Democrats Don’t Deserve Latino Votes Just Because They’re the Less Racist Party
Politics is transactional. What were the Dems really offering Latinos?
The day after the election, I woke up at 4 a.m. to do my first live shot on TV. I had this sick feeling in the pit of my stomach and a deep sense of dread. The media pollsters had overhyped a blue wave that never arrived and the Democrats had failed to learn a key lesson about Latino and Latina voters once again.
I spent the day appearing on multiple media platforms, explaining what it means to be Mexican from Chicago, which is different from being a Cuban in Florida who has fled a repressive regime and different from being a Tejano rancher on the U.S.-Mexico border and different from being a second-generation Salvadoran American businessman from San Francisco. For years we’ve been made to feel invisible, and now suddenly people are talking about us and over us, simplifying us into a box. But Latina journalists like me have been trying to tell this story for decades. Nobody listened.
Can We PLEASE Stop Talking About the ‘Latino Vote’
There is no such thing. For the sake of democracy, let’s be more specific.
Only now, after years of campaigning for this highly anticipated election, has it become painfully clear to everyone, especially those in battleground states like Pennsylvania, Arizona, Nevada, Wisconsin, Florida, and Georgia, that the Latino and Latina voter is a decisive force in determining who will become our next president. The reality is Latino and Latina voters came out in record numbers this year — for the first time more than 50% of eligible voters participated, an increase of 8 million from the last election — just not always for the candidate people expected them to.
Politics is transactional. You get a vote by going after a vote. With 32 million eligible voters, Latinos are the second-largest voting bloc in this country. But for too long the Democrats have smugly assumed that they’ve automatically earned Latinos’ and Latinas’ votes by simply being the less racist of the two parties. This isn’t a word I like to throw around, but the lack of effort is so stunning yet predictable, you begin to think the Democrats are just lazy.
We saw what’s possible with Bernie Sanders’ campaign during the 2020 primaries and with George W. Bush in 2004. Both candidates, one a Democratic Socialist, the other a Texas Republican, went after the Latino vote and got it. Sanders and his advisor Chuck Rocha made sure outreach to Latinos and Latinas was integral to their overall campaign. Sanders hammered home his Medicare for All plan and the need for fair wages, making his pro-union stance clear; he also empowered young Latinos and Latinas to organize within their own communities with great success. Sanders won the Democratic primary in Nevada with 53% of the Latino vote. In 2004, Bush, led by campaign strategist Matthew Dowd, won reelection with a record-breaking 40% of the Latino vote by focusing on conservative values that spoke to Protestant and evangelical Christians and Cuban-Americans who have historically identified with the Republican Party.
While Joe Biden likes to talk up his Scranton roots, he almost completely ignored the Lehigh Valley, a well-known swing county in Pennsylvania where Latinos make up 15% of eligible voters. In fact, Latino voters in the Lehigh Valley have been doubling in population every 10 years for the last 50 years. And then, on the last day of the campaign, mere hours before the polls opened, vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris finally showed up in the Lehigh Valley to tell Latinos and Latinas the importance of casting their ballots for the future of our democracy, but not what that democracy would deliver for them. Meanwhile, Trump visited twice during his campaign. In the end, it was Puerto Rican organizers who did the work on the ground for Democrats in the valley, so even though the party didn’t prioritize them, it was Latino and Latina voters who spelled the difference for Biden and handed him a victory in Pennsylvania.
The lack of effort is so stunning yet predictable, you begin to think the Democrats are just lazy.
Biden’s campaign was late to arrive in Florida too. Meanwhile, the Trump campaign, which has bungled many things, including squandering campaign funds, actually succeeded in states like Florida and Texas because of its strategic planning. Granted, Trump launched his first presidential campaign by vilifying Mexicans and promising to build the wall, but at the same time he went after affluent, middle-class, and religious Latinos and Latinas hard. He paved the way for his relationship with evangelical Latinos in central Florida soon after he took office in 2017 and invited their leaders to the White House in 2019. Even as he refused to relent for his child separation policy, he preyed on the fears of white, wealthy Cubans and Venezuelans who, traumatized by the authoritarian governments they escaped, recoil from any mention of the word socialism. You would have thought Biden could have come up with a better response than “Do I look like a radical socialist to you?” to an attack he knew was coming.
Many Democrats were surprised by the support for Trump among Latinos in the Rio Grande Valley. But my friend who lives there, who is like a grandfather to me — I’ll call him Alfredo — helps explain. He understands racism; he has been a victim of it. He’s also the father of a gay son, who is concerned with civil rights and justice. And yet he is a proud Trump supporter.
Why? “Wealth management,” he says. “My stocks have gone up. He has done more for my retirement than I could have expected.” Then, unprompted, Alfredo flew into a diatribe about Joe Biden being a liar who forged his college grades. The last thing he told me was the most telling. “During the Obama administration nobody ever came down to meet with Latino businessmen on the border,” Alfredo explained. “But with Trump, they came and met with us.”
In Nevada and Arizona, the gap between Biden and Trump was at the razor’s edge, with Biden holding onto the lead because of counties like Washoe, Clark, and Pima, which have large Chicano and Mexican American populations that came out for Biden. Some of the biggest issues, especially for young voters there, include racial justice and, of course, being geographically close to the border, immigration. The Latino vote for Biden is over 75% in Arizona. Maricopa County, where Sheriff Joe Arpaio launched SB 1070, a notorious anti-immigrant bill, also looks as if it will flip blue, but if it does, the credit belongs to longtime Latino organizers, not the Democrats.
The Biden campaign is not the only guilty party here, however. The media is also to blame — for perpetually dismissing and overlooking Latino and Latina voters to the point where we’ve become invisible. If the media actually took us seriously and asked those hard questions, politicians would have to follow suit and invest their fundraising dollars in outreach to Latinos and Latinas.
And here’s the message that everyone is downplaying. Latinos and Latinas are not a house on fire. We are a diverse and essential powerhouse in the American electorate, and our votes made the crucial difference in this presidential election. Imagine what could happen if the Democrats actually tapped into our communities and engaged Latino and Latina voters across the country. Maybe this time the lesson will finally stick.