If you read any new coverage of Florida during an election year, going back decades, you’re likely to hear some version of the same fact: Cubans in Miami lean conservative. It’s part of the basic ethnic logic that gets regurgitated by the media: The idea is that in general, Latinxs vote Democrat, but those Cubans in Miami—normally cast as rich white people who fled Fidel Castro’s revolution—vote Republican. That simple logic appeared on cable news networks and Twitter feeds all over the country on the night of the election, as Florida results came in. President Donald Trump took the state easily, after dramatically over-performing his 2016 results in Miami-Dade County. Seeking to play down Democrats’ fears—and elide pollsters’ mistakes—many commentators pointed to Florida’s Cubans as the anomaly at play.
That narrative came crashing down hours later when the results began to come in from Texas. In the heavily Mexican American Rio Grande Valley, Trump performed better than any Republican in over a century. Cubans, it turns out, were not the whole story.
The last week has seen almost every major newspaper write about “the Latinx vote,” at the same time many Latinxs try to explain a simple fact: There is no such thing. The truth of how people in the Latin American diaspora vote goes so much deeper than Mexicans or Cubans. Even in Miami and South Texas, Latinxs barely form a coherent group. Miami is home to Dominicans, Boricuas, Haitians, Nicaraguans, Colombians, Venezuelans, and people from every country south of Canada. And while the national news focuses on white Cubans, tens of thousands of Cuban expats are Black. In South Texas, recent immigrants from Central America and Mexico live in the same towns as Mexican American fronterizos who have lived along the Rio Grande for longer than the border has existed.
But even as we try to dispense with the pseudo-racial essentialism that implies all Latinxs vote the same, we only substitute it with a new racial grammar if we insist on finding new ethnic, cultural reasons why people with different Latin American heritage voted for Trump.
Let’s look at the facts: Tens of thousands of people who didn’t vote for Trump in Miami and South Texas in 2016 voted for him this year. There wasn’t some massive demographic shift in this country; it’s not that thousands of Cubans suddenly moved to Florida, or a new population of white Mexicans moved into South Texas. Instead, there’s a simpler reason why individuals in this area shifted to Trump in this election: Democrats failed to reach out to these different communities, and the Trump campaign pursued them aggressively.
Local Democratic organizers in Laredo, Texas, told Prism that they felt at times this past year like Democrats on the state and national level had forgotten about them. Southern Texas has long had dismally low turnout, and has been reliably Democratic. Thus, instead of reaching out to Latinxs in places like South Texas, the Biden campaign and Texas Democrats made the decision to focus on turning out white suburbanites in places like Austin.
“The [Texas State Democratic Party] has, for many years, ignored the Democratic electorate in South Texas,” said Christian Ochoa, a precinct chair in Laredo, which sits in Webb County. While he points out that Democrats still won Webb easily—largely thanks to local organizing—he says that the GOP’s ascension in Webb and in the counties further south will hopefully “serve as a lesson for Texas Democratic Party leadership.”
In South Texas, local Democrats say they received very little guidance from the larger party. And, as happened elsewhere in the country, Democrats largely abandoned door-knocking and in-person events during the pandemic in order to protect peoples’ lives. In that messaging vacuum, Republicans swooped in. “Trump Trains” or trucks flying flags regularly rolled through Laredo and other border towns. Trump supporters door knocked constantly, and held carne asadas and rallies.
The same formula played out in Florida: While Biden himself did stump in Miami, the Biden campaign split time by pursuing voters in predominantly white suburbs across the state. In the national Democratic party’s relative absence, Trump himself swept into Miami: The president and his family members campaigned constantly and arduously in Florida. Trump also seemed to show a more nuanced grasp than Democrats of the multiplicity of Miami’s expat communities: At times, his messaging specifically targeted Venezuelans and Colombians, as well as Cubans. (“Why is my grandma tweeting from Trump’s account?” a Colombian friend of mine asked, when Trump tweeted a fearmongering message connecting Biden to Gustavo Petro, a polarizing former guerilla fighter in Colombia.)
Here’s what it comes down to: While “the Latinx vote” does not really exist, it still might make sense to say that Biden lost it. His campaign made the fatal decision to take key Latin American diasporic communities for granted. Instead of making inroads with the diverse communities in Miami and South Texas, Democrats took their vote for granted and left the region open for the Trump campaign. In some ways, Biden’s failings in Florida and Texas mirror Hillary Clinton’s mistakes in 2016, when she chose to infrequently visit Michigan and Wisconsin, incorrectly assuming they were safe Democratic states. However, there’s of course a deeper issue at play this time around. The national Democratic Party is still run predominantly by non-Latinx white people who don’t have a complex understanding of communities in a place like South Texas or Miami. And for that, this year they’ve paid the price.
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