The political evolution of Mindy Garcia occurred very slowly, then all at once. Growing up a Democrat in California in the 1980s and 1990s, she was taught voting blue is simply what Latinos do. Every election, Garcia would loyally cast her ballot for the party. But when she was suddenly laid off from work in 2013, the mother of two found herself unable to obtain food stamps because her unemployment benefits were too high. The experience was distressing, and left her distrustful that the Democratic Party, which governs California, had her best interest at heart.
Garcia slowly started feeling drawn to the Republican platform, to its pitch that success wasn’t dependent on anything more than hard work — not even for her, a Mexican American woman from a low-income background. “Hispanics have a mindset that we are the lower class. We are the minorities. We are the ones who are always going to need help from the government. We’re always going to be struggling. That was me,” said Garcia, now 41 and working at an insurance agency in Orange County. She began questioning whether Latinos should vote for people who she believed benefitted from keeping the low-income dependent on the government, leaving fewer resources for middle-income workers like her who needed help only in times of crisis.
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When Donald Trump launched his presidential campaign, Garcia was immediately hooked. She saw a reflection of herself in Trump and the Republican party: She saw the president as a God-fearing man whose values aligned with her Christian faith, who wanted a better future for children like hers, and who valued hard, smart work. And she felt well received. “The Republican Party is more welcoming,” she said. “They are so excited to see Hispanics coming up.”
The 2020 presidential election will be the first in which Latinos make up the electorate’s largest racial or ethnic minority, according to the Pew Research Center. While Democratic Latinos might be considered “the Sleeping Giant” this election cycle, Republican Latinos like Garcia remain a force to be reckoned with. Around 30% of Latino voters have reliably voted for the Republican presidential candidate since Richard Nixon won reelection in 1972. While support for the GOP in other communities of color has waned throughout the years — most notably among Black voters, with only 8% voting for Trump in 2016, Republican Latinos have remained consistently loyal to the party for nearly half a century. Despite this, they’ve been deeply misunderstood for years. Their existence is treated as a paradox (itself an insult given its implication that the Latino community is not a monolith); the media and political commentators typically simplify Latino Republicans’ political identity by sticking it in a neat box: either they’re Cuban or Catholic. Maybe both. But the historian Geraldo Cadava argues the truth is more complicated than that.
The 2020 presidential election will be the first in which Latinos make up the electorate’s largest racial or ethnic minority.
“The danger of limiting the story of Latino conservatism to those two issues, Cuban exile politics and Catholicism, is that you’re really just missing a much broader, deeper history,” Cadava, author of The Hispanic Republican, said. “It’s actually a really diverse movement. Even in a place like California, around 25% of Latinos still vote for Republicans. With eight million eligible Latino voters in the state this year, that means that as many as two million Latinos will cast votes for Donald Trump in California. This is a national political identity and one that cuts across different Latino groups.”
It’s not always an easy identity to embrace. Garcia kept her political conversion a secret for years, afraid that people in her community would reject her. Over time she’s slowly opened up about her conservatism; she’s now a board member on the Los Angeles Hispanic Republican Club, where she helps organize events between Latino communities and local Republican candidates. “They actually do care about helping us grow and change your mindset, you know?” Garcia said. “And communities can learn you don’t have to rely on government assistance, you can do it yourself. You can have your own business, you can have your own company. You can do whatever you want.”
That message is certainly reaching many of Garcia’s fellow community members. Latino small business owners are the fastest-growing demographic among U.S. entrepreneurs (or at least they were before the Covid-19 crash). The number of Latino-owned companies increased by 34% in the last decade, but these businesses have remained smaller than those that are white-owned. This type of entrepreneurship is a core part of Latino Republicans’ identity, said Cadava. This summer, President Trump tried to woo business-minded Latinos with the creation of the “White House Hispanic Prosperity Initiative,” an initiative it said was aimed at fixing the inequalities Latinos still face.
A culture of entrepreneurship is just one of the things that make Latinos cast a ballot for the GOP, Cadava found through his research. “In the earlier years, when the Republican Party was trying to reach out Hispanics, it had to do much more with support for free enterprise and capitalism,” he said. “Plus anti-communism and U.S. Latin-American relations — all those things are kind of folded up together, and they relate to work ethic and even to things like religion.”
