Tuesday was a historic night for Latinos across the country, but nowhere more so than Arizona and Florida – but with totally different results.
In Arizona, higher turnout by Latinos, mostly of Mexican origin, played a crucial role in helping Democrats win the state for Joe Biden for the first time since 1996. In Florida, an impressive surge by Cuban American voters propelled Republicans to major gains, dramatically increasing Donald Trump’s margin of victory four years ago.
In the process, Democrats won a vital U.S. Senate seat and threatened to end decades-long control of the House of Representatives in Arizona, while Republicans picked up two congressional seats in South Florida.
Biden’s victory was constructed in large part on the backs of a massive voter registration effort by Latino civic organizations to end decades of alleged racism by politicians and local law enforcement. While in Florida, the Republican party successfully targeted Cuban Americans with a forceful anti-socialist political message, while also registering new voters.
“We have long said that the Latino electorate in the US is not a monolith. Tonight proves just that - the promise and the peril of the Latino vote,” said Stephanie Valencia, co-Founder and president of EquisLabs, a Latinx political polling and research firm.
"This is the story of long-term, grass roots organizing, despite covid. The mobilizing against the odds is what delivered," said Ai-Jen Poo, director of the National Alliance of Workers of the Hogar (NDWA), in a conference call Friday with activists from minority communities.
That comes against a background of the growing spread of immigrant populations that is shifting the political landscape, according to Rocio Saenz, Executive Vice President, Service Employees International Union (SEIU speaking on a conference call with minority community activists on Friday.
"We also understand that not all immigrants vote alike. But you are seeing it in real time. The growing foreign-born populations in key cities, and connecting suburbs, like Detroit, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Phoenix, are a major factor that helped the Democrats to rebound in 2018 and retake the White House," she added.
To be sure, Biden was helped in Arizona by the support of former Republican Senator Jeff Flake and the widow of his former friend in the Senate, the late John McCain. But there's no escaping the population explosion. Arizona's Latino population was about 15% in 2000, but just 20 years later Hispanics are already at least 24% of the population, and 18% of the voters.
“Why are we talking about Arizona?” asked political commentator Van Jones on CNN on Wednesday. “Because the Latino and Latina community did something extraordinary,” he added, referring to the voter outreach by non-profits like Lucha Arizona and Mi Familia Vota. “The reason we are talking about Arizona is because there’s a community of people that was being picked on and mistreated, anti-immigrant attacks against them, that forced them to organize themselves,” Jones went on.
Overall, Latinos voted for Biden over Trump by a 28-point margin (63% to 35%), according to AP VoteCast, with a record turnout of about 14 million, up from 12.7 million in 2016, according to preliminary figures.
In Arizona, Latino’s increased their share of the vote from 16% in 2016 to 18% in 2020, preferring Biden by a 59-35% margin. Another poll by Democratic-leaning Latino Decisions, in collaboration with a coalition of civil rights groups, found a much wide margin of 71%-26% in favor of Biden.
"We saved the day"
As a result, Biden’s victory in Arizona may have added the latest brick in a new “blue wall” in the so-called ‘Sun Belt’ in the South-west, following in the footsteps of Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico.
“All across the Sun Belt, Latinos showed up. We won. We saved the day,” said Kristian Ramos, a Latino consultant.
Trump did manage to hold onto Texas fairly comfortably by six percentage points in Texas, but that was three points less than in 2016. Latinos now make up 23% of the electorate in Texas, and preferred Biden over Trump by 62% - 37%, according to AP Votecast. (Latino Decisions gave a wider margin of 67%-29%.)
The variation in the polls is due largely to the small samples of voters which results in a large margin of error. It will be several months before deeper surveys give a more accurate results.
Texas was still a few years away from turning blue, said Ramos. “It requires the investment in time and energy. Unless you spend ten years down there organizing, red states are going to be red states,” he said.
That was the key in Arizona. Maricopa County, the most populous county in the state, which includes the city of Phoenix and its environs, was won by Trump by three percentage points in 2016, but preliminary results Tuesday show a swing of more than five percentage points, with Democrats leading by 2.3%.
Until 2016, Maricopa was the domain of the sheriff, Joe Arpaio, famous nationally for his anti-immigrant stance. Arpaio was the architect of strict measures to apprehend and incarcerate illegal immigrants. In 2010, then-Republican Gov. Jan Brewer also enacted controversial immigration law SB 1070, which allowed police to demand papers from anyonethey thought might be undocumented.
The legacy of SB 1070 and Arpaio's actions activated Hispanics, who began organizing and helped launch a generation of young Latinos to compete - and win - in local elections.
“We have been bringing Latino political pressure for the last 15 years to get racist politicians out of office,” an exhausted Eduardo Sainz, Arizona state director for Mi Familia Vota, told Univision on Wednesday. “It took a lot of investment and education in our communities about the importance of participating,” he said, describing a year-long effort to register 185,000 voters.
