By Pete Villasmil
The following analysis was originally written on November 21, 2020 for MEJO 244 (Talk Politics) with Professor Ferrel Guillory. I have included a brief section at the article’s conclusion that evaluates how my thoughts and arguments in the aftermath of the 2020 election hold up six months later in April 2021.
It was a cool Miami evening in Brickell City Center when I first noticed something was up in Miami. I was enjoying one final meal in the city when I spied in the restaurant beside me an event for then-candidate Joe Biden, hosted by the area’s local “Latinos for Biden” chapter. I chuckled by how wimpy the scene was; six Latino Biden supporters occupied an entire restaurant to support the current president-elect. I walked away, not thinking much of it then. When I watched the returns on the evening of November 3, I realized that what I had witnessed on that fateful night was a sign of a potential shift occurring with the Latino community in this country.
The level of support the president received on Election Night, or Election Week rather, was arguably the most shocking development of this year’s election results. Miami Dade County was an early sign of how things were going to play out in the country, with Trump expanding his margins by approximately 200,000 votes in the area. According to NBC News, about 55 percent of the state’s Cuban American vote and 48 percent of votes from “other Latinos” went to the president. This unexpected support also propelled commentator Maria Elvira Salazar and Miami-Dade County mayor Carlos Gimenez, Republican House of Representative candidates in South Florida, to victory.
There was much enthusiasm for the Trump campaign in Florida. As Miami resident Sandra Bohorquez described to me, “People are really supportive of the president down here. It wasn’t uncommon to see small parades and caravans break out.” Bohorquez also detailed how Latinos were enthusiastic to vote for President Trump. “I have about 40 close friends that have become new citizens and voted in this election. They care about exercising the right they’ve worked hard for. They want their voice heard and took it very seriously. Most of these people voted for Trump,” Bohorquez said.
The results from South Texas were even more disturbing for Democrats. Considering the Lone Star state was a battleground going into the evening, it is arguable that support for Trump among the Hispanic community helped maintain the GOP’s grasp on the state. Biden was only able to carry Starr County, the country’s most Latino county, by five points. In addition, President Trump flipped the solidly-blue Zapata County, unexpectedly winning by four points. For Democrats, these results in Starr and Zapata county should be quite concerning, especially when taking into account that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton carried both of these counties by more than 60 and 33 points, respectively.
As most Democrats frame it, how can a man who has made so many derogatory statements towards this bloc of voters for half a decade be able to expand his share of the vote from this population? Ultimately, it comes down to the messaging from the party. Ricardo Bethencourt gave me some insight into the situation. He has spent the past six months calling voters with the LIBRE Initiative, a Hispanic outreach program from the conservative advocacy group Americans for Prosperity. Bethencourt fled Venezuela in 2006, after losing his job at the country’s state-run oil firm PDVSA for participating in a national strike protesting Hugo Chavez’s regime. He boils down Trump’s success to one word: socialism.
“Socialism was the typical topic I discussed with Hispanic voters. These voters are especially sensitive to this issue, especially those from South America,” Bethencourt said. He further explained that this concern over the implementation of far-left policies has been growing in Latino communities for years. “It was always brought up on my calls. Not just this year, but in 2018 as well, particularly in Florida. Many of these voters have had serious concerns of the Democratic party going further left, and the party has not done a great job in distancing themselves from that term,” he added.
Democrat Representative Abigail Spanberger would likely concur with Bethencourt’s diagnosis. The Democrat from Virginia said in a call with high ranking members of the party, “We need to not ever use the word ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ ever again. . . . We lost good members because of that.” Conservative Super PACs especially took advantage of how progressive Democrats were associating themselves with the political ideology. Senator Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic-socialist, was the subject of many advertisements run in key counties in Florida. Republican-funded ads targeted towards Hispanic voters often included the controversial comments on Cuba the former presidential candidate made in a now infamous 60 Minutes interview, where he praised components of the authoritarian regime, specifically its education and healthcare system, stating “it is unfair to say that everything is bad.” This was not a good look.
It was apparent early in the Democratic primaries how counterintuitive this messaging was in courting Hispanic voters, especially those who fled from authoritarian governments in South America. Sanders’ prominent presence in the political scene and close association with the Biden campaign, even contributing to the 2020 Democratic Party platform, was a factor the GOP took great advantage of that contributed to their success on election night. Further, the increased national attention on “the Squad’s” extreme policies was beneficial to Republican communications across the country, who used their progressive message to characterize Democrats as “socialists.” The party’s association with these progressive policies likely damaged moderate candidates in competitive races, such as Sara Gideon’s race against incumbent Susan Collins in Maine.