It doesn’t matter if their families came from Mexico, Nicaragua, Chile, or the Dominican Republic — these are positions that speak to many Latinos whose families suffered under the authoritarian left and right regimes that dominated Latin American for decades (think Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Chile’s Augusto Pinochet). Religious conservatism also plays a role. “This whole idea about family values and religious traditionalism wasn’t really part of the conversation until the 1980s and 1990s,” Cadava said. And today it’s evangelical churches, not the Catholic church, that plays the biggest role in politicizing congregants, he notes.
Socioeconomic background, gender, race, location, and number of generations in the U.S. also impact how Latinos identify politically, though not always in a straightforward way. Around 53% of Latinos self-identify as white, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. The reasons are complicated, mostly because “Hispanic/Latino” is an ethnicity, not a race per se. In his book, Cadava found that proximity to the idea of whiteness doesn’t play as big of a role as he thought it might when it comes to Latinos voting Republican. Those who identify as multiracial are just as likely to align with the party. As well, Latino voters whose primary language is English are more likely to be registered as Republicans than those whose primary language is Spanish, the Pew Research Center found in 2018. Past polling has found that support for Trump among Latinos has remained high among three key groups: men in general, men without college degrees, and affluent voters. In this, conservative Latinos are similar to white Republican voters.
The first Latino Republican organization, Latinos con Eisenhower, was founded by Mexican Americans in the 1950s. But it wasn’t until Nixon’s 1972 victory that Latino voters cast a critical mass of ballots for a Republican president — before him, GOP presidential candidates had eked out support only in the single digits or low teens. After the Nixon era, Latinos’ Republican identity solidified under the Reagan and Bush Sr. administrations, because both strove to integrate Latinos in the GOP. Reagan gave amnesty to nearly three million undocumented immigrants, many of whom were Latino. It was also during his first term that Cubans gained influence within the party, paving the way for the stereotype of the Cuban Republican that persists until today. As Republicans leaned into harsher anti-immigrant policies in the 1990s, some of the trust eroded. Then Bush Jr. came around, promising a more inclusive party for Latinos. He won nearly 40% of the Latino vote, an all-time high, in 2000.
A culture of entrepreneurship is just one of the things that make Latinos cast a ballot for the GOP.
Trump couldn’t be further away from his Republican predecessors. “He has seemingly done everything he can to alienate Latino voters,” Cadava said of the president’s rhetoric and some policies. But up until the coronavirus pandemic hit, the Trump era had benefited Latinos — at least on the economic front. Latinos’ unemployment rates were at a record low, median household incomes were increasing, and a rising number of Latinos became homeowners.
The Trump campaign was betting on these gains to shore up support from the Latino community, hoping to break the 28% ceiling from 2016. (Despite his incendiary rhetoric, Trump’s not the worst-performing Republican presidential candidate when it comes to Latino voters — that was Bob Dole in 1996, who obtained only 21% of the Latino vote.) Recent polling on the 2020 presidential election shows that Democratic nominee Joe Biden draws about 60% of support among Latinos, while Trump holds around 30% — which is to say, a roughly static picture from the previous cycle. Still, earlier in the summer, Biden had seemed to be underperforming with Latinos compared to Hillary Clinton in 2016, and the Trump campaign ramped up efforts targeting the Latino voting bloc. It’s since been courting Latino voters through Spanish-language ads on TV and radio, with the campaign spending more than $1.4 million in heavily Latino markets in June and July. The Biden team spent around $954,000, according to data reviewed by Newsweek.
“We know that we have to work really hard to get Latinos and to get the vote. So that’s what we’re doing. It’s important to the president that we are engaging with Latino community,” Hannah Castillo, coalitions director for the 2020 Trump campaign, said. The Latinos for Trump Coalition launched in March 2019 and was the first coalition the campaign created, Castillo said.
