Opinion | This Election, Latinos Sent a Warning Sign to Democrats

As ballots were counted on Election Day, many people were quick to observe that Latinos went for President Trump in 2020.

It’s true that in places like Miami-Dade County in Florida and the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, Latinos were significantly less enthusiastic about Joe Biden than they were about Hillary Clinton. But as someone who has worked to organize Latinos for years, I know this rightward shift is hardly the whole story of what happened this election.

The numbers already show that Latinos were a major factor in Democratic victories in Arizona, Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico. And in cities where Black voters broke hard for Mr. Biden, Latinos helped expand the margins, going 75 percent for him in Philadelphia, 77 percent in Milwaukee and 75 percent in Gwinnett County, Ga., according to exit polling from U.C.L.A.’s Latino Policy and Politics Initiative.

The varied results in areas with high Latino density, like Maricopa County, Ariz.; Miami-Dade County; and the Rio Grande Valley simply show that Latinos are not monolithic. Together, these outcomes are a window into the future of a growing Latino electorate. And they offer a warning sign to the Democratic Party: Don’t expect Latinos to be reliably blue if we cannot rely on you.

Let’s start with Arizona. From 2000 to 2010, legislative bills and ballot initiatives took aim at immigrants in general and Latinos in particular, culminating with the passage of S.B. 1070, the “show us your papers” bill. In 2011, voters recalled State Senator Russell Pearce, its architect. In 2016, Sheriff Joe Arpaio was defeated at the polls.

And in 2020, Arizona voters chose Joe Biden, the first Democratic presidential nominee to win the state since 1996. According to the polling organization Latino Decisions, Latinos cast about 600,000 votes in Arizona — 17 percent of the state’s total ballots. An overwhelming majority of Latinos voted blue in key areas: roughly 75 percent in Maricopa County, 80 percent in Pima County and 74 percent in Yuma County. This election, a state that is home to the politics of Barry Goldwater, the Minutemen border vigilantes and modern-day chain gangs brought some hope to the rest of the country.

Demographic changes have led to projections that Arizona would turn blue, but without organizers mobilizing voters and engaging Latinos in continuing campaigns, the shift would not have happened at this pace and scale. Local organizations and labor unions have also contributed to this shift in Nevada and Colorado, and they are critical to maintaining these advantages moving forward.

Since 2010, I have been part of organizing efforts in Arizona in response to anti-immigrant, racist laws. My fellow organizers and I recognized that the gaps in Latino infrastructure we saw in Arizona also existed across the country, so we formed Mijente, a national effort to build a network of organizations and change-makers across Latino communities. Mijente is one of several organizations doing Latino voter mobilization nationally; others include United We Dream Action, Mi Familia Vota, Poder Latinx and Voto Latino.

This election, Mijente started the Fuera Trump campaign to mobilize Latinos to defeat Donald Trump through phone and text banking, digital content and coronavirus-safe door-knocking campaigns in Arizona, North Carolina and Georgia.

When we knocked on doors in Latino neighborhoods, people told us over and over that they’d never been contacted before. They often lacked basic information about the primary election process and how to vote by mail. Organizations tried to fill the gaps, stave off voter suppression efforts and influence policy. It was a lot of ground to cover, and we were largely doing it on our own.

Meanwhile, the Republican Party was looking to peel off voters in traditionally Democratic areas. This brings us to Texas and Florida. Latinos have reliably voted Democratic in the Rio Grande Valley and Miami-Dade County. So what happened in this election?

Republicans invested early, tailored their message and enlisted local residents as ambassadors of the party. This level of engagement and outreach was also a big part of the Bernie Sanders campaign during the Democratic primaries.

But too often in political campaigns, communities of color are prioritized late, if at all. Many people feel abandoned by the Democratic Party, and this was exploited by Republicans’ outreach in these districts. Their focus on Mr. Trump’s record on the economy resonated in economically depressed areas. Directly questioning what Democrats have done for reliable voters also hit home. And they sought to put socialism on the ballot by depicting Mr. Biden and the Democratic platform as socialist.

Latino voters cite the economy, health care, education, climate and immigration as top-line issues. Politicians hoping to connect with Latino voters must make the case for how their policy solutions will reach communities that have been historically marginalized or barred from benefiting from their policies. A pitch to voters that simply posits that Democrats are not as racist as Republicans is not good enough to get people to vote, much less to volunteer or donate.

Couple this with the huge Spanish-language disinformation campaigns that matched the scale of Kremlin-directed efforts in 2016 and you get a clearer picture of what happened.

This vicious cycle of writing off Latinos as infrequent voters — and then blaming us for election outcomes and using that to justify inaction on issues that matter to us — must end. The story of Latinos in this election is complicated, as is the story of Latinos in the United States over all. Many continue to ask if this umbrella term can actually hold the diversity and difference of people coming from Latin America. From a power-building standpoint the reality is that politics is a game of addition, of building bridges and alliances. Although we may see profound differences among ourselves, our adversaries see us all as the same: a threat.

Latinos are a multinational, multiracial and multiethnic group that has a history of working together for justice, from the barrios to the ballot box — of organizing independent of the party system as well as within it. Latinos can push the Democratic Party to do better, but it’s up to us to realize the potential power of our communities.

This can be done with an emphasis on pluralism and respecting what is unique across race, ethnicity, language and the many places Latinos call home. It comes from prioritizing tangible change over partisanship. This is not unlike what Democrats have to do to maintain unity among the diverse electorate that has defeated President Trump.

It is those people, the counted out and the overlooked, the ones who often get the raw deal who helped win this election, who turned up in record numbers during a pandemic that has decimated our communities. A diverse multiracial coalition just fought to save democracy knowing that the systems in place have often functioned precisely to exclude us — as Black people, women, L.G.B.T.Q. people, immigrants, Indigenous people, Asians and Latinos.

Our choice in this election went beyond candidates. We chose each other. We chose to have a fighting chance. Our work is not done, and core to that work is continuing to choose each other. Our parties and elected leaders must take heed and do the same.

Marisa Franco (@marisa_franco) is a community organizer and a co-founder of the Latino grass-roots group Mijente.

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