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Neither Trump nor Biden can win without Latinos: an X-Ray of 36 million voters

In the 2024 elections, Hispanic Americans will be — more than ever — the quiet force that will define the results. And, according to the polls, for the first time in history, Latino support for the Republican Party has surpassed this community’s intention to vote for the Democrats

The United States will be a country of minorities in the near future. It’s expected that, by 2060, non-Hispanic whites will make up slightly less than half of the population. It’s a reality drawn up by statistics, and it’s also the worst nightmare of Donald Trump, who dreams of “making America great again” by expelling millions of immigrants from the country. However, to achieve this, the Republican would have to win the presidential elections in November, and to do that, he needs the support of millions of Latinos.

This notion — which seems like a contradiction — is no longer beyond reach. Many Hispanics — given the prevalence of strong conservative values in the community and widespread concerns about pocketbook issues — are willing to vote for him. Trump’s populist and xenophobic rhetoric has become normalized in much of the country. As a result, among Latinos — the largest American minority, at 62 million people — he isn’t exceptional.

EL PAÍS journalists have visited some of the key states where the upcoming elections will be determined, including Texas, Arizona, Nevada and New York. The findings reveal a mosaic of voices that blur the idea of a uniform and monolithic Latino vote. The Democratic Party has lost support among Hispanics and, today, the views of the 36 million Latinos with the right to vote are more diverse than ever. At the moment, Trump is slightly ahead in the polls when it comes to this demographic.

There are lifelong Republicans, such as Minerva Díaz — a communications consultant focused on freedom of religion and expression in McAllen, Texas — who believes that the Biden administration “persecutes people’s freedoms.” Or there are anti-Trumpists like Jiromi Peña — who will be voting for the first time in Las Vegas, Nevada — who remembers how her sister cried out when Trump was elected on November 8, 2016, scared that their parents would be deported. Then, there are those who are disenchanted with everything, including Mara Rivera, a 53-year-old Puerto Rican from New York, who has been voting for “the least bad” option — “anyone who isn’t Trump” — for as long as she can remember. And, of course, there are first-time Republicans, like Aleida Cura, 19, who enjoys “reading the Bible and defending life.”

There are converts — like 52-year-old Rigoberto Flores, who has lived in Maryland for nearly four decades — who won’t vote for Biden again, because “with so much social assistance, people no longer want to work.” And there are the usual Democrats, like Ángel Lazcano, 24, a former Bernie Sanders voter and son of a unionized worker from Nevada, who was moved when President Biden joined a picket line a few months ago.

The current president and candidate for re-election arrived at the White House with the support of six out of every 10 Latinos who voted. However, there are serious doubts that he can count on this same level of support four years later. Despite his harsh anti-immigrant and sometimes openly racist rhetoric, Trump has gained popularity among voters in the Hispanic community, who have traditionally largely supported Democrats. In 2016, only 28% of Latinos voted for him. In 2020, the figure rose to 38%. This year, the Republican would obtain 46% support from Hispanics — 6% more than Biden — according to a poll conducted by The New York Times at the beginning of March. Still, the newspaper notes that the margin of error of the survey is high (10%) because Latinos are 19% of the population and 15% of the electorate, which makes it difficult to accurately take the pulse of a smaller sample. The survey was also conducted before Trump promised to deport 11 million people in an interview with Time magazine. Since then — according to the Real Clear Politics polling average — Biden has been closing the gap slightly in the general election poll. He’s now only about 1.2% away from his rival.

Hispanics are enough to tip the balance toward either side. “They’re going to be decisive, but no party should take their support for granted,” warns Clarissa Martínez, vice president of the UnidosUS nonprofit organization, in a clear reference to the Democrats. Latinos with the right to vote — already the largest minority in the country, ahead of African-Americans — now number 36 million. This figure is 12% higher since the 2020 presidential elections. Latinos are the second-fast-growing ethnic group, only surpassed by Asian-Americans, whose voting-age population has grown by 15% over the past four years, with about 15 million eligible to vote.

Jiromi Peña and Aleida Cura are two of those new voters, as they’ve recently come of age. However, politically, they’re at the opposite ends of the spectrum. Peña’s anti-Trump sentiment was born when she was 10-years-old: all the television networks announced to the world that the Republican had won the presidency. “For me, he’s a scary candidate,” she says. Cura, however, isn’t afraid at all. She feels that there’s a kind of Democratic presumption about all Hispanics that doesn’t respond to reality. “Many don’t express their opinions because they’re scared of cancel culture,” she opines. She’s now fighting alongside the Republican Party to bring new voices out from the shadows to declare themselves as supporters of the business tycoon. This group of voters hasn’t stopped growing since the Trump administration’s conclusion.

