By Miguel Tinker Salas
The Latino community in the U.S., with 32 million eligible voters, represent one of the most coveted segments of the U.S. electorate. But the 2020 election shows that once again, both political parties don’t truly understand what motivates them to vote.
To reduce Latinos and Latinas to a single issue — typically immigration — turns them into little more than a special interest group and fails to grasp that they are equally concerned with mainstream issues such as employment, equitable pay, quality education, affordable health care, accessible housing and the impact of environmental racism. Like others, they will vote for their economic interests even when these might seem to be at odds with other aspects of their identity.
That may explain why Donald Trump appears to have increased his share of the Latino vote from four years ago. The result surprised some Democrats, who expected Trump’s policies at the U.S. southern border to cost him votes.
But that shows just how little they understand this community, the largest ethnic group in the U.S.
An increasing number of Latinos own small businesses. So it should not be a surprise that a significant number were attracted by Trump’s promise to reduced taxes and ease regulations.
The challenge for Republicans is how much of this support can be sustained without Trump as a candidate. He appeals to this part of the electorate by promoting his status as an entrepreneur — like them, just on a bigger scale. They couldn’t relate in the same way to Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP candidate who made his fortune in private equity, and John McCain, the 2008 presidential candidate who spent decades in politics.
From the MarketWatch archives: Trump appeared to be gaining with Latino voters — but coronavirus may cost him crucial support
Equally, the Democratic Party, which garnered the majority of Latino votes in 2020, cannot count on their future support. Many who voted for Biden distrusted the candidate because of the record number of deportations that took place under the Obama administration, where he served as vice president.
They participated in this election mainly to oppose Trump, who they dislike in part, because he berated the Latino community and sought to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that shields from deportation those who were brought to the country illegally as children and allows these “Dreamers” to work.
One challenge for both parties is to push beyond the headline numbers that describe more than 61 million people, or 18% of the U.S. population. Then the notion of a Latino voting bloc quickly unravels.
Even in matters of identity there is no consensus; few members of this community employ terms such as Latino/a or Latinx that politicians all too often use. Even those who are second- or third-generation Americans continue to identity with their parent’s country of origin and refer to themselves as Mexican, Cuban, Colombian and the like.
With few exceptions, persons who trace their roots to Mexico or Honduras do not share the same historical experiences as people from Cuba or Puerto Rico or the more recent South American immigrants. Even among Latinos from the Caribbean, there are important historic differences.
Those from Puerto Rico, the majority of whom are Democrats, are the product of a colonial relation with the U.S. where they are citizens, but the island does not have representation in Congress. Cubans are still viewed within the framework of the Cold War, where many fled the island after the Cuban Revolution, and a significant number tend to vote Republican. Haitians continue to face a legacy of racism and exclusion, and the majority of the population support Democrats.
Another challenge for both parties, but particularly for Democrats, is to overcome the frustration that many Latinos feel given the empty promises of the past.
They are tired of being viewed as foreigners, rather than full-fledged citizens, or being scapegoated for falling wages as they struggle to make ends meet. They fear a repeat of the past, when politicians resorted to large-scale deportation campaigns that aggravated racial conditions for both documented and undocumented alike. They are labeled essential workers, which puts them on the front line for Covid-19, and the pandemic has taken a serious toll on the population.
Faced with these conditions, the state of the economy and the cost of health care remain their top priorities.
Given those frustrations, it may not be surprising that many simply choose not to vote. Estimates are that less than half of the 32 million Latinos and Latinas who were eligible to vote actually cast a ballot.
Every four years, as another presidential election nears, both political parties start to pay more attention to Latino communities. However, initiatives aimed at reaching these voters historically have been underfunded and underrepresented in presidential campaigns.
This year was no exception. Both parties make the mistake of assigning Latino matters to an outreach director, rather than making it part of the campaign’s central decision-making process. That only deepened the community’s feeling that they were seen as a special interest to be appeased with promises of immigration reform, rather than part of the mainstream.
Before the next election, both parties must address their simplistic understanding of the many groups that constitute the Latino community. A good start is understanding that neither party is entitled to their vote – and both must fight for it.
Also read: Why polls get the ‘Latino vote’ so wrong
Miguel Tinker Salas is the Leslie Farmer Professor of Latin American Studies and Professor of History and Chicana/o Latina/o Studies at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. Follow him on Twitter @mtinkersalas.