LUCHA had 200 people knocking on the doors of two million homes in seven counties in Arizona, as well as making eight million phone calls, according to Tomas Robles, co-director of LUCHA (Living United for Change in Arizona. "We have built a strong organizing culture here," said Robles. "to make sure Trump heard our call loud anad clear: 'Pa' fuera!', ('Outta here')."
However, critics of the Democratic party say there was little effort to engage Latino voters until late in the campaign when Biden sent out a barrage of Spanish-language ads expressing his recognition of the contributions of the Latino community.
“It takes groups like us. No political parties are saving us, we are saving ourselves and we are fighting for our rights to democracy,” said Sainz, a 29-year-old Mexican immigrant from Sonora, who lives in Phoenix.
Mi Familia Vota put together a staff of 500 fanning out across the state, backed by it’s nationwide $10 million ‘Basta Trump’ campaign. “It was a huge operation. We know that Trump has been insulting our community and we had to make Trump a one-term president,” he added.
The pandemic curtailed their activities over the summer but two months ago they made the decision to go back to field operations, knocking on doors.
Tuesday’s results exceeded his expectations. “I can hardly believe what happened yesterday,” he said. Besides beating Trump in Arizona, he said the Latino vote surge hopefully helped overturn a 44-year-old Republican majority in Arizona’s House of Representatives. ( At the time of publication of this article, it was unclear whether the Democratic candidates got the necessary votes.)
Latinos also contributed an estimated 200,000 votes in Pennsylvania, 150,000 in Wisconsin, and another 120,000 in Michigan, to the ‘blue wall’ in the Mid-West that Trump tore down in 2016, and which Biden appears to have restored.
In 2016, Trump won all three states by a combined 107,000 votes. Four years later those margins were reversed, with Biden winning by 20,000 votes in Wisconsin, 150,000 in Michigan and a close margin in as well in Pennsylvania, where votes are still being counted.
It was a different story in Florida where Trump managed to triple his margin of victory four years ago, in large part thanks to Hispanic voters, in this case mainly Cuban Americans.
Miami-Dade County, where Hispanics make up almost 70 percent of the population, saw a 23-point swing to Trump from Hillary Clinton’s 290,000-vote win there four years ago. The extra 200,000 votes in Mia
around a two-to-one margin, according to EquisLabs. And Trump competed with Biden to nearly split non-Cuban Hispanics thanks to Trump’s campaign theme that Biden was a “puppet” for the party’s radical socialist wing.
That helped Trump boost his Hispanic voter support among Hispanics from 35% in 2016 to 45% in 2020.
“It’s all down to the groundwork,” said Yali Nunez, the Republican party’s Hispanic spokesperson. “Our multilingual engagement efforts this cycle were unprecedented. Florida is the perfect example of the outcome of these efforts,” she added, emphasizing the creation of 17 Latino community centers in key locations.
The Republicans effort in Florida also defied the pandemic to campaign in person on the ground while mounting an aggressive voter registration campaign that significantly cut the Democrat’s advantage in the state by 200,000 voters to only 134,000.
Impressive as the Cuban turnout was for Trump, it wasn’t the only reason for his success in Florida. Even if Democratic nominee Joe Biden had won Miami-Dade by the same margin as Hillary Clinton did in 2016, Biden still would have lost Florida by about 170,000 votes.
Across the state, Trump had a higher margin of victory than 2016 in at least 50 of Florida’s 67 counties, according to a Miami Herald analysis.
The AP Votecast survey showed Trump taking about 45% of the Hispanic vote in Florida versus Biden’s 54%. That was a substantial improvement from 2016 when Trump won about 35% of Hispanic voters to 62% for Clinton.
The other 2020 exit poll by Latino Decisions found Biden leading among Florida Hispanics by a wider 21-point margin: 59% - 38%.
Whatever the margin, there was widespread agreement among analysts that Trump made significant strides, thanks to his campaign’s strong engagement with Latinos.
“Trump invested in South Florida and he was rewarded for that,” said Gary Segura with Latino Decisions. Trump’s tough sanctions on the Venezuelan regime of Nicolas Maduro, a strategic ally of Cuba, were an effective means of tapping into the long-held anti-socialist views of older Cuban Americans, as well as engaging the influx of Venezuelan Americans to South Florida.
On the other hand, Democrats were less effective in reaching out to Latinos, resorting to a last-minute deluge of Spanish-language ads, which proved to be too little, too late.
Each in their own way, Arizona and Florida could provide a road map for future campaigns.
“It’s about engagement. Outreach is always rewarded,” he said. “Registering voters is the most important thing we do. Population bombs don’t just turn into political bombs. They have to be socialized,” he added.