Hispanic activists had promised that President Trump’s immigration policy, insulting rhetoric and handling of the coronavirus pandemic — with a disproportionate impact on Hispanics — would earn him the lowest share of their votes in modern American history. They were wrong.
The main news media consortium’s exit polling showed Mr. Trump expanding his share of the Hispanic vote from 28% in 2016 to 32% this year. A separate exit poll for The Associated Press and Fox News showed Mr. Trump winning 35%, which would be the second-best performance for any Republican since Ronald Reagan.
That success has set off a round of soul-searching among those who insisted that Hispanics would punish this president.
From venerable publications to Twitter, the discussion divided into those who blamed racism and those who sought deeper explanations.
Among that latter group, conclusion No. 1 was that politicians and the press bungled by seeing Hispanics as a monolith.
“The reason the ‘Latino vote’ befuddles is because it doesn’t exist, nor do ‘Latino issues,’” Isvett Verde, an opinion editor at The New York Times, wrote in an election postmortem.
Mr. Trump’s team was quick to home in on that and made specific pitches to different segments. Cuban Americans were reminded of the administration’s get-tough stance on the island nation’s dictatorial government. Venezuelan Americans were told the socialism ravaging their country could reach the U.S. under Democratic nominee Joseph R. Biden.
“He made inroads with a very good campaign that really targeted different groups within the Hispanic community,” said Alfonso Aguilar, a Bush administration official who now runs the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles. “He understood it’s not monolithic and went to each group — Cubans, Venezuelans, Mexicans — with a specific message that resonated with them.”
Mr. Aguilar also said the support showed that the president’s immigration message wasn’t the killer Democrats had predicted.
“They tried to portray the president as a monster, and what [Hispanics] saw was the president actually tried to get something done on DACA, and the Democrats didn’t budge,” he said in reference to the president’s 2018 offer of a pathway to citizenship for some Dreamers in exchange for border wall funding.
Mr. Trump did better than 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney, who had the stiffest immigration policy of any major-party nominee before Mr. Trump, and better than 2008 nominee John McCain, whose record on immigration was among the most lenient.
Even Democrats’ reminders of Mr. Trump’s harsh words, such as calling Mexican migrants “rapists” or using a derogatory term to refer to some Central American nations, didn’t poison the electorate.
“This kind of support shows many Hispanics across the spectrum were able to separate the rhetoric from the policies,” Mr. Aguilar said.
Florida vs. the country
Mr. Trump’s victory in Florida, where the AP/Fox survey showed he won 45% of the Hispanic vote, has spurred much of the conversation.
But Hispanic activists said the bigger story should be the vote in places like Nevada and Arizona, where Mr. Trump was trailing Mr. Biden as the votes were being tabulated. Polling shows Hispanics there were overwhelmingly supportive of Mr. Biden.
“Yes, there was a decline in Latino support in Miami-Dade County, but Miami-Dade County is 3.1% of the national Latino population, and I look forward to receiving a press call about the other 97%,” tweeted Gary Segura, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and one of the founders of the polling firm Latino Decisions.
Chuck Rocha, founder of Nuestro Political Action Committee, which focused on turning out Hispanic voters for Mr. Biden, said Democrats’ wins in close states came “on the back of Latino votes.”
But he said Democratic interest groups left winnable votes on the table by not investing more in the community.
“These folks spent a billion dollars talking to White people because it’s smart politics,” Mr. Rocha said. “Then why don’t you do that with Latinos?”
Attempts to reach Hispanic voters have grown more sophisticated over the years.
Two decades ago, campaigns took English-language ads, translated them and ran them on Spanish-language stations. This year, Nuestro PAC cut ads specifically targeted to young Hispanic supporters of Sen. Bernard Sanders, with digital ads telling them about Mr. Biden’s plans for climate change and the cost of college.
Hispanic community leaders did cheer the overall level of turnout.
The news media consortium’s exit polling said Hispanics represented 13% of the vote, up from about 11% in 2016 and 10% in 2012.
“While there are still many ballots to be counted in the presidential election and races across the country, no matter their results, we know that the Latinos turned out to vote in record numbers in 2020,” said Arturo Vargas, CEO of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.
But even that was tough to pin down.
The Associated Press/Fox election survey showed just 9% of the voters it polled were Hispanic.
Some Hispanic rights groups have questioned the accuracy of exit polls when it comes to counting the community.
In 2004, they challenged exit polling showing President George W. Bush winning 44% of the vote. Other academic work put the number at 40% or so.
In 2016, a debate erupted after polls showed Mr. Trump at 28%, better than Mr. Romney’s 27%, despite his rhetoric and policies.
The same questions raged this year.
Latino Decisions, which specializes in Hispanic polling for liberal-leaning groups, said its election eve surveys showed Mr. Trump winning 27% of the Hispanic vote nationally and 38% in Florida — significantly lower than other polling.
Latino Decisions’ findings did back up the conclusion that the Hispanic vote is not monolithic.
Nationally, Mr. Trump won 52% of the Cuban American vote but just 23% of Mexican American voters in their surveys. He won 29% from voters with Central American heritage and 40% from those with roots in South America.
For Republicans, the question is whether Mr. Trump’s success is transferable to other party candidates.
Mr. Aguilar said it is: “A candidate who has an optimistic view, is affable, but still strong — can’t be a weak leader but still has the same views — I think Hispanics would respond very well to that.”