This is the April 9, 2021, edition of the Essential Politics newsletter. Like what you’re reading? Sign up to get it in your inbox three times a week.
One of the major surprises of the 2020 election was President Trump‘s relatively strong showing with Latino voters.
Just four years after running a campaign fueled by anti-immigrant rhetoric, including the accusation that Mexican immigrants were “rapists,” Trump significantly improved his standing with Latino voters.
Understanding why that happened and what it portends for future elections — whether movement of a sizable minority of Latinos to Trump was a one-time event or the start of a longer trend — involves enormous stakes for both parties.
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In the immediate aftermath of the election, analysts offered a lot of guesses about what happened. Now, detailed, precinct-level voting data has started to yield better-grounded assessments.
The latest and most detailed look comes from the Latino-focused firm Equis Research, which earlier this month published the first part of a detailed analysis of the Latino vote in 2020. Their analysis, based on some 40,000 interviews with Latino voters over the 2020 cycle, plus precinct-level returns from battleground states — has attracted attention from political professionals in both parties.
An electorate up for grabs
Despite the focus on who shifted, Latinos remain an overwhelmingly Democratic group and formed a major part of the party’s coalition in 2020. Democrats would not have their slender majorities in either house of Congress — and President Biden would not have won — without carrying a large majority of Latino voters, the Equis analysis notes.
At the same time, the 2020 results showed that true swing voters make up a much bigger share of the Latino population than many Democrats believed. Trump won over many of them, including a large share of younger voters and those who rarely take part in elections.
A lot of those Latino swing voters think of themselves as conservatives, a group that made up more than one-third of the Latino electorate in 11 battleground states that Equis surveyed.
The swing to Trump was not small. Compared with his vote total in 2016, Trump’s 2020 vote in the Miami area grew by 51% in heavily Cuban precincts, Equis found, and by an astounding 120% in non-Cuban, heavily Latin American precincts. His vote in heavily Latino precincts in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley was up 83%.
And the shift went far beyond those two areas. In Milwaukee, Trump’s vote in Latino precincts was up 38% compared with 2016. In Patterson, N.J., the percentage increase in Trump’s vote topped 100%, albeit from a relatively low level. Even in the Phoenix area, which Biden carried strongly, Trump’s Latino vote surged — up 64% in heavily Latino precincts in Maricopa County. The difference in Arizona was that Biden’s vote also rose significantly compared with Hillary Clinton’s in 2016.
Local factors helped drive that increase in some places, such as South Florida. But the fact that the shifts occurred in widely disparate places suggests those local concerns were not the heart of what happened.
The data contradicts some other popular notions, as well: Although Latinas remained heavily Democratic, their vote shifted more toward Trump than did Latino men, the numbers show. That undermines the stereotype that Trump had a unique appeal to Latino machismo.
Instead, Equis’ analysis suggests that Trump reached Latino swing voters in part because of a…