2020 Election

Why It’s a Mistake to Simplify the ‘Latino Vote’

9 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:

Ten years after political science professor Marisa Abrajano wrote about the false assumptions made towards Latino voters, political pundits and campaigns are still making the same mistakes in this election, she says. The assumption of a singular “Latino vote” is wrong, for one, and actually it should come as no surprise that Cuban Americans in Miami Dade voted for President Trump.

Latinos are not a monolith, and not one unified force. The differences between communities are vast and deep. The U.S. is home to an estimated nearly 61 million Latinos, according to the Pew Research Center, and range in age, race, gender, religion, socio-economic status, political ideology and educational attainment. Most are English proficient, and most were born in the U.S.

Despite these nuances, on Election Day the “Latino vote,” was analyzed as a single, unified entity by some political pundits, journalists and campaign officials without acknowledgment of the complexities of a demographic that makes up an estimated 18% of the U.S. population—a symptom of a wider trend of limited Latino outreach during political elections.

Latinos in the U.S. come from all parts of Latin America, Central America and Mexico. Some Latinos have lived in the U.S. for generations. There’s a variety of Spanish dialects, languages, foods, and traditions. It should come as no surprise that there are also differences in political ideology.

“The assumption is that Latinos are a monolithic group of voters, and the reality is that Latinos make up individuals hailing from more than a dozen different countries,” Abrajano, who teaches at UC San Diego, tells TIME. “The Latino vote in Florida is different from the Latino vote in California, and from Nevada, Arizona—and so to make broad strokes, or using this pan-ethnic term, can be problematic, and the same trend was evident 10 years ago.”

In the aftermath of Election Day, many took to social media to express their concern that analysts were painting Latinos with a broad brush. “It’s laughable that in 2020, this country still needs to be reminded, Sesame Street style, that Latinos are not a monolith & the Latino vote is a mirage,” wrote Los Angeles Times writer Esmeralda Bermudez in a Twitter thread.

“I think the most important thing for people to understand is that there is no ‘Latino vote,'” says Lisa García Bedolla, vice provost for graduate studies and dean of the Graduate Division at the UC Berkeley. “What we call Latinos or the Latino community is made up of folks who are very different in terms of national origin, in terms of generation, in terms of language use, nativity, class, gender, gender identity, sexuality, and then it also really matters where people end up living.”

But though social scientists like García Bedolla and Abrajano have for decades studied and even provided advice for how political campaigns could better engage wide-ranging communities with nuance, not much has changed, including this election year. García Bedolla says what often happens is that campaign managers wait until late into a campaign to begin Latino voter outreach. Often that comes in the form of a campaign ad in Spanish.

“I have been involved for at least a decade in trying to educate [political operatives] about these nuances,” García Bedolla says, but, she adds, often the people in decision-making positions lack the cultural awareness necessary to be effective.

“I literally had somebody ask me in 2016 what’s the bumper sticker that is going to mobilize Latinos?” García Bedolla says. “What we actually needed were mobilization strategies that would talk to the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth generation English monolingual Mexican Americans in San Antonio…That’s the kind of specificity that we need.”

García Bedolla and those who spoke to TIME all say that political campaigners need to engage with Latinos early and often, year-round, to understand the needs of individual communities. What’s important to Puerto Ricans in New York City, for example, will differ from Mexican Americans in the Rio Grande Valley.

Because Latinos nationwide vote for Democrats in larger numbers than they do for Republicans, one misconception is that as the population of eligible Latino voters grows in the U.S., so will votes for Democrats. It’s a myth social scientists refer to as “demography as destiny.” Of the estimated nearly 61 million Latinos in the U.S., Pew estimates 32 million were eligible to vote this year, or 13.3% of all eligible voters.

“Both political parties in this country need to recognize that Latinos are not a given entity, they are a constituency that demands recruitment,” says Antonio Arellano, interim executive director of Jolt Action, a progressive organization in Texas that aims to increase Latino political engagement. Texas is home an estimated 5.6 million eligible Latino voters, coming in second only to California with an estimated 7.9 million, according to Pew.