Despite the continued rise of the former president, there are also experts who are skeptical of Trump’s supposed growth among the Latino electorate. “The Republican Party and campaigns are pushing this narrative to turn it into a self-fulfilling prophecy, but polls and statistics focused on Latinos suggest that Biden maintains comfortable margins of support in this cycle, although this can always change,” says John Tuman, an academic at the University of Nevada and author of Latinos in Nevada: a Political, Economic and Social Profile (2021).

The November election will be defined in six states. This is where the battle for Hispanic support will be especially tough. On the list are Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Together, they represent 77 of the 270 electoral votes necessary to reach the White House. In each of these states, the two parties have set out to conquer a vote that’s neither uniform nor determined. “The biggest fallacy about Latinos is that they act like a monolith,” explains Stella Rouse, director of the Hispanic Research Center at Arizona State University.

Four million more Latino voters than in 2020

Kristian Ramos — an expert on Latino voting trends at the consulting firm Autonomy Strategies — explains that “maintaining the vote of the Latino community is a challenge. And, if it’s not attended to continuously, if we don’t speak to the community constantly, it can be lost.” After Biden’s last State of the Union address — held in March — his campaign decided to invest $30 million in television, radio and social media ads to win the minority vote. “The party has realized that it needs to invest in Latinos, because support has fallen,” admits Josephine Peña-Melnik. A Dominican by birth, she’s a Democratic delegate in the Maryland House of Delegates.

The fact that there are four million new voters has mobilized the fundraising efforts of the two major parties. The Koch brothers — billionaire conservatives from Kansas — have entered this competition with a “seven-digit” investment (they haven’t specified the number) through the Libre Initiative, a right-wing online platform that amplifies the supposed economic failures of the Biden administration, a message intended to align Hispanic voters with conservative causes in more than 20 electoral districts controlled by Democrats. Libre Initiative didn’t respond to questions from EL PAÍS.

The group’s coffers, however, have been equaled — if not surpassed — by other initiatives working towards Biden’s re-election. For instance, this past April, Somos Votantes — an organization founded in 2019 — announced an investment of $33 million to mobilize Latinos in favor of the incumbent president. The organization aims to support the Democrats in several key elections in Nevada, Arizona, Michigan, Wisconsin, North Carolina North, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Texas.

On the hunt for voters

At 24-years-old, Ángel Lazcano is one of the faces of the army that Somos Votantes has on the ground in Nevada. One of every four votes that will be cast in November in this state will have been marked by a Latino. But for this statistic — which is similar in Arizona — to become a reality, it’s necessary to knock on many doors and convince tens of thousands of people to actually register as voters.

Biden won the state four years ago with a difference of 2.3% of the votes. Trump won 14 of the state’s 16 counties, but the demographic explosion in the most populated areas allowed the current president to win by 33,500 votes. In this election cycle, there are about 100,000 eligible Latinos who haven’t yet registered for the election in Nevada. On top of that, about 50,500 young people will turn 18 before November — the legal age to vote.

Ángel’s father is a waiter and bartender at the ARIA and Mandalay Bay casinos. He’s also a member of the influential Culinary Workers Union, an organization with 60,000 members that was vital for Biden to win Nevada in 2020. “The union — where 60% [of members] identify as Latino — is a very well-organized electoral machine. The Democratic Party has a structural advantage when it comes to mobilizing the Latino vote. They have a large amount of information about the neighborhoods and even the houses where their voters are,” adds Professor Tuman, from the University of Nevada. The academic highlights one of the keys to the union’s success: its long history of helping its members obtain documentation and become citizens.

Until now, the Republican Party has had serious problems connecting with Hispanic voters. The change of direction within the Republican National Committee hasn’t helped: Lara Trump — the former president’s daughter-in-law — is now the co-chair. “Traditionally, campaigns remember the Latino voter at the end, when the race is close. But there has to be a consistent effort throughout the entire election,” affirms Leslie Sánchez, a Republican strategist. In a 2007 book titled Los Republicanos: Why Republicans and Hispanics Need Each Other, she wrote that the party has to pay attention to a group that has historically been marginalized. “We have an opportunity to establish a long relationship,” she says. “Latinos like Trump. Biden is a weak candidate and Latinos don’t respond well to his weak policies.”

