The GOP’s best bet to accelerate gains with Latinos? It may be more Trumpism

It was about 7:30 p.m. Florida time when Christian Ulvert, a Democratic strategist and advisor to Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, knew his candidate was cooked in the Sunshine State.

“The first results came in from Miami-Dade County and they showed Biden only winning by 8 or 9,” he said. “We knew the margin was going to get tighter when the more Republican-heavy Election Day vote came in, and we knew the margin Biden had wasn’t going to cut it.”

In 2016, Hillary Clinton won Miami-Dade County — the most populous county in the state where 70% of residents are Latino — 64% to 34%. Four years later, Biden won Miami-Dade just 53% to 46%.

The damage wasn’t just limited to the presidential race — Republicans were also able to flip two Democrat-held South Florida House seats thanks to the now-infamous “Latino shift” of the 2020 election. According to Ulvert, his team saw warning signs that Democrats had a very serious Latino problem in late October — a problem some sought to minimize.

Not long after it became clear that Biden was toast in Florida, Election Day results started to come in from Texas, where Biden once again was underperforming Clinton in Latino-heavy counties.

Antonio Arellano, the head of a left-leaning Texas-based Latino organizing group, did not expect Biden to flip Texas in 2020. Unlike some of his activist peers, he was not shocked to see Trump dramatically improve his standing in the majority-Latino Rio Grande Valley.

“It wasn’t a surprise because I had been following the unemployment rate in the Rio Grande Valley,” Arellano said. “There was real economic pain in The Valley, we’re talking about a 17% unemployment rate. There were a massive amount of people losing jobs, getting evicted, and feeling anxiety. They wanted to know how to get money, and how to get their jobs back, but what they kept getting fed from Democrats was, ‘Stay at home and wear a mask.’

“People always ask, ‘How can Latinos overlook Trump’s racism?’ This may be new for the mainstream media, but for black and brown people, racism has always been there and can be an everyday thing, so voters will overlook it to vote for the person who will give them a job and improve their lives.”

The conventional wisdom seemed to suggest that because Trump spent the last four years attempting to build a wall along the southern border, tightening asylum policies and strengthening Immigration and Customs (ICE) — to say nothing of how his 2016 campaign rhetoric was perceived — it was inevitable that he would struggle with Latino voters in 2020.

Per the conventional wisdom, Trump needed to moderate his stance on immigration in order to improve his standing with Latinos (the basis of the 2012 GOP “autopsy” following the defeat of Mitt Romney) because “Trumpism” — if loosely defined as a politically incorrect, America-first nationalistic populism originally geared towards working class white voters— is toxic among Latino voters.

And yet, Trump not only fared better with Latino voters in 2020 than he did in 2016, he also fared better than Romney did in 2012. Ulvert, who analyzed precinct-level data in “pockets of Hispanic communities” across the country, said what happened is more complex than simply, “Latinos were scared of ‘socialism.’” He highlighted two specific issues he believes fueled the Latino shift.

“For one, COVID lockdowns,” he explained. “Republicans saw an opportunity with working-class Latinos because of the concentration of small business that rests in Hispanic communities, and those small businesses bore the brunt of the shutdowns. Republicans quickly branded the lockdowns as Democratic lockdowns, and our side doubled down on lockdowns to save lives, which helped us with some voters but cost us with others.

“The second thing is Republicans drove a successful wedge in the social justice movements of the summer, where all they took from that was the slogan of ‘defund the police’ that they used as a weapon against us,” Ulvert added. “That issue became lethal for Latinos who were already in fear of their economic safety and health safety.”

After Florida and Texas were called for Trump on election night, Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley — a favorite among national populists — tweeted, “We are a working class party now. That’s the future.” Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and multiple conservative commentators found a new term to describe the GOP coalition.

“The future of the party is based on a multiethnic, multiracial, working-class coalition,” Rubio told Axios.

