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May 29, 2020, 11:37 a.m. EDT

Trump appeared to be gaining with Latino voters — but coronavirus may cost him crucial support

Latino business owners are seen as a critical voting bloc by both the Trump and Biden campaigns

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By Geraldo Cadava


AFP via Getty Images
Trump supporters at a November rally in Dallas.

Until the coronavirus pandemic, Donald Trump appeared poised to maintain the estimated 28% of the Latino vote he won in 2016, if not build on it.

Hispanic business owners in particular had been raving about President Trump’s tax cut and financial deregulations. Raymundo Baca, the head of the Border Hispanics for Trump group, told me he thought Trump could win 35% or 40% of the Latino vote. Trump surrogate Steve Cortes, a radio talk show host who also is the spokesperson for a Trump-supporting super PAC, predicted on March 9 that Trump could “ win the Hispanic vote in November.”

Winning a majority of the Latino vote would be no mean feat: it’s something no Republican candidate for president has ever accomplished. Even at the time, Cortes was being an overly optimistic partisan, but now it seems even less likely that Trump will be the first to do so.

If Trump can’t hold on to his share of the Latino vote from 2016, the pandemic’s devastating financial impact on Latino business owners will be the reason. As much as their religious beliefs or anti-communism — which aren’t entirely separable from their financial concerns — the pro-business attitudes held by many Latinos has driven their support for the Republican Party since at least the Nixon years.

It was President Nixon who appointed the first Hispanic to head the Small Business Administration, created the National Economic Development Association to help Latinos start their own businesses, established the Office of Minority Business Enterprise, and more generally saw support for the Latino business community as the Republican Party’s signature civil rights initiative that was every bit as important as the social and political efforts waged by Democrats.

Ever since, Republicans have believed that they have the edge among Latino business owners, a relatively small but influential group of Latino voters overall. This has remained true during the Trump years.

Republican share of the Latino vote
Year Candidate Vote, according to exit polls
1980 Reagan 35%
1984 Reagan 37%
1988 G. Bush 30%
1992 G. Bush 25%
1996 Dole 21%
2000 G.W. Bush 35%
2004 G.W. Bush 40%
2008 McCain 31%
2012 Romney  27%
2016 Trump 28%
Source: Pew Research

Despite the fact that Trump began his campaign with a rant against Mexican immigrants and has remained focused on the construction of his border wall — two issues that have not played well with Hispanic voters — there were signs that his approval among Latinos was holding steady or even increasing.

Conservatives cited polls conducted in 2019 finding that almost half of Latinos approved of the job Trump was doing. In the early days of the pandemic, Cortes cited polls finding that Latino support for Trump — including for his handling of the coronavirus — hovered at around 40%, which, he said, was a “ massive problem for the Dems .” Even today, according to a Hill/Harris X poll, some 44% of Hispanics have reported their approval of Trump.

It would be a massive problem for Joe Biden and Democrats, indeed, if Trump wins 40% of the Latino vote and therefore hangs onto Florida, Texas, Pennsylvania and the critical Midwestern states.

The cornerstone of Trump’s sales pitch has been that the economy he built has helped Latinos reach heights they hadn’t reached under any other president. The hundreds of attendees at the annual “Legislative Summit,” held in Washington, D.C. in early March, appeared to agree. They were Trump’s Latino foot soldiers, the ones who would return home afterward and rally support for the president.

The event was hosted by the Latino Coalition, an advocacy group for Latino business owners who make up the fastest-growing group of business owners in the United States : The number of Latino business owners grew by 34 percent over the past decade while the number of all other business owners in the United States grew by only 1%, according to Stanford Latino Entrepreneurship Initiative estimates. Over the same period, the revenue of Latino-owned businesses increased 14%, outpacing the growth of the U.S. economy in general.

In his keynote speech to Legislative Summit attendees, Trump highlighted his administration’s accomplishments. “Latinos are achieving record gains,” he said. Some 600,000 Hispanics had been lifted from poverty in the past four years; their median household income surpassed $50,000 a year for the first time ever; a record share of Hispanic households earned more than $200,000 a year.

While these figures have been on the rise over the past decade, Trump has been happy to claim credit for them.

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