That belief was plainly wrong. Exit polls, which have not yet been finalized, suggest a small increase in Trump’s support among these voters, while independent estimates of how much Trump improved range from eight points to double digits. Whatever the number is ultimately, it’s clear Trump gained ground.
The result is the biggest post-election question in U.S. politics: What happened? How did Trump post solid numbers with a group he “should” have done poorly with? The first factor to scrutinize is that “should.” In reality, the 2020 Trump campaign represented the first improvement in GOP outreach to Latinos in decades.
Matt Barreto, a political scientist and co-founder of the public opinion research firm Latino Decisions who worked with Biden campaign, argues that it’s important to remember that Trump’s 2016 campaign was a low point in the GOP’s efforts to appeal to Latino voters.
In 2000 and 2004, onetime Texas governor George W. Bush often spoke in Spanish at campaign events and attempted to create a “compassionate conservatism” that would use religion, traditional values and education reform as a bridge to Latinos, Black voters and other largely Democratic groups. The GOP’s 2008 nominee, John McCain, wasn’t quite as suited to the task: He had experience reaching out to Latinos in his home state of Arizona, but he was caught between his own pro-reform instincts and his party’s immigration hardliner base. He essentially summed up his position when he said during the campaign: “I think the fence is least effective. But I’ll build the g-ddamned fence if they want it.”
GOP efforts stumbled further in 2012. That year, nominee Mitt Romney famously said he wanted life to be so difficult for undocumented immigrants that they would “self-deport.” Romney hit the GOP’s floor, only winning 30 percent of the Latino vote. In 2016, Trump stayed at rock bottom, earning an almost identical 29 percent of Latino votes.
But in 2020 Trump made changes that may have helped him with Latino voters. As others have noted, the border wall was less central to Trump’s message than it was four years ago. He aimed his “law and order” message at Black Lives Matter rather than immigrants. And as Barreto pointed out, rather than having to fight prominent Latino Republicans Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio in a primary, Trump had their support from the start. Trump also sought to link Democrats to socialism — a political system anathema to many Cuban Americans and Venezuelan Americans. Trump still lost most Latino voters, but these changes likely helped him regain some naturally Republican constituents.
The second factor that helped Trump? Demographics. While Latinos are frequently discussed as if their racial and ethnic identities matter more to them than anything else, the qualities that push other voters right — such as religion, age and geography — may have done the same for some categories of Latino voters.
The clearest signal of this dynamic comes from South Texas. Trump’s vote share jumped massively in many rural, heavily Hispanic counties across the state’s border — suggesting that some of Trump’s appeal to rural, working-class, traditionalist White voters bled over to demographically similar Latino voters. As former Roma, Tex., mayor Freddy Guerra told the Wall Street Journal, “There’s a lot of parallels between a community that’s 96 percent Hispanic and a community that’s 96 percent white.”
Similarly, even before the election, some reporting suggested that Hispanic evangelicals would be a strong group for Trump, as he’s nominated conservative justices to the Supreme Court and portrayed himself as the defender of their faith. Gender mattered, too: Pre-election polling from Equis Research suggested that non-college educated, U.S.-born Hispanic men were trending toward Trump — a sign that his bravado, cultural conservatism and populist tone has appeal beyond disaffected White men. It’s still too early to determine which subgroups helped Trump the most, but they likely all contributed to the new composition of his base.
It’s important not to overstate the GOP’s gains. Joe Biden still won the Latino vote by a wide margin. And as California and New York finish counting their votes, the picture may become somewhat rosier for Democrats. Voters in South Texas and Miami — who shaped commentary by reporting quickly on election night — may turn out to be more friendly to Trump than Latinos in northern and western metro areas.
But Trump’s improvement — whether final numbers show it to be small or large — shows that U.S. politics is always competitive. Whenever one party creates a seemingly dominant coalition, the other finds a way to win votes back. And no matter who won Latino voters overall in 2020, the community won, too — as a reminder to future contenders that Latino votes can’t be taken for granted.