According to Rubio, the 2020 election is evidence the GOP can accelerate its gains with minorities and expand its “multiracial, working-class coalition” because members of the working class — of all races — distrust “big businesses” that thrived during the pandemic while small business suffered, and “only care about how their shares are performing, even if it’s based on moving production overseas for cheaper labor.”

“They’re very suspicious, quite frankly, dismissive of elites at every level,” Rubio said of the working class. “And obviously that’s a powerful sentiment.”

Rubio and his allies offer a lot to unpack. For one, not everyone agrees on the definitions of “Trumpism,” the “working class,” and the “elites.” For another, Trump still lost Latino voters by a 2-1 margin in 2020, and if there’s one thing the election should have taught the political world, it’s that there’s an inherent danger in treating any one group — be it Latinos or the working class — as a monolith.

In any case, there is enough evidence right now to suggest that leaning harder — yes harder — into “Trumpism” may be the GOP’s best way to accelerate Latino gains going forward.

What happened in 2020

Political polling in 2020 was not very good, and the initial post-election exit polls were equally shoddy. In early May, Democratic firm Catalist, a group that has built and maintained a national voter registration database with records spanning 15 years, released a full report on the 2020 electorate that provides a more complete picture of what happened.

According to Catalist, Joe Biden fared eight percentage points worse with Latino voters than Hillary Clinton did in 2016. No other racial group saw a larger election-to-election swing over the last three presidential elections.

The Latino shift was not just confined to Miami-Dade County in Florida and the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, as some Democrats would like to believe. Even in bluer states, counties with high Latino populations shifted to the right in 2020, with two examples including Bronx County in New York (Clinton won it 89% to 9% in 2016, Biden won it 83% to 16% in 2020) and Imperial County in California (Clinton won it 68% to 26%, Biden won it 61% to 37% in 2020).

Catalist found decreases in Latino Democratic support in the seven key states of Florida, Texas, Wisconsin, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Georgia. The firm also found that Cuban Americans were the most likely supgroup to swing to the right in 2020.

Rodrigo Dominguez-Villegas, the director of research at UCLA’s Latino Policy and Politics Initiative, lamented the fact that Latino voters have typically been treated as a monolith by political pundits.

“When we think about the white electorate, we often slice it into many slivers,” he said. “We try to draw lines based on religion, whether the voter is rural or urban, a voter’s educational or income level, plus many other ways in which we slice it up. Latinos are the second largest voting group in the country and we just don’t do the same yet, at least not until recently.

“We’re finally seeing all of the diversity that exists among Latinos, and some are doing much more nuanced stories about what happened with Latino voters, which did not happen at the very beginning.”

Dominguez-Villegas pointed to two fault lines that were generally predictive of whether a Latino was more likely to switch from Democratic to Republican in 2020: Whether that voter was Cuban, and whether that voter had a college degree or not. Educational polarization has been one of the most significant developments in American politics in recent years, with college-educated voters increasingly backing the Democratic Party, and non-college voters — or the working class, if you will — increasingly backing the Republican Party.

Catalist did not provide a breakdown on the voting patterns of Latinos among educational lines. Dominguez-Villegas echoed analysis from Arellano, stating that based off of interviews conducted with working class Hispanics in the Rio Grande Valley, Trump’s emphasis on reopening the economy amid the pandemic seemed to be highly persuasive — even as the “elites” in public health and affluent members of the professional managerial class who could work from home urged caution throughout the year.

“The Trump campaign messaging that really seemed to get to people there was related to reopening the economy,” Dominguez-Villegas said. “The border had been closed, and messages about allowing the economy to open faster and to let people go about their lives normally, there’s evidence that the message was successful in getting people to turn out for Trump. In addition, Latinos in southern Texas are mostly Mexican and slightly more religious, and that may have something to do with it as well.”