They’ve targeted heavily-Latino battleground states: Two out of three Latino voters live in just five states — Arizona, California, Florida, New York, and Texas. And in New Mexico, they make up the highest share of the state’s eligible voters. The team has engaged with several strategies, from targeted literature for Latino communities to small in-person events whenever government regulations related to the coronavirus pandemic allow it. “We take the Latino vote seriously because we care,” Castillo said. “Unlike Joe Biden or the Democrats — they think that they have the Latino vote shored up.”
Party operatives have at times during this election cycle relied on far more sinister forms of voter engagement: A recent typo-laden ad by the Committee to Defend the President PAC pitted Latino voters against Black voters. “Biden promised his party an African American vice president,” the ad claims. “Not a Latino.” This assertion is false — Biden promised a woman veep — and also taps into the community’s long standing issues with anti-Blackness and racism, while erasing the existence of Afro Latinos.
Regardless of the approach, the Republican Party has improved how it reaches out to the Latino community in recent years, according to Daniel Garza, a former Bush administration official and president of the free market advocacy group the LIBRE Initiative. “Even prior to our group’s existence 10 years ago, the outreach by those on the right was god awful. Right? It was almost zero. They paid the price for a long time because even though those on the center left did the investment. They made the effort and they connected with Latinos,” he said. “Now, I think you’re starting to see some parity here.”
That’s exactly what voters like Garcia, from the Los Angeles Hispanic Republican Club, want in their communities. “I definitely think more events need to happen to get the Latino community to realize that they, their morals and their values probably do align more with Republican values,” she said.
There is, of course, a big red elephant in the room: How could Latinos could ever support a president who has weaponized racism and bigotry for his own benefit, and who has implemented policies, such as family separation or slashing labor rights, that have had an outsized negative impact on Latinos? Garcia doesn’t think Trump is racist — not even when he said Mexico was not “sending its best people” or called El Salvador a “shithole country.” “I didn’t even take that as being racist because I think it’s true,” Garcia said. Garza, from the LIBRE Initiative, also pushed against questions about Trump’s rhetoric about Latinos and other communities of color. In his opinion, Latino Republicans who support Trump make a calculation that sidesteps his remarks. “This is not a presidential president. This is not somebody who is a statesman, right? He didn’t develop that way. He didn’t come in as a politician,” he argued. “A lot of Latinos would rather have the policies of Donald Trump and his inelegant style instead of the policies of Barack Obama with his elegant style.”
But what about the real-life consequences his “inelegant style” have had? The man who opened fire at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas last year in the worst modern attack on Latinos this country has ever seen used anti-immigrant language similar to Trump’s in his manifesto. In New Zealand, the white nationalist who killed 51 people during his attack on two mosques held the president up as a symbol of his views.
Garza sharply rejected the argument. “You can make that projection, you can make that assumption that it’s because of Donald Trump,” he said. “I’m not going to go there.”
Whether Latino Republicans are doing some Olympics-level mental gymnastics to justify their support for Trump or they just have a fundamentally different way of reading the facts doesn’t really matter. Through his research, Cadava found that Latinos’ decision to back Trump was more about the party than the man. “At this point, I think many Latino Republicans are just loyal Republicans and they support the party, over the individual candidate,” Cadava said. “One Latino Republican leader I talked to said that he might not love everything that Donald Trump says or does, but he’s not going to let one man ruin the movement that he and other Hispanic Republicans have built over the course of decades.”
With November looming, both Republicans and Democrats will rush to try to capture Latinos’ attention. But unlike Biden, Trump just needs to convince a small number of Latinos to vote for him to swing a swing state. “Pennsylvania has 550,000 Puerto Rican voters. In a state that Donald Trump won by 45,000 votes in 2016, 550,000 voters is an enormous amount. That’s more than 10 times as much as the margin that Donald Trump won by,” Cadava said. “In theory, they can peel off just enough Puerto Rican support, or Mexican American support, to win the popular vote in particular states and the Electoral college vote nationally.” It’s a strategy Republicans have recreated up and down the ballot to neutralize Democrats’ advancement.
That a third of Latinos identify as Republican can make all the difference in the 2020 election. Both parties would be wise not to discount their power.