propensity voters — something that Sen. Bernie Sanders had sought to do during his campaign for the Democratic nomination — did not necessarily translate into gains for Democrats in the general election, the study found. People who were likely to vote generally grew more negative on Trump’s job performance over the course of 2020, but among those who reported being less likely to participate in the election, his job approval rose.
This finding is likely to fuel hand-wringing among Democratic strategists who worried that Biden had not done enough to court skeptical Latino voters before November.
The movement toward Trump appeared mostly “to be among those with the lowest partisan formation,” the analysts wrote. “We know enough to say these look like true swing voters. Neither party should assume that a Hispanic voter who cast a ballot for Trump in 2020 is locked in as a Republican going forward. Nor can we assume this shift was exclusive to Trump and will revert back on its own.”
Chuck Coughlin, a Republican pollster in Arizona, said he was unsurprised by the results of the Equis Labs report, given what he said had been a concerted effort by the Trump campaign to win Latino support.
“You saw it in the rallies out here,” he said. “They did a rally down in Yuma. They did a rally at the Honeywell plant out here. All of those featured Hispanic small-business owners. They were working that crowd.”
He said the Trump campaign’s messaging on economic and social issues had resonated for many Latino voters, particularly older ones. “They’re pro-business. They’re pro-gun. They don’t like higher taxes. They don’t trust the government,” he said. “It’s the same constituency that you see among Anglo Trump voters.”
While the report did not closely analyze voters by their nations of origin, it did demonstrate that Trump’s relative success among Latino voters compared with four years earlier was not limited to areas with large populations of Cuban Americans, Venezuelan Americans and other demographics that have typically trended more conservative.
Carmen Peláez, a playwright and filmmaker in Miami who helped lead the campaign group Cubanos con Biden, said that after the election, many observers had sought to ascribe Trump’s improvement among Florida Latinos to a shift among Cuban Americans in the southern part of the state.
The findings from Equis Labs validated her experience last year, she said, which showed that Latinos of all nationalities had been targeted online with advertisements and messages that scared them away from Democrats.
“People love blaming the Cubans, but you can’t just blame the Cubans,” she said. “There is a cancer in our community, and it’s disinformation, and it’s hitting all of us.”
Peláez said Democrats had habitually taken Latino voters for granted by mistakenly assuming that they knew those voters’ political habits and attitudes. Cuban Americans, for example, are often painted with a broad brush as conservative.
“It was assumed that they would be pro-immigration, or they were taken for granted because they were assumed to be a lost vote,” she said. “There’s never a lost vote if you are really willing to engage. But willing to engage means setting aside your own prejudices.”