For that reason, Arellano says, campaigns cannot take Latino voters for granted. “We need to recognize that Latinx folks across the country have been here for decades, for centuries and have…for generations been overlooked, neglected and underrepresented,” he says. “It looks like now more than ever before, Latinos are coming to terms with the fact that the political power in this country is rightly in their hands and you have seen that turnout in Arizona, in Nevada, in Texas, where Latinos are engaged like never before because they know that the next chapter of American history will be written by them.”

Party recruitment, Arellano, Abrajano, and García Bedolla stress, cannot be as simple as speaking Spanish during a political debate, or opening a rally with mariachi music—symbolic cultural messaging to relate to Latino voters that lack substance, which García Bedolla adds, she finds insulting.

Just like all voters, life’s experiences inform the way Latino voters vote, not just ethnic or racial identity. “It makes it seem that, if I’m a Democrat, it’s just because I’m a Latina,” she says. “It’s not because of anything that’s happened to me in my life.”

In fact according to Pew, in 2018, 62% of Latino voters identified with or leaned toward the Democratic Party, while 27% leaned toward or identified with Republicans. But this is not something that is widely recognized and political pundits’ surprise at Latino support for Trump on Election Day—the Cuban vote in Florida, for example—points to a lack of understanding of nuances of Latinos in the U.S., says Geraldo Cadava, a professor of history at Northwestern University who wrote “The Hispanic Republican.”

“I mean it really shouldn’t be a surprise,” he tells TIME. “The fact of the matter is that in every presidential election since Richard Nixon won the election in 1972, between a quarter and a third of Latinos have voted for the Republican candidate…by this point you could say that there has been a half-century tradition of Latinos, a significant minority of Latinos, voting for Republican candidates.”

The Cuban American population of Miami-Dade County, for example, has since the 1970s leaned towards the Republican party. But within that community exists nuances as well. Older Cubans who fled from the Castro Regime are still more likely to vote for a Republican than younger generations, Cadava says.

The Trump 2020 Campaign did make attempts to reach Cuban Americans by propagating an anti-socialist message, one that may also resonate with other Latino groups who have their own anti-socialism sentiments, Cadava adds. Venezuelan’s, for example, who take issue with President Nicolás Maduro.

On the other side of the coin, former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders also saw wide support from Latinos in Nevada. Analysts credit that success to the months-long effort to win over Nevada Latinos, who eventually helped him win the state in February. “It’s because he did something that other politicians sometimes forget to do: He asked for their votes,” wrote USA Today’s Ruben Navarrette Jr.

When political campaigns fail to do the robust outreach to individual Latino communities, grassroots organizers are often the one ones to fill the void. In Arizona, a battleground state, grassroots organizers have stepped up to mobilize Black, indigenous and people of color, an effort at least 10 years in the making, since campaigners were not taking the steps to engage with this block of voters.

This year, the state saw a strong turn out for Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, something Alejandra Gomez, co-executive director of Living United for Change in Arizona (LUCHA), a grassroots organization that works to support communities of color, credits to long-term mobilization efforts of organizations like hers.

For a decade, the organization has mobilized around campaign season, knocking on doors in neighborhoods that went ignored by party officials. They helped to increase Latino voter registration, hosted community meetings in key locations, and developed relationships within communities. Gomez says they considered how an outreach strategy for Latinos who are newly naturalized citizens could differ from a strategy intended for Latinos who have lived in the U.S. for multiple generations.

“Demographics are absolutely not destiny,” Gomez tells TIME. “We just did something historic…and for us that is incredible, that is the work, that is 10 years of organizing. And those voters, we’re not going to lose them because we’re gonna call them next week and we’re gonna debrief and thank them for having participated.”

Correction, November 10

The original version of this story misstated the last name of Antonio Arellano, interim executive director of Jolt Action. It is Arellano, not Arrellano.

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Write to Jasmine Aguilera at jasmine.aguilera@time.com