Regardless of whether the Democrats are truly socialists or not doesn’t really matter from a communications standpoint. As long as Republicans are able to successfully frame Democrats in this manner, it is going to have major impact on not just the Hispanic vote, but on the independent/undecided vote as well. As of now, the Democratic party has made it too easy for Republicans to make promote this characterization because of poor messaging. The “Defund the Police” slogan exemplifies the severe complications that comes from subpar communication and the impact it has on the public, especially in the Latin American community.
There is an extreme lack of clarity with the term. Senator Jim Clyburn put it best when he said, “In this business, you’ve gotta say what you mean, and you gotta mean what you say, and if you have to explain what you mean, you are losing the argument.” Democrats are losing the argument. As pointed out by the Texas Tribune, Hispanic voters in South Texas were particularly sensitive to the issue of restricting law enforcement, wanting to keep “law and order” in their communities. Many emigrated from nations where law enforcement acted as loyalists to the party in power instead of protectors of the law, and while sympathetic to those who suffer from police brutality and racism, the notion of “defunding the police” was too extreme for them. In some cases, it was the deal breaker for a number of Hispanic voters. The Green New Deal was another progressive policy that did not resonate. As the adage goes, “people vote with their pocketbooks,” and many in the Latino community did not find it too appealing to have their taxes raised in pursuit of resolving an issue they believe has little to no effect on their day to day lives.
This gets to the center of Democrat’s losses with Hispanic voters. The party has taken this bloc of voters for granted and simply assume that Trump’s rhetoric is enough to keep them in their camp. The president often says demeaning and rude things, but the overall Hispanic community has benefitted from his economic policies, where median household income in Latino households has increased, as well as the number of small business owned and operated by members of the Hispanic community. Many of these voters did not care as much as to what the president said, but more to what he has been able to accomplish these past four years. Bohorquez, who is a small business owner, explained to me, “In the past 5 years, my business has flourished. I can’t say that it was all Trump, but the economic boom under his administration has really helped a lot of people.” She also highlighted that, “Many of the other Latinos I know did not want their taxes raised and are worried of the economic impact of a raise in minimum wage.”
The Democrats have failed to demonstrate what they will do to improve the wellbeing of these voters. Instead, the party has placed all their chips on pandering to this population by promoting “woke” social policies. The emergence of the term LatinX is a great example of how this approach does not resonate. LatinX is a term most Hispanics have never heard of, and honestly do not care about. As Bethencourt commented when I asked him about the term, “It isn’t even relevant enough to discuss. Mexicans, Venezuelans, Cubans, Brazilians, and everyone else; they could all care less about it. They are more concerned with how they are going to put food on the table for their families and achieving the American Dream.” For years, both parties have assumed that the best way to appeal to Hispanic voters is by having a comprehensive plan for immigration reform. It appears that economic policy is more effective than the aforementioned perspective. Trump and the Republicans got to this insight first and made great use of it in this election.
Whether this year’s results are indicative of a major political realignment remains to be seen. But it is clear that the party of FDR and Kennedy needs to seriously reconsider their strategy in appealing to these voters. As of now, Democrat congressional leadership plans to stay the course. All eyes are now set on Georgia as both political parties’ prep for a dramatic battle in the Peach State. Whether Hispanics come out for Republicans once again remains to be seen. If they do, Democrats will need to reevaluate their strategy. Only time will tell.
April 2021 Commentary
I need to confess that I initially wrote this analysis with the belief that the Senate seats in Georgia were going to be split between the parties, leaving us with a truly divided government. My unspoken prediction ended up being false. With the Democrats picking up both Georgia senate seats in January, I would suggest the party act expediently in regaining confidence with this key voting bloc. Democrats need to demonstrate a renewed commitment for supporting Latino communities in America. Acting with this sense of urgency is necessary; the Democrats might only possess their majority for another year if the 2022 midterm election does not go their way. It may be their only chance under a Biden administration to do so. However, the current crisis at the southern border and how the White House has managed the issue does not bode well for Democrats or for the administration. President Biden’s handling of the first crisis in his administration may have further damaged his standing with Latino voters, as polls indicate a growing dissatisfaction in the American public with how the crisis is being managed.
This is not to say that the Republican Party can just take the Latino vote for granted. The GOP will likely face challenges in the coming years as well. Potential clashes within the party will likely revolve around the messaging on topics like immigration and the economy, issues that appeared to resonate with Hispanic voters in 2020. The question of whether the former president gets involved in communicating to these voters will likely be a major source of disagreements.
Considering how synonymous Donald Trump was with these issues in 2016 and 2020, it is difficult to envision the party moving forward without tapping into the effective emotional appeals of the 45th president. Since the events of Jan. 6th, the Republican Party has been faced with a serious challenge with how to manage Donald Trump. The difficulties of this challenge are only amplified when taking into account the potential for Trump to launch his own political party, or the prospect that other members of the Trump family run for office and primary key GOP incumbents. These difficulties, if not resolved soon, may damage the GOP’s chances across the board in 2022.
Ultimately, this next year and a half will be crucial for both parties.