A voter drops off their mail-in ballot at the Alameda County Registrar of Voters in Oakland on Oct. 27, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
Despite his restrictive immigration policies and rhetoric disparaging Mexicans and Central Americans, President Trump gained ground among Latinos this election, according to a survey of thousands of voters of color in California and other states.
The American Election Eve Poll found that an overwhelming majority of Latinos backed the Democratic ticket, as they have in previous elections. But fully 27% supported Trump nationwide, compared to 18% in 2016.
In reliably blue California, 22% of Latinos voted for the Republican candidate, up from 16% who backed Trump on his first run for the presidency.
“I do think there's been a shift and the question is, why?” said Gary Segura, senior partner with Latino Decisions, a lead pollster for the survey.
One reason for the shift was that Joe Biden was not as well-known among Latino households as the Clinton family was, Segura said. But more importantly, Democrats didn’t do enough to engage these voters in California and other non-battleground states.
“There was little outreach by the Democrats and the Biden campaign,” said Segura, dean of the Luskin School of Public Affairs at UCLA. “And there's an important lesson here. I think the one place where President Trump did invest in Latinos is in South Florida, and he was rewarded for that. So investment matters, being on the ground matters.”
In Florida, 38% of Latinos voted for Trump, including a majority of Cuban Americans, according to the Election Eve Poll. That level of support for Trump’s reelection led to concern among more liberal voters in the hours after the polls closed, as well as reminders on social media that the 60 million Latinos in the U.S. have never been a monolithic group.
“People look for simple metrics,” said Louis DeSipio, a professor of political science at UC Irvine who has studied Latino voters for decades. “And any community is diverse, not just in national origin, but in terms of generation, the region they live in. That’s reality.”
In previous elections, between a quarter and a third of Latinos have typically voted for Republican presidential candidates nationwide, with the GOP usually getting better results in states like Texas and Florida, he said.
One of the millions of Californians who voted to reelect the president was David Hernandez, chair of the Los Angeles Hispanic Republican Club. The retired insurance adjuster and business owner identifies as a third-generation American of Mexican descent.
He said Trump is a better candidate to promote economic prosperity, as the country experienced in the years before the pandemic.
Some observers point out that Trump inherited a flourishing economy from the Obama administration. But Hernandez believes the president’s fiscal and tax policies contributed to the pre-pandemic growth and should eventually lift the country from its current economic slump.
“The fiscal policies and prosperity over the past almost four years has really been the deciding factor,” said Hernandez, 72. “So I think a lot of the support is because of the policies, not because of the personality of Donald Trump.”
On the top issue for all voters surveyed in the poll, the coronavirus pandemic, Hernandez said he and other Latino Trump supporters agree with the president’s push to reopen the economy faster.
Many Latinos can’t work from home, he said, and have experienced financial devastation due to efforts to stop the spread of the virus.
“While there is a concern over the disease itself, there is a more immediate concern that they're not going to be able to pay their rent, that they're not going to be able to take care of their families,” Hernandez said.
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Still, the poll found that while a majority of white voters supported the Republican ticket nationwide, 70% of Latinos turned out for Biden and his running mate Kamala Harris. That proportion was even higher in California, with 75% of Latino voters supporting the Democrats.
“If Latinos were the only voters, the election results would be blindingly clear,” said Clarissa Martínez-de-Castro, deputy vice president of policy and advocacy at UnidosUS, one of the advocacy and civic engagement nonprofits that sponsored the poll.
As the vote count continues, Martínez-de-Castro said another takeaway is that meaningful outreach to Latinos remains critical for both parties. Latinos have proven that they are a growing force deciding presidential elections, she said, particularly in competitive states such as Nevada and Arizona.
A more solid picture of how Latinos voted this election won’t emerge until months from now, after results are certified and researchers have a chance to estimate voter demographics and preferences. But the American Election Eve Poll, designed to be representative of the Latino community — as well as Black, Native American and Asian American voters — offers a glimpse that is more reliable than exit polls, according to DeSipio and other political scientists.
The poll interviewed 15,200 voters across the U.S., including 5,300 Latinos, who had already voted or were 100% sure they would vote by Nov. 3. The margin of error was +/-1.4% for nationwide results, and almost 5% for California.