Why the Democrats’ Latino Wave Never Quite Materializes

Without question, the U.S. is undergoing a political realignment. This year, Latino eligible voters are expected to outnumber Black eligible voters for the first time. Sun Belt states with large populations of Latinos are taking on even greater electoral importance. Yet the political consequences are unpredictable. The dramatic Latinization of America is stirring fears among white voters without college degrees, who feel they are being replaced both socially and economically. This white anxiety is the essence of Trumpism, a pernicious form of identity politics. Meanwhile, voters who have emigrated from, or trace their roots to, places across the large expanse of Latin America may have little but the Spanish language in common, if even that.

Mexican Americans make up the largest segment of the Latino voting bloc, and they are the most reliably anti-Republican. Over decades, the southwestern U.S. has become a multicultural mix of younger, more college educated, and more ethnically diverse residents—all trends that bode well for Democrats. This is in large part why states that were once securely red, including Arizona and perhaps even Texas, are coming into play for Democrats.

Curiously, one segment of the Mexican American electorate is showing a growing alignment with Trump: According to polling by Equis Research, U.S.-born Mexican American men without college degrees are inching toward Trump, mirroring the voting trajectory that non-college-educated white men have followed. They may be following the traditional pattern of assimilation, in which an immigrant group’s voting behavior becomes less distinct over the course of generations. Still, two caveats apply. First, support among these men for Trump remains relatively soft; second, Mexican American women are running in the opposite direction, toward Biden.

Trump received 28 percent of Latino support nationwide in 2016. For all of Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, that number sits squarely within the 21 to 44 percent support range of Republican presidential candidates over the past 25 years. This year, Trump’s camp is looking to run up the score in Florida, the most populous swing state.

Latinos there are more polarized than in the rest of the country and compose an estimated 20 percent of the state’s electorate. One-third of Florida’s Latino electorate is of Cuban descent; another third is Puerto Rican. Antipathy to Communist Cuba still runs strong among the former; the latter are more attuned to the economic and humanitarian catastrophe that Puerto Rico suffered during Hurricane Maria. More so than Biden, the Trump campaign has figured out that Latinos in Florida can no longer be addressed as a single voting bloc. The president cannot win Florida without the support of Cuban Americans, and his Spanish-language ads accusing Biden of giving in to socialism could well motivate those voters. Democratic strategists tend to roll their eyes at such claims, but Biden cannot afford to leave the charge unanswered.