Where the GOP goes from here

While the Latino shift may have taken academia, the political media and other onlookers by surprise, it wasn’t wholly surprising to Saurabh Sharma, president of the newly-founded American Moment, a political group dedicated to furthering a populist conservative agenda by providing like-minded young Republicans opportunities to work with mentors in Congress, at think tanks or in other positions of power.

Sharma worked for years as a Republican political organizer in Texas, and after witnessing Trump fail on campaign promises to build a lasting security apparatus at the southern border, deliver a massive infrastructure package and make meaningful progress in decoupling from China, decided to start an organization dedicated to advancing a brand of conservatism with a more “nationalist flavor.”

He believes that American Moment’s list of 10 priorities — which include the promotion of the American family, an emphasis on law and order as well as restrictive trade and immigation policies — is the first real articulation of “Trumpism” as a policy agenda.

“When I think about that 2016 campaign, I think of immigration restriction, foreign policy restraint and weaning off of fiscal austerity as the mandate Trump won under,” Sharma said. “But because of a lack of competent people committed to this agenda around him, Trump focused on tax cuts, judges and criminal justice reform, which is a more traditional libertarian conservative agenda. And that’s a shame. The president needs political appointments willing to carry out his agenda when he’s not looking.”

Sharma and his organization will work in the coming years to enlist young conservatives to the national populist cause, advance their careers and provide the human capital for appointments in a future Republican administration. In the meantime, he is cautiously optimistic the GOP can build the “multiracial working class coalition” Republican politicians and pundits are championing — even if he doesn’t necessarily love the term.

“I struggle with ‘multiracial working class,’ since it underlies a fundamental disgust for the base of the GOP, which is working class whites,” he said. “It doesn’t bother me that’s the case, but there’s almost yearning behind it because GOP elites have an underlying hatred or dissatisfaction with their coalition. They have an obligation to look out for the interests of the voters in their constituency, and what we’re seeing now is that agenda actually has a broader appeal that can win over working class Hispanics, and it could appeal to working class African Americans and Asians as well.

“Trump really didn’t moderate his message on immigration in 2020 and you still saw a Hispanic shift. It’s an unfortunate thing for white liberals. When you interrogate what legal immigrants think about various things, you’re going to get politically incorrect answers. It turns out people leave their home countries for a reason.”

As Ulvert referenced, the summer of 2020 saw violent protests and riots across the country following the killing of George Floyd, and “defund the police” became a rallying cry for some Democrats.

The GOP also leaned hard into messaging against “socialism” — a tactical ploy many cable news pundits credit for fueling the Latino shift. Sharma noted that there’s nuance to this point.

“When Hispanics voted against socialism, what they were voting against was not necessarily higher taxes and more spending, but against the anarchy in streets you saw with the Black Lives Matter riots,” he said. “That resembled some of the Latin American nations they came from, and they voted against the anarchism of leftism, and not necessarily the material agenda.”

Polling data would seem to support Sharma’s hypothesis.

On the issue of public safety specifically, two separate polls from over the summer of 2020 found that Latino voters clearly did not support “defunding the police” — with one poll even showing Latino voters opposed the policy almost as rigorously as white voters.

On the issue of infrastructure spending and “weaning off fiscal austerity,” as Sharma put it, Latinos have tended to have more liberal views on fiscal issues. In the 2016 GOP presidential primaries, only two candidates — Donald Trump and Mike Huckabee — committed to not cutting social security spending, which was certainly a departure from traditional GOP orthodoxy on limited government, deficit hawking and supply-side economics.

“If Trump had started on day one with an infrastructure bill and said, ‘We’re going to revitalize the forgotten parts of America,’ he would have put both parties in tough spot, shattered the political census, and then been able to use the political capital from that on other issues because infrastructure spending is so popular,” Sharma said. “He wasn’t able to do that because of who he empowered to staff his government; there weren’t enough competent people committed to that agenda credentialed and ready to serve.”

The brand of Trumpism, national populism, or whatever you want to call the conservatism Sharma describes, has the potential to be very potent with segments of the non-monolithic Latino population in the future, Dominguez-Villegas believes.

