Can We PLEASE Stop Talking About the ‘Latino Vote’

There is no such thing. For the sake of democracy, let’s be more specific.

Photo: David McNew/Stringer

The barrage of misguided post-election analysis shows all too clearly why “the Latino vote” is a term that must be abolished. Starting on Tuesday evening, there was collective freakout among liberals over the fact that Donald Trump had been able to score about 32% of “the Latino vote” — a four-point increase from 2016, when he secured about 28% of the vote. This shouldn’t have come as a surprise, but it did because, for most of the nation, Latinos all look and vote the same.

Republican Latinos have existed since the Eisenhower years and have been a key constituency for the GOP since Richard Nixon’s reelection in 1972. Since then, GOP presidential candidates have reliably secured about one-third of “the Latino vote.” This is something the Trump campaign understood early on. The Latinos for Trump coalition was the first the campaign launched, all the way back in March 2019, with a particular focus in mobilizing Floridians. Though 59% of Latinos went for Biden in the Sunshine State, according to the polling firm Latino Decisions, the 38% who didn’t helped Trump take the state when added to white voters.

Liberals have failed to cut into that 30% Latino GOP support because they’ve failed to understand that our community is not a monolith. There is no “Latino vote,” because we come from innumerable communities with often competing interests, all based in different regions and with diverse national origins, socioeconomic statuses, education levels, religious affiliations, and more. There are few unifying ties between Puerto Ricans in Pennsylvania, Mexicans in Texas, and Venezuelans in Florida, other than the artificial category of “Latino voter.” Many journalists, political scientists, and activists have been trying to bring attention to this fact for the longest time — and we’ve pretty much been ignored.

Most of the strategies, at least from the Democratic side, have lumped everyone together and oversimplified what issues voters care about most. The assumption is that all of us speak Spanish, care about the same things, and vote the same way. Immigration has always been portrayed as a top issue for all Latinos, which isn’t true. There are people in these communities who are either immigrants or have families of mixed status, just as there are people whose roots in the United States date to even before this nation was the United States. In fact, a recent survey by the advocacy organization UnidosUS and the polling firm Latino Decisions found that Latinos are more concerned about jobs and the economy than immigration.

Even when there are rare aggressive efforts that appeal to specific communities, they can be profoundly misguided. For example, I’ve watched with dismay as most of the outreach to Puerto Rican voters centered around the Trump administration’s incompetent response to Hurricane Maria — and it mostly hinged on the image of the president throwing paper towels to Puerto Ricans instead of actually speaking to how he delayed his response to the disaster and withheld federal recovery funds. While the president’s actions and horrifying statements are fair game for criticism, the framing of Trump as the worst thing that has ever happened to Puerto Rico is entirely ahistorical. Biden, for example, was part of the Obama administration that imposed a deeply unpopular fiscal control board to manage the island’s finances in response to its debt crisis. Boricuas have borne the brunt of awful decisions by Democratic and Republican administrations since 1898, and there has been no reckoning about that fact.

The concept of “the Latino vote” also allowed pundits to blame these communities for some of Biden’s electoral college losses, while overlooking how white voters remain the top supporters of President Trump. Talking about specific communities and taking the time to figure out why they vote for either party would be a better use of everyone’s time — and much less insulting.

National political organizations should do away with the idea of a monolithic “Latino vote” and instead look at the work of local groups that talk directly to voters. The key to organizing Latino communities from the Democratic side can be found in places like Arizona, where these voters were instrumental in making the state competitive for Joe Biden. Local groups have been relentlessly organizing Latino voters there for more than a decade, and the continued investment paid off. About 71% of Latinos voted for Biden in the state, according to Latino Decisions. These voters were also instrumental in clinching Wisconsin and New Mexico for Biden, again thanks to the work of organizers who show up for these communities every day — not just in the few months leading up to Election Day.

It’s easy to lump Latino communities together — just as people do to Asian Americans and other minority groups. But these groups all lack the unique American experience of slavery and discrimination that forged Black Americans into a cohesive political block. Failing to recognize this is detrimental to democracy and Democratic organizing and only serves to deactivate voters who correctly feel politicians don’t hear them or care about them. Many of us have said for a long time that “the Latino vote” is a mirage. It’s time to listen.

Award-winning journalist covering politics, gender, race, activism, and more. Puertorriqueña.

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