We may conclude that a record number of Latino voters helped decide the election in Joe Biden’s favor — in Arizona and Nevada, but also in states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Georgia. In all of these places, the number of votes that Latinos cast for Biden more than covered his margin of victory.
We should applaud this outcome because it signals expanded Latino participation. Some 60 percent of eligible Latino voters cast votes this year, compared with about 50 percent in earlier elections. And exit polls indicate that about two-thirds of us voted for Biden.
Yet it’s no time for Democrats to take a victory lap. President Trump increased his share of Latino support from 2016, not only in Florida and Texas but in several other states. In Georgia, for instance, he did 10 points better with Latino voters this time around; in Nevada, he improved by eight points. This happened even though the president started his first campaign by slandering Mexican immigrants, appeared indifferent to Puerto Ricans affected by Hurricane Maria, and separated Mexican and Central American children from their parents and placed them in cages. Even in down-ballot races, Latinos didn’t lift Democrats as many hoped they would.
So Democrats must now work to understand the shifts toward Trump and Republicans in general.
One key is to see the nation’s 61 million Latinos not as a bloc of voters concentrated in electoral vote-rich swing states who can be taken for granted but as a nationwide population as complex and contradictory as all other groups of Americans.
Another is to recognize that pointing out our national-group differences is only the first thing to say about our diversity. Latinos have different political beliefs based on whether we live in rural or urban areas, our families have been in the United States for generations or just a few years, we’re women or men, or identify as white, Black, or indigenous.
With his mix of economic and social appeals, Trump was able to win over Latinos in part because he had a longer runway than Biden. Trump started during his first year in office, while Biden only got going months after winning the nomination. It’s not that Biden ignored Latinos during his primary campaign, but he staked his candidacy on other groups, including disaffected Republicans and Black voters. As a result, Latinos didn’t appear to be a priority for Biden until late in the game.
Biden finally ramped up his efforts over the summer, investing in Spanish-language ads, hosting Zoom meetings with Latino leaders and voters, and, beginning in September — Hispanic Heritage Month — making in-person campaign appearances in Latino communities. Latino political strategists have said for a long time that a few months before an election is too late to begin building these relationships.
It didn’t help that Latinos had reason to be wary of Biden to begin with, given his association with Barack Obama, who was unable to resolve many immigration issues. After promising immigration reform, Obama, in his first years in office, spent a considerable amount of political capital in the fight over Obamacare. It was worth it, because millions of uninsured Americans got health insurance as a result. But it also meant that immigration reform never got done. After negotiations over immigration reform collapsed and after Congress rejected the DREAM Act, Obama could only do anything on immigration by executive order.
Unlike earlier Democratic candidates, Biden didn’t have any particular connection with Latinos. He emphasized his Catholic background and the challenges he has overcome, but that’s different from having relationships well before you begin asking for votes.
It was a mistake, then, for down-ballot candidates to rely on Biden’s Latino outreach efforts. Instead of reaching out to Latino voters on their own, they counted on Biden’s investments to “lift all boats,” as the political strategist Chuck Rocha told Slate. He said he didn’t “know of any specific Latino outreach program . . . to go talk to Latinos early about why they should be voting for a Democrat.”
Nevertheless, most Latinos voted for Biden and other Democrats because they’d had enough of Trump’s insults, felt excluded in Trump’s America, and have been devastated, health-wise and economically, by the coronavirus. They were also persuaded by grassroots groups that had been organizing against Republicans for years and, perhaps, by Senator Bernie Sanders, who was popular among Latinos and pleaded with his supporters to lend Biden a hand after he ended his campaign.
Now Biden has to deliver on promises he made during the campaign, to show us that he wasn’t just seeking our votes only to ignore us once in the White House. These promises included: a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants, protections for DACA recipients (who were brought to the United States as children and have been eligible for work permits under the program), access to schooling from pre-kindergarten through college, incentivizing the hiring of teachers of color, providing high-speed Internet access, ensuring access to affordable health care, and raising the minimum wage.
But if Democrats want to reverse the gains that Trump made among Latinos, they’ll have to do even more. They should engage Latinos in the communities that moved toward Trump and other Republican candidates to figure out what drew them in. Democrats will have to listen to them about issues they care about, including religious liberty, business opportunities, gun rights, and charter schools.
These efforts may or may not change the minds of Latinos who were persuaded by Trump’s economic appeals. But changing minds is almost besides the point. The goal shouldn’t only be winning some certain percentage of our votes in order to win elections, but rather a greater understanding of Latinos in the United States. We’ve been instrumentalized as voters for too long.
This is hard but important work. If Biden and Democrats commit to doing it, they may regain some of the support Democrats lost this year. If they don’t, four years from now we’ll be asking ourselves again: What happened?
Geraldo L. Cadava is an associate professor of history and Latina and Latino studies at Northwestern University and the author of “The Hispanic Republican: The Shaping of an American Political Identity, From Nixon to Trump.” Follow him on Twitter @gerry_cadava.