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Trump has Latino voter support that's as strong as ever. Why haven't his insults cost him?

It's no surprise that many Latinos don't plan to vote for Trump in November. What may be a surprise is how many do.
Image: President Trump Hosts Florida 'Homecoming' Rally
An attendee wears a Latinos for Trump T-shirt at a rally in Sunrise, Fla., on Nov. 26.Jayme Gershen / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Among the many unsavory details in "Disloyal: A Memoir," a new book by President Donald Trump's former personal lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen, is his recollection of Trump's unvarnished views of Latino voters. "I will never get the Hispanic vote," Cohen recalls Trump as saying when he was a presidential candidate in 2016. "Like the blacks, they're too stupid to vote for Trump."

It's no surprise, then, that many Latinos don't plan to vote for Trump in November. What may be a surprise is how many do.

Beyond economic issues like free enterprise and low taxes, social issues can hold a significant sway for Hispanics who are religious, most commonly Catholic but increasingly evangelical.

Trump has built up an impressive body of insults and racist slurs directed at Latinos ever since he announced his 2016 candidacy in a speech calling Mexicans rapists. But none of it seems to have hurt him significantly among Latino Republicans. In 2016, he won 28 percent of the Latino vote, according to exit polls conducted by Edison Research for the National Election Pool, and published by outlets including NBC News. That was 1 point higher than Mitt Romney got in 2012. Today, national polls show Trump set to get around 30 percent of the Latino vote.

In the key battleground state of Florida, new polls show Trump gaining ground on Joe Biden. A new NBC News/Marist poll shows Trump leading among Latino voters, 50 percent to 46 percent. Quinnipiac University has Trump leading among Latino voters by 45 percent to 43 percent in Florida, though the difference is within the margin of error. And even though Miami-Dade County, Florida's most populous, is a Democratic bastion, Trump runs essentially even with Biden there, at 47 percent to 46 percent of Latinos, according to a Bendixen & Amandi poll.

Latinos will become the country's largest minority voting group this year. A record 32 million are eligible to vote, accounting for 13.3 percent of all eligible voters and making up large numbers of voters in swing states like Colorado, Nevada, Arizona and, of course, Florida, where they are nearly a quarter of voters. No wonder Democrats are rattled and political analysts are baffled.

That a significant proportion of Latinos reliably vote conservative in and of itself is nothing new. The population has counted a healthy number of Republican voters ever since the "Latinos con Eisenhower" movement started in California in the 1950s, Northwestern University historian Geraldo Cadava wrote in a Los Angeles Times op-ed in May.

"In many ways the fit with the party was natural for a constituency that valued family, church and work so highly," Cadava wrote. And many Latinos felt they'd been ignored by Democrats, who saw civil rights primarily in black and white, while Californians like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan reached out to them. Once Reagan became president, he added, Cuban exiles who opposed communism also began to exercise considerable clout in the GOP.

Polls since then have shown that 25 percent to 30 percent of the demographic group has favored Republicans. And the Republican Party has seen this growing segment of the American population as one worth courting, notably with George W. Bush's Hispanic outreach in the 2000s, in which he spoke Spanish and emphasized issues like faith and education.

But Trump? How can Latinos support a president who demeans them, who once said Judge Gonzalo Curiel could not be impartial because he was Hispanic, who makes a border wall a rallying cry for hard-line anti-immigrant policies and who separates Latino children from their parents and puts them in cages?

"It's a difficult question, but there are logical explanations," Eduardo Gamarra, professor of politics at Florida International University, told me over the phone from Miami.

First of all, he stressed that Latinos are not a monolith. "They have distinct political postures and come from different national politics. They don't vote the same, think the same or have similar histories," he said. "There are liberal Latinos, conservative Latinos, poor Latinos, rich Latinos."

