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'There's no such thing as the Latino vote.' 2020 results reveal a complex electorate

Antonio Torres drove to different South Texas cities waving a large Trump 2020 flag every weekend for the past three months.

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Nicole Chavez
CNN — Antonio Torres drove to different South Texas cities waving a large Trump 2020 flag every weekend for the past three months.

The small caravan of cars that the 51-year-old insurance agent initially joined in the border city of McAllen last summer grew to more than a hundred cars ahead of Election Day. The region had historically been a Democratic stronghold but last week it saw a closer race than before.

"I'm very confident that from now on, the elections down here are not going to be one-sided anymore," Torres said. "There's going to be competition."

Both President Donald Trump and President-elect Joe Biden benefited from the high turnout of Latino voters across the US. Yet the support they received from this diverse and complex electorate of about 32 million people -- and why -- varied in different parts of the country.

A nationwide CNN exit poll shows that Biden captured 66% of the group across the country, which is the same that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton received four years ago. Trump picked up more Latino voters with 32%, compared to 28% in 2016.

"If you consider us to be natural Democrats or natural Republicans, you're under estimating us as political thinkers," said Geraldo Cadava, who teaches at Northwestern University and is the author of "The Hispanic Republican: The Shaping of an American Political Identity, from Nixon to Trump."

Experts like Cadava and leaders from some of the nation's most prominent Latino political advocacy groups said the election's results should send a resounding signal to both parties that connecting with Latinos long before the election and understanding their political identity is key.

"There's just such a great diversity that I think most Americans haven't even really begun to understand," Cadava said.

Here's how the vast differences among Latinos may have influenced the election results in Texas, Arizona and Florida:

A reliably Democratic region in Texas is changing

Ross Barrera was skeptical when someone suggested organizing a "Trump Train" mobile vehicle rally in Starr County, which is in the state's southernmost tip and in a region predominantly populated by Mexican Americans.

"Do we have enough Republicans to do this?," the county's Republican chair told CNN affiliate KSAT, recalling the conversation.

Biden won 52% of the vote in the rural Starr County after Hillary Clinton won 79% of the vote, according to the Texas Secretary of State. Starr was one of several counties in the state's Rio Grande Valley that garnered more Republican votes this year than in the 2016 presidential election.

In interviews with CNN, Republicans in the Rio Grande Valley said some aspects of the Mexican American culture aligned with Trump's messaging, including that he values life, family and religious freedom.

"He's bringing God back into our country, changes to regulations that put a chokehold into our economy and he's plain-spoken like the average American," said Minerva Simpson, a 54-year-old mortgage loan officer in Harlingen, Texas.

While immigration has drawn many Latino voters to the polls for decades, for many living along the US-Mexico border, the economy, jobs and the coronavirus pandemic response ranked even higher this year.

Some Mexican Americans in the Rio Grande Valley saw Trump as someone who gave them a voice after Democrats took them for granted, said Cadava.

"(The region) has been kind of political backwater that Democrats have taken for granted for a long time, Cadava said.

"Whether you disagree with his policies or not, he (Trump) said that he had an answer to their problems. He was going to make America great again, he was going to improve the economy and he was going to create jobs," he said.

The region is among the poorest in the state and the limited access to health care complicated things when it became a main Covid-19 hotspot in Texas over the summer.

Law and order also became a key issue. Many Border Patrol agents and law enforcement officers in the region are Latino, according to Domingo Garcia, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC).

"When you talk about defunding the police and you don't stand up to that type of rhetoric, it leaves an opening for Republicans to come in and take advantage of that," Garcia said.

Some people also questioned whether the Democrats did enough outreach in the region.

Three days before the election and on the last day of early voting in the state, then-vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris stopped in Edinburg, the third-largest city in the Rio Grande Valley.

Although some saw Harris' visit to the region as a sign of strength, Cadava said, while others considered it one of weakness because Democrats were worried about turnout.

SB 1070 galvanized Latinos to mobilize voters

Bash Herrera had canvassed for Democratic candidates for about three years when last week, he voted for the first time in a presidential election.

