SAN ANTONIO — Robert Gonzalez hoped to help Donald Trump get to the White House by waving a large Trump-Pence flag outside a polling site Tuesday. This predominantly Latino city backed Joe Biden, but Trump won the state.
"He's not a career politician," Gonzalez said of Trump. He was saddened that businesses in Riverwalk downtown — a heavy tourist area — had been boarded up because of the pandemic. Trump would bring economic recovery, he said.
Biden did win the Latino vote in those states. But in Texas, 41 percent to 47 percent of Hispanic voters backed Trump in several heavily Latino border counties in the Rio Grande Valley region, a Democratic stronghold. In Florida, Trump won 45 percent of the Latino vote, an 11-point improvement from his 2016 performance.
But the diverse Latino electorate has a record of backing Republicans in some parts of the country, with some segments commonly identifying with Republican messages about the economy and social and political issues.
In 2008, 42 percent of Latinos backed Republican presidential nominee John McCain. In Texas, Republicans have been able to win a third to 45 percent of Latinos' votes; George W. Bush drew more than 40 percent of the Hispanic vote as governor. And in Florida's 2018 races, Latino support propelled Republican Gov. Rick Scott to the Senate.
"If your starting point is that not a single Latino should vote for Trump, then of course you are going to need a more complex explanation for understanding why Trump would win 25 to 35 percent of the [Latino] vote" nationally, said Bernard Fraga, an associate professor of political science at Emory University.
Republicans say that in Texas, Trump's message about the stronger economy and record low unemployment — before the pandemic — resonated with voters.
"I think Latinos understand Trump can be coarse sometimes and can be uncouth, but then they take a look at his policies that a lot of Latinos embrace — pro-growth, entrepreneurial — these are all policies Latinos can embrace," said Daniel Garza, president of The LIBRE Initiative, a Hispanic center-right organization.
Trump's performance in Texas was noteworthy because the Latino outreach in the Rio Grande Valley on his behalf was "very organic," Garza said.
"This was communication spread from one person to the next, about 'look what was done on the economy, look at the results,'" said Garza, who lives in the region. Car caravans for Trump became commonplace and heavily attended, and they "took off all the way up to Laredo," he said.
Many Latinos in the Rio Grande Valley and parts of South Texas are employed in the oil and gas industry and they are good jobs, he said. Trump and Republicans attacked Biden during the campaign as wanting to end all fracking, forcing Biden to defend his view that calls for no new fracking on federal lands.
Beyond the economy, Mexican American voters in the Rio Grande Valley tend to be more conservative on the issues, said Fraga, author of "The Turnout Gap: Race, Ethnicity, and Political Inequality in a Diversifying America."
"This year, the law-and-order rhetoric used during the campaign really resonated with an already predisposed population to question things like Black Lives Matter" and youth protests, and this was effective for Trump, Fraga said.
Texas Democrats had started this election cycle off a 2018 high that saw an upsurge in Latino voting and of Beto O'Rourke coming within two points of defeating Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.
The party's aggressive campaign to take control of the state House and flip congressional seats included a strategy of turning out heavy Latino south Texas.
Democrats down ballot did win their elections in the Rio Grande Valley and even in predominantly Latino Zapata County, not in the valley but on the border, where Trump won, although some had closer races than hoped. Latino voters in counties with the state's major cities also voted Democrat, helping Biden with Texas' Latino vote.
But the pandemic did affect Democratic outreach, with the party suspending door-to-door canvassing, events and rallies that had been crucial to mobilizing voters. Republicans chose to continue work in the field.
"The Trump campaign was doing in-person events that the Biden people never did," Fraga said, citing Trump's massive rallies in places like Florida, working with organizations and Republican county offices.
O'Rourke and former Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro had called for more national investment in Texas outreach efforts as polls showed a tightening in the presidential race.
Trump's yearslong Florida outreach
Since early in his presidency, Trump and members of his administration focused on different groups within South Florida's Latino electorate, holding periodic rallies in the state to tout the administration's specific measures toward different countries, including Cuba and Venezuela.
At the same time, Trump and his supporters' constant depiction of Democrats — and later Biden — as "socialists" has been effective, with the GOP linking Democrats' healthcare or tax policies as a slippery slope to socialism.
Democrats in the state have been sounding the alarm for years about the need to counter the messaging, slamming Trump as a caudillo, or strongman, for his attacks on the media and government institutions. At the same time, polls had been showing an increase in Latino support for Trump in the state, along with a rise in grassroots support.
Trump also cultivated conservative Hispanics, visiting the largest Latino evangelical congregation in the country at a Florida megachurch and speaking at length about abortion, claiming the Democratic candidates were trying to "silence our churches."
This summer and fall, state Democrats warned that the party wasn't doing enough outreach to different Latino groups in the state, including the growing Puerto Rican population.
The last several months also saw a rise in Spanish-language social media disinformation aimed at Democrats.
Although there was heavy attention on Trump's rising support from Cuban Americans, NBC News exit polls indicated that Trump won 55 percent of Cuban Americans in Florida, a slight improvement from 2016. But what's notable is that 48 percent of Latinos who voted for Trump in Florida are neither Cuban American nor Puerto Rican, according to NBC News' exit polling.
Eduardo Gamarra, a political science professor at Florida International University, said much of the increase in support was among Colombians and Nicaraguans, more than Venezuelans, because of their share of the electorate. Last month, Trump congratulated Colombia's former conservative president, Alvaro Uribe—a divisive figure supported by some in South Florida—for his release from house arrest, calling him a “hero."
In South Florida, Colombian American voter Olga Berrio, 78, said she voted for Trump because Democrats are too far to the left.
"After Obama and then Clinton, I felt this country was heading towards the left, rather than the right," she said.
Biden can tout winning a solid majority of Hispanic voters in key battleground states such as Nevada, and Arizona, according to exit polls. But Trump's gains in Texas and Florida mean Democrats will have to work harder to win large margins of Latino support in the future.
In Miami, Manuel Montes de Oca, 45, owner of a chain of Cuban pizza restaurants, was one of the Latino voters who cast a vote for Trump. "I like to keep most of the money I make," he said, "and not give it away in taxes."