In 2016, in Starr County, Texas, one of the poorest areas of the country and 96 percent Latino, Hillary Clinton cleaned up, winning it 79 to 19 percent. Four years later, Joe Biden won that same county by just 5 points.
Yet the votes for Clinton and Biden were roughly similar: 9,246 in 2016 for Clinton and 9,099 for Biden in 2020. It was Donald Trump’s numbers that surged, from just over 2,000 in 2016 to more than 8,000 this election. The county is home to around 43,000 voting-age eligible people, according to the census.
Somehow, Trump managed to quadruple his vote total while Biden managed to lose a small amount of ground, even as turnout was up overall. It was a stark instance of a trend that dogged Biden across the country: Even as Democrats ran up big numbers among suburban and college-educated voters, their support among voters of color eroded. On Fox News, Tucker Carlson crowed that Starr County’s shift was symbolic of an emerging populist Republican Party. “People who make less are voting Republican in bigger numbers,” Carlson said, saying the GOP was “the party of wage earners.”
The exception was Arizona, a state called early on Tuesday night by that same Fox News, giving hope to Democrats that the race was far from over. Clinton won 61 percent of the Latino vote in the state in 2016, while early reports show Biden reaching 70 percent. And, in Arizona, there’s a lesson for Democrats as they confront the erosion of what they expected to be their emerging coalition. Particularly in Maricopa County, a long-running organizing campaign against Sheriff Joe Arpaio pulled together a political constituency with its own motivations, community, and sense of identity. That constituency was primed not just to get out the vote but to flip Arizona blue.
Chuck Rocha, the architect of the Bernie Sanders campaign’s Latino strategy and founder of the pro-Biden Nuestro PAC, said that Biden’s success in Arizona was “the perfect storm.” The Biden campaign started spending big on TV ad buys early on and, though they were slow to ramp up Latino outreach efforts in the state, groups like Living United for Change in Arizona, or LUCHA, were doing the work on the ground. Rocha also believes that marijuana legalization being on the ballot was “another driving force” for Latino turnout.
“The Latino outreach started late,” Rocha said. “It could have been better, and we’re lucky that Joe Biden caught up with his spending when he did, because the outside spending was not comparable. What we’re seeing is a billion dollars that was spent talking to white persuadable voters and less than $24 million talking to Latinos for outside orgs.”
Trump’s support among Latinos, specifically Cuban Americans, helped him in Miami-Dade County, the most populous in Florida. Early 2020 exit polls found that Biden won a little over half of Latino voters in the state, down from Clinton’s 62 percent. In Georgia, Biden was up 16 percentage points among Latinos, compared with Clinton’s 40 percent, and similarly down with Latino voters in Ohio, according to CNN.
Groups of voters have moved in and out of parties for decades, yet leaders in both parties tend to think of groups that are part of their coalition as static. In the early 1900s, the Great Migration saw millions of Black people leave the South for northern cities. Once they arrived, Democratic machine bosses looked to tap into this new voting bloc, creating the beginnings of an awkward coalition. Republican leaders insisted that African Americans would never vote for a party of former slave owners, and took the Black vote for granted. By 1936, a majority of African American votes were cast for Democrats.
Democratic leaders today, meanwhile, argue that Trump’s rhetoric around race is so toxic that it’s inconceivable voters of color could move his way. But voters who are not actively engaged can’t be counted on for decades.
LUCHA, a Latino-run grassroots group, was formed in 2009 in response to the state’s “show me your papers” immigration law and Arpaio’s brutal 24-year reign. Senate Bill 1070, as it’s officially known, was the most punitive immigration law in the nation and led to a seismic shift in the politics of the state.
“[SB 1070] was a watershed moment for the state of Arizona, in the sense that it was so raw and so politically motivated in terms of making the immigrant community and Latinos, by obvious association, the target that it backfired,” Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., told The Intercept a few days before the election. “And it backfired in the sense that it politicized a lot of people and energized a generation of activists.”
LUCHA has knocked on hundreds of thousands of doors in neighborhoods in South Phoenix, South Tucson, and West Phoenix since its inception. “You see just a tremendous force of young people that you’ve seen throughout this decade really leading the fight here in Arizona,” Abril Gallardo, LUCHA’s communications director, told The Intercept last week.