2020 Post-Mortem (Part Two): The American Dream Voter
by: Carlos Odio and Rachel Stein, Ph.D.
A collaboration of Equis Research and Equis Institute
Today Equis is releasing Part Two of a post-mortem on the Latino vote in the 2020 election. The REPORT IS HERE.
In Part One (available HERE), we attempted to document the nature and composition of the gains that Donald Trump made with a small subset of Hispanic voters. In the sequel, we use new research, and a fresh look at other datasets, to try to address the WHY and the WHAT NOW.
What can we understand about the relative importance of various factors in driving the shift? Of the leading theories out in the world, which do the data suggest were especially meaningful? What explains the bigger shifts in South TX and South FL? And what of these dynamics will carry over into current policy debates, or the elections in 2022 and 2024?
Since the full report is more than 100 slides long, we’re providing a cheat sheet below and, at the end, a study guide as a starting point for questions that observers can be asking themselves going forward.
Here’s what you most need to know:
- The debate over whether to prioritize the economy or public health in the middle of COVID — a debate that became, for some, about the value of hard work and the American Dream — eclipsed the issues that held some Hispanic voters back from supporting Trump in 2016, giving these formerly hesitant Latinos the “permission” they needed to embrace Trump’s re-election.
- Movement toward Trump coincided with one-sided attention lavished on key topics (e.g. reopening the economy) and geographies (e.g. South TX/South FL). The moral of the story: uncontested communication and voters feeling unheard had, as always, a major impact.
- Campaigns, policy action, and media all mattered greatly. Less-partisan Latinos are navigating their identities and values in ways that don’t always map out neatly on the political spectrum and aren’t always consistent. That makes campaigns and communication all the more impactful. On that note, few of the opinions or dynamics we include in this report are static — they can also be shaped by parties going forward.
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY (tl;dr)
These are the dynamics we found most notable…
I. The economy unlocked a door
Support for Trump on the economy, COVID and the intersection of the two (i.e. his focus on reopening the economy) stick out as major drivers of his vote among Latinos.
In 2020, the economy and COVID were Latino voters’ top priorities, and Trump’s policies on COVID and the economy were, in isolation, very popular. Their rise in salience was at the expense of immigration, an issue which, along with the importance of their Hispanic identity, held some Latinos back from supporting Trump in 2016.
In short: the issue landscape shifted to more favorable ground for Trump in 2020, opening a way for some Latinos who found it unacceptable to vote for him in 2016.
II. The socialism attack broke through
“Socialism” created a space for some Latinos to defect from the Democrats, and it wasn’t just in Florida.
Concern about socialism seems to be generated in part by uncontested propaganda in isolated media ecosystems — what is sometimes reduced to “disinformation.” And it centers on Latino voters who most believe in social mobility through hard work — consistent with the idea that, in the right-wing narrative, the true opposite of socialism is the American Dream. While the socialism attack rings various bells, the through-line among those concerned is a worry over people becoming “lazy & dependent on government”, by those who highly value “hard work.”
But while the concern over socialism is widespread among Latinos, many are still voting for Democrats in spite of those concerns — something is keeping them from defecting. (We suspect it has to do with their sense of group identity.)
III. Race mattered (but not in the ways popularly imagined)
The events after the murder of George Floyd did not seem to alter the trajectory of the election, but race and public safety both still likely played a role (in both directions).
If the protests following the Floyd murder and ensuing calls to “Defund the Police” moved Latino voters toward Trump, as conventional wisdom now holds, you’d expect to see a change in the trajectory of vote choice around the time of those protests. Week-to-week data show some Latinos had started moving toward Trump before Floyd’s murder, and the trend did not appreciably accelerate or spike up during the protests that followed.
Racial resentment — a modern measure of racism that is, importantly, tied into work ethics — does show some effect on the Trump vote, and concerns about “crime and safety” or “maintaining order” make appearances in our research. Other data, and qualitative work, suggest some Latinos feel ignored by Democrats relative to non-Hispanic Black voters. At the same time, some results suggest the salience of police brutality and racial inequality may have been a galvanizing force among Biden’s new Latino voters, perhaps even to a greater extent than among Trump’s new Latino voters.
Regardless, a focus on “Defund the Police” as a primary driver of Trump’s Latino vote ignores the mountain of evidence behind other, more obvious factors.
IV. One-sided communication enabled bigger movement
South Florida and South Texas served as examples of what happens when a candidate is allowed a one-sided advantage on a highly resonant issue (socialism in one, border security in the other).
Among “LatAm” voters in South Florida (those of Colombian, Nicaraguan, Dominican, Mexican and Venezuelan descent, among others), we found that concern over Democrats embracing socialism was a significant predictor of the Trump vote. The Miami LatAms shifted even more than the Cubans (we’ve previously talked about what happened with a segment of the Cuban-American electorate that voted at high levels for Obama). The highly developed media ecosystem in Miami is a factor there.
The story in South Texas: Republicans owned the border issue. Immigration didn’t stand out elsewhere in the country, but, in Texas, views on Trump’s immigration agenda powerfully sorted Hispanic independents between the two presidential candidates. The effect of immigration was strongest along the border, where it centered quite naturally on the highly salient issue of border security. While Trump didn’t directly campaign in the Rio Grande Valley or the border, he and his surrogates frequented it often as part of his “law and order” pitch.
Both are seemingly cases of neglect — where one side completely owns a highly salient issue without meaningful competition. We aren’t talking about ad spending in the last months of the election; we mean multiple years of attention — appearances, photo ops, press conferences, policy rollouts,… — boosted by local media that echo it.
V. Stories left to be told
This report does not purport to tell the story of all Hispanics in the 2020 election and, in fact, remains incomplete even in its attempt to explain this one subset of Trump voters. A few ways jump out: What happened in Arizona (which showed the smallest 2016–2020 Latino shift)? And what failed to persuade or mobilize the 50% of eligible Latino voters who sat out the election (a rate of abstention higher than that of other racial/ethnic groups)?
VI. The 2020 moment hasn’t ended
The debate to watch going forward: Who is perceived to be better for American workers?
On questions of work, workers and the American Dream, many Latino voters feel stuck between the two parties. Democrats retain some natural credibility with Latinos but have lost ground in areas that used to define their economic brand; they’re also open to attack for taking Hispanics for granted.
Republicans, meanwhile, have some openings but are still held back by their image as the uncaring party of big corporations.
VII. A study guide
VII. Video homework
Those still wondering how Trump made gains among some Latinos could do worse than watch this campaign video featuring mixed martial artist Jorge Masvidal: from the starting argument that Democrats act “entitled to the Latino vote”, it goes on to build a permission structure for some Hispanic voters to come around to Trump. The spot, currently with 34 million views, was Trump’s most-watched campaign video on YouTube — among all audiences. (As a reminder, Latinos spend twice as much time on YouTube as non-Latinos.)
Then watch Barack Obama’s closing ad to Latino voters in 2008. Here, in Spanish, he gives an example of the kind of “American Dream” messaging that has long been a feature of campaigning to the Latino electorate (“we share a dream… that through hard work your family can succeed”.)