“I wouldn’t completely dismiss it,” he said. “I guess I think a little differently than other analysts that have a similar background to me, who largely dismiss the appeal Trumpism, as [Sharma] described it, could have with Latinos. Not being politically correct, having a macho type of attitude, stressing law and order, and supporting spending that helps the working class, there’s evidence that messaging does get through to some Latino voters and attracts them towards him. I would not dismiss it at all.”

Prior to the election, Dominguez-Villegas’ Latino Policy and Politics Initiative at UCLA published a report noting that while Latinos support a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and hold more liberal views on immigration, they do not prioritize the issue as heavily as Democratic strategists and college-educated liberals tend to believe.

“While Latinos are supportive of immigration reform, research shows that’s not the issue that’s going to bring them out to vote,” he said. “Both parties shouldn’t take any voter for granted, they need to go out and talk to Latino voters and figure out the issues they care about. Immigration may be a top issue for some, but we’ve seen over and over again in the data it’s not the main issue that will bring people out.

“If I were a Democratic strategist working on 2022 races, I would not focus the whole campaign on immigration when trying to bring out Latino voters. I would talk to them about the other things Biden is doing, so investment in infrastructure, the stimulus money in the American Rescue Package. I would talk to them about very specific policies that the Biden administration and Democrats are pushing for with a very clear message on why these policies are improving their daily lives.”

Ulvert, Arellano, Sharma and Dominguez-Villegas all generally agree that the Latino shift may be indicative of a larger problem the Democratic Party is currently facing: It is growing increasingly out of touch with non-college-educated voters.

It’s a message that many Democrats just do not want to hear.

At the conclusion of the presidential election, New York City mayoral candidate Andrew Yang, then a CNN contributor, delivered an on-air monologue that seemed to anger the activist and blogger class increasingly perceived as the base of the Democratic Party.

“I would say, ‘Hey! I’m running for president!’ to a truck driver, retail worker, waitress in a diner, and they would say, ‘What party?’ And I’d say ‘Democrat’ and they would flinch like I said something really negative or I had just turned another color or something like that.” Yang said. “So you have to ask yourself, what has the Democratic Party been standing for in their minds? And in their minds, the Democratic Party, unfortunately, has taken on this role of the coastal urban elites who are more concerned about policing various cultural issues than improving their way of life that has been declining for years.”

In 2022, there are a few races in Latino-heavy states to watch to see if the GOP can maintain or expand its multiracial working class coalition. In Arizona, Peter Thiel acolyte Blake Masters — a national populist and favorite of American Moment — is eyeing a challenge to Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly.

In Texas, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott is up for reelection and finally, in Florida, where the “Latino shift” first emerged on election night, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis is also up for reelection. DeSantis — widely seen as a 2024 presidential frontrunner — occupies a unique position in the national dialogue over the future of the Republican Party, with many viewing the governor as one of the best hopes for “competent Trumpism.”

DeSantis has followed Trump’s lead on taking a hard line on immigration while taking the fight to the left on some of “cultural issues” Andrew Yang referenced including the teaching of critical race theory in public schools and transgender participitation in youth sports.

He has also broken from GOP limited government orthodoxy on a handful of fiscal issues, calling for increased spending on climate change mitigation efforts and bonuses for public school teachers. Furthermore, the governor is a boogeyman to the “elites” in media, the public health establishment and higher education, a designation he has leaned into during public appearances over the past few months.

If DeSantis, who defeated Gillum by just 0.4 percentage points in 2018, can match, or possibly even exceed Trump’s 3.4% margin of victory in 2020, he would theoretically be well-positioned for 2024 — assuming Trump himself does not run again. Just as the nation first became acutely aware of the Latino shift by looking to Florida on Election Day in 2020, observers should once again look to the Sunshine State in 2022 to evaluate the GOP’s efforts to build its “multiracial working class coalition.”


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