Disenchantment with Biden

Brooklyn-based Mara Rivera fondly remembers the first time she was able to vote for a president. That was back when she migrated from Puerto Rico to the mainland United States. The island’s inhabitants lack the right to vote in the territory, despite holding American citizenship. Today, however, she bitterly tells EL PAÍS that she’s “fed up” and “disillusioned” by politics. Still, Rivera says that, in November, she’ll vote for Biden because she has no better option. “Today and always, I’ll vote against Trump.”

Many voters, however, have already crossed that red line. María Jiménez — a 72-year-old Nicaraguan who has lived in the United States for three decades — has always voted for the Democratic Party since she has had the right to vote. This fall, however, she’ll check the Republican box on her ballot. “The country is upside down,” says the employee of Pollo Campero, a fast-food chain in the Washington DC metropolitan area, where she has worked for seven years. The issue that concerns her most is the management of the border and the massive entry of undocumented immigrants. Record numbers of crossings have been reached under the Biden administration. “They have to stop this thing where anyone comes in… Many criminals have entered,” Jiménez sighs. She hopes that the political panorama will improve with the election of a figure like Ronald Reagan.

Despite the polls, which are favorable to the businessman, Emmanuelle Leal-Santillan — the spokesperson for Somos Votantes — believes that the surveys only tell part of the story. This lesson was learned in the 2022 midterms, when everyone predicted a Republican red wave that never came, with the opposition only narrowly taking control of the House of Representatives. “What we hear is, ‘Am I going to vote for Biden, or am I not going to vote?’ That’s the big question,” she clarifies.

The issues that most concern Hispanic voters

Rigoberto Flores won’t vote for Biden again, either. This 52-year-old Salvadoran — who has spent 38 years of his life in the United States — has an air conditioning business and a juice stand in Langley Park, Maryland. Despite current growth rates, he says the economy was doing better under Trump, for whom he will vote in November. He also feels let down by the Democratic incumbent, who came to the White House with the promise of legalizing millions of undocumented immigrants. Nearly four years later, Biden has veered to the right on several immigration policies. “Latinos aren’t represented,” Flores laments.

Despite the weight that the border has in this election cycle, immigration isn’t the issue that most worries the Latino community. Like the country as a whole, the economy comes first, which is exactly where Republicans are focusing their message. “In this country, people vote [on pocketbook issues] and it’s important not to forget it,” says Juan Domínguez, the only Latino in Maryland among the 22 Democratic candidates who ran in the congressional primaries on May 14.

Driven by consumption, the U.S. economy demonstrated its strength with year-over-year growth of 3.4% in the last quarter of 2023. The trend remains favorable, despite the slowdown exhibited by the 1.6% increase in the first-quarter 2024. But inflationary pressure continues to weigh on the minds and wallets of many voters. “The majority [of Latinos] don’t have an economic cushion, they don’t have many savings or insurance. They lack protection. Inflation and high interest rates affect them more than people with greater resources,” says strategist Leslie Sánchez. The pace of inflation growth has slowed, which may favor Biden in the medium-term, especially in cities where the economic recovery continues to approach pre-pandemic levels. This is the case in Las Vegas, which depends on the service sector, tourism and construction.

“In Nevada, we’ve seen a record increase in salaries. This has managed to somewhat curb the impact of inflation,” Tuman notes. Peter Guzmán — president of the Latin Chamber of Commerce in the state — asks that Democrats emphasize the importance of the economy above other social issues. He especially says that they should talk up housing policies.

Jiromi Peña — who studies Political Science and History — says that she’s proud that the hands of Latino workers have built Las Vegas. Her father helped remodel hotels like the Luxor, the Mirage and Caesars Palace. But she doesn’t see her future clearly, even though the fate of her vote is on the lips of all politicians these days.

The 60 million Latinos in the United States know that they’re veritable electoral spoils. Every four years, the candidates present a list of promises, which usually evaporate as their term progresses. On his first day in office, Biden promised the greatest legalization of undocumented immigrants in decades. He didn’t deliver. And now, his campaign is working hard to avoid losing a voting bloc that was once seen as solid.

“There’s only one option and your vote makes the difference,” is the message in several of the Democratic Party’s ads, which are often narrated in Spanish or Spanglish. But the message is a half-truth. The other option exists: his name is Trump. And even though he’s promising the largest deportation process in the history of the country, he’s the preferred candidate of millions of Hispanic Americans.


Page design: Fernando Hernández
Development: Alejandro Gallardo
Coordination: Guiomar del Ser

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