Indeed, polls show distinctions among different heritages. While Trump has a sizable lead among Cubans in Florida, giving him the edge among the Latinos in the state, Biden does slightly better among Puerto Rican voters. Across the United States, a little more than 18 percent of the population, or nearly 60 million people, are Latino, slightly more than half of them Mexican. Another 5.6 million are Puerto Rican, and 2 million are Cuban, though the last group is highly concentrated in Florida.

For some in these diverse groups, GOP positions are more appealing. Beyond economic issues like free enterprise and low taxes, social issues can hold a significant sway for Hispanics who are religious — most commonly Roman Catholic but increasingly evangelical. Opposition to abortion rights and gay rights, for instance, can be a deal breaker for many Latinos who come from countries where abortion and gay marriage are illegal.

And the issues themselves are multifaceted, with Republicans often championing the policies they support. "Latinos care a lot about education," Gamarra said. "But it is not public education," as Democrats may assume. "It is access to private education." He said that in Latin America, "public schools are seen as inferior."

"Even working-class families send their children to private schools," he said. "Here, Hispanics want choice, the mantra of the Republicans. Choice means charter schools and vouchers."

More broadly, Trump's claim that electing Biden would bring chaos, violence and socialism to this country resonates with Hispanics who come from countries with socialist regimes, such as Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua.

Even Trump's slurs can work, or at least not alienate dedicated GOP-voting Latinos. Gamarra attributed that to the racism that exists in many Latin American countries and communities in which lighter-skinned people and those with Spanish ancestry are favored over darker-skinned, indigenous groups, the result of centuries of conquistadors and slavery. "We are racists," Gamarra said. "We come from racist societies. Latinos agree with him. They don't see it as racism."

This point was brought to the surface recently during the Black Lives Matter protests in Miami, when several Cuban Americans expressed regret at what they called racism in their history.

A Puerto Rican entrepreneur from Miami, who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity, agreed with the idea that the president isn't racist, noting that he, a brown-skinned man, supports him. "I don't believe in systemic racism," he said. "It's not a problem. The problem is the media."

Among the reasons he gave for backing Trump was his immigration policy, which is another dividing line for Hispanic voters. Though some are repelled by Trump's rhetoric, others feel they are unfairly lumped together with undocumented immigrants and resent those who cross illegally because they believe they damage the Latino image.

Given this enduring support for Trump, Biden advocates like Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont are urging Biden to get out on the trail more often and to promote his plans to lift the economy and create jobs, issues on which Trump outperforms Biden.

Perhaps reacting to the troubling data for Biden, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg pledged to donate $100 million to the Biden campaign in Florida. Bloomberg's offer follows the campaign's efforts to showcase Florida, such as dispatching vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris on a whirlwind visit to Miami, where she met Venezuelans on their home turf of Doral (where Trump has a golf club).

But some Biden supporters, including Latino leaders, say the campaign was too slow to mobilize Latinos, ramping up its Latino agenda only in the past few months when the campaign finally launched full-time bilingual operations, with bilingual ads and microtargeted polling, aimed at Latinos in Florida, Texas, Arizona, California, Nevada and Pennsylvania.

Trump's claim that electing Biden would bring chaos, violence and socialism to this country resonates with Hispanics who come from countries with socialist regimes, such as Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua.

Only on Tuesday did Biden make his first visit to Florida since he became the presidential nominee, speaking in Tampa and Kissimmee along the heavily Latino I-4 Corridor.

Trump is, of course, a Florida man. Florida is now his official home state. He visits often and misses no chance to flog his law-and-order, anti-Cuba, anti-socialist agenda and, in rallies and by tweet, to denounce Biden as an anarchist and a radical who would destroy the country.

But Florida is always hard to get. Though Trump had a good post-Labor Day week in the polls in Florida, he and Biden are still in a seesaw contest in one of the country's most volatile battlegrounds.

CORRECTION (Sept. 16, 2020, 11:45 a.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misstated who conducted national exit polls in 2016. It was Edison Research (for the National Election Pool, published by outlets including NBC News), not the Pew Research Center.