Announcing his presidential bid in 2015, Donald Trump complained that Mexico was “not sending their best … They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists.”
During the second presidential debate last month, Trump said of immigrants, “A murderer would come in, a rapist would come in, a very bad person would come in.”
Trump’s message about immigrants may not have changed since he first ran for office, but he still retains considerable support among Latino voters. In fact, polls indicate that they represent one of the few groups where his support has increased since 2016.
Exit polls four years ago showed that Trump won 28 percent of the Latino vote. Polls of the current race show his support at least matching that level and often reaching into the 30s. Trump is polling especially well among Hispanics in South Florida and South Texas, which could affect the outcome of those tossup states.
The Hispanic vote will be especially vital this year. Thirty-two million Hispanics are eligible to vote this year, according to the Pew Research Center. This is the first time they have surpassed the number of eligible Black voters.
Joe Biden will capture a large majority of the Hispanic vote, but his margin may well trail Hillary Clinton’s four years ago. Democrats are nervous about the relatively low level so far of Hispanic turnout and support for their candidate, particularly in Miami.
Biden has made several promises aimed at winning Hispanic support. He’s pledged that introducing immigration reform legislation, legal certainty for Dreamers and extending protected immigration status to Venezuelans will all be “Day One” priorities. Biden also said he’ll kick off his administration with a task force charged with finding the parents who were separated from 545 migrant children and deported to Central America.
Trump’s border policies have sometimes slipped into brutality. Along with the family separation policy, a whistleblower at the Department of Homeland Security contends that immigrant women have been forced to have hysterectomies.
But a survey this summer from Project Juntos found that a majority of Latinos – more than white or Black voters – were receptive to messages calling for full funding of police and condemning “illegal immigration from places overrun with drugs and criminal gangs.”
Hispanic support is not as solidly Democratic as among African Americans. There’s long been a significant share of Hispanics who support the GOP. As with other groups of voters, they have found things to like among Trump’s policies, even though some may find his rhetoric distasteful.
“The administration has given overwhelming attention to Florida and Florida Latinos,” said Eduardo Gamarra, a professor of politics and international relations at Florida International University in Miami.
Me Gusta Ike
Like Black voters, most Hispanics supported the GOP until the advent of the New Deal during the 1930s. Unlike African Americans, their support of the Democratic Party didn’t grow over the decades that followed.
Hundreds of thousands of Hispanics served during World War II, acquiring skills and benefits from the GI Bill that allowed them to increase their incomes and leave barrios, Geraldo Cadava notes in his new book The Hispanic Republican: The Shaping of an American Political Identity, From Nixon to Trump.
Richard Nixon’s 1950 campaign for the Senate in California reached out directly to Hispanic voters through neighborhood visits and sound trucks blasting ads in Spanish. Nixon was rewarded with 25 percent of the state’s Mexican American vote. Two years later, many Hispanics were drawn to the presidential candidacy of Dwight Eisenhower, admiring his military record and messages in support of hard work.
The GOP’s share of the Hispanic vote increased with the Nixon presidency. “Ever since Nixon’s re-election in 1972, Hispanic Republicans have helped Republican presidential candidates win about a third of the Hispanic vote,” wrote Cadava, a historian at Northwestern University.
Ronald Reagan made a widely cited comment that Hispanics were Republicans who “just don’t know it yet.” There was a nexus between the party’s stances and the views of many Hispanics on issues such as abortion, school vouchers, military services, same-sex marriage and opposition to welfare and other government programs viewed as “handouts.”
By the time the GOP became internally divided on immigration policy, Cadava wrote, many Hispanics had become loyal Republicans who did not split with the party over the issue. And, while Hispanic voters have sometimes felt like they’re taken for granted by Democrats, Republicans have consistently worked at outreach to their communities, historically and to the present day.
“It’s Republicans who tend to frequent megachurches that are attended mostly by Hispanics,” Carlos Curbelo, a former GOP congressman from Florida, said during a recent webinar hosted by The New York Times. “Some Republican politicians have been very shrewd at building relationships of trust by visiting these churches, all but getting endorsements from these pastors, who are very powerful.”
Beyond the Wall
As with other groups counting into the millions, there’s no such thing as “the Hispanic vote.” The largest share of Hispanics are those of Mexican heritage, but Cuban Americans make up the largest portion of the Latino electorate in Florida. Others hail from countries including Colombia, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republican and El Salvador, or the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico.
Trump appeals to parts of these various constituencies in different ways. To many Mexicans, Barack Obama is remembered as the “deporter-in-chief,” since his administration deported some three million people (a policy Biden, his vice president, was slow to distance himself from).
Obama was the president who opened up relations and travel with Cuba. Democrats haven’t helped themselves with messages praising Cuban education or health care, says Gamarra, the Florida International University professor.
Trump’s charges of socialism against Democrats have had a particular resonance among such voters.
“It’s the message that they are the ones that will stop communism, will stop socialism and put an end to the dictatorships of Venezuela and Nicaragua,” Gamarra said. “Inadvertently, the collapse of Venezuela has helped the Republican cause here with Hispanics.”
Trump’s “law and order” message has also gotten a receptive hearing.
“Because a lot of Hispanic immigrants came from countries where they did suffer the consequences of a lack of law and order, they identify with that,” Curbelo said. “At least when the protests were raging, they did see Donald Trump as someone who could keep them safe.”
Openings for Biden
In prior generations, Hispanic population growth was driven by immigration. That’s no longer the case. Now, the vast majority of growth comes from the native-born.
Second and third generation Hispanics tend to care less about immigration than jobs, health care and education. That may help explain both Trump’s continuing appeal and Biden’s overall polling lead.
As of late August, Hispanics were three times as likely to be infected with the coronavirus and four times as likely to be hospitalized as non-Hispanic whites. Their death rate was slightly higher. The unemployment rate for Hispanics in September was 10.3 percent, compared to seven percent for Anglos.
The Trump administration may have carefully courted Florida Latinos, both on policy and in terms of appointments, but Gamarra contends that “the message has been more effective than the policy.”
He notes that Cuban Americans in the Miami area are among the highest per capita consumers of Obamacare. That’s something the Biden campaign itself is well aware of.
On Monday night, they sent Obama to Miami, his second in 10 days. During his previous appearance on Oct. 24, Obama said of Trump, “He says he’s going to protect preexisting conditions, but Joe and I actually protected them with the Affordable Care Act.”