Growing up in Glendale, Arizona, his Mexican American family lived paycheck to paycheck. Politics wasn't on their minds.

The 20-year-old says he began registering people to vote as a way to make some money. He continued doing it because he realized others' struggles mirrored his own and they were ready to do more to make their lives better.

"When it comes to most things that people need and care about to have a good quality life, it's disproportionately people of color that don't have those things, whether it's health care or education or living wage," Herrera said.

Herrera was part of a grassroots movement that prompted a higher Latino turnout in a state that has traditionally voted Republican.

Voters said support for Biden was fired up by the Trump administration's response to the Covid-19 pandemic and his immigration rhetoric. Biden earned 63% of the Latino vote in the state, according to preliminary results of a nationwide CNN exit poll.

Among young voters in Arizona, Biden was the candidate of choice by more than 2 to 1, according to the national exit polls.

"People want to be OK during this pandemic. People don't want to die. People don't want to get evicted. People want to have a living wage. People want to have a good education for their kids. People want to have health care," Herrera said.

In the past decade, the state's growing Mexican American population has become more politically active thanks to grassroots groups born partly out of resistance to SB 1070, the state's controversial 2010 immigration law enabling police to check the immigration status of anyone suspected of being in the country illegally.

At the time, Eduardo Sainz, Arizona state director for Mi Familia Vota, saw loved ones and neighbors, who were terrorized by SB 1070, flee to other states. The law, he said, sparked many others to take action.

"I started doing this work because I wanted to ensure that my community was respected," Sainz said in a call with reporters last week.

They became organizers and spent years knocking on doors educating and mobilizing voters. Ahead of the 2020 Election, Mi AZ, a coalition of six organizations in the state, planned to mobilize one million voters of color and young voters to support Democrats.

"Our community has been under attack for years, and with this vote, we are sending a very clear message that we are no longer going to take it," said Adonías Arévalo, Arizona state director for Poder Latinx. "We will mobilize and elect candidates who will respect our community."

And even though they see their role in this election's Arizona vote as a major victory, advocates say the fight isn't over.

Many of the battles that drove them into activism still haven't been won.

"We need to still continue to organize and make sure that they actually do what we got them elected to do, which is to represent us and to fight for us," Herrera said.

False socialism claims influenced some Florida Latinos

The coronavirus pandemic had stopped German Pinelli and his family from bringing their Cuban salsa music to clubs around Miami for months when one of their songs became a staple at Trump rallies in Florida.

"Ay, ay, ay, ay por Dios. Yo voy a votar, por Donald Trump," Pinelli's band, Los 3 de la Habana, sang in front of a crowd of people wearing MAGA hats.

The band was performing at a Miami birthday party in September when Pinelli's son changed the usual chorus of their song "Cuba is Me" in a moment that was live-streamed on Facebook and had been shared by tens of thousands of people. The idea came after a fellow Trump supporter at the party told them that he hoped one of his neighbors, who is a Democrat, wouldn't call police complaining about the party's music.

The song was featured in a national Trump campaign ad and Pinelli, 48, said it proved that Trump doesn't hate immigrants.

Trump defeated Biden in Florida after nearly half of Latino voters in the state, including Pinelli and his family, cast their ballots for the President, according to preliminary results of a nationwide CNN exit poll. (Biden received 52% of the vote among Latinos compared to 47% for Trump.)

Democrats were concerned about Biden's ability to court Latinos in Florida heading into Election Day, leading his campaign to pour manpower and money there. But Trump's campaign had already been focused on the state's Latino evangelists and Miami-Dade County — the state's most populous county and home to a large number of Cuban and Venezuelan immigrants who tend to be more conservative than others.

Some conservative Latinos in South Florida, particularly Cuban Americans and Venezuelans, linked Biden and other Democratic Party figures to the Latin American socialist regimes they fear.

"If something smells like socialism or is slightly similar we don't like it, we don't want it for our children's future," Pinelli said.

For months, the Trump campaign portrayed Biden as a socialist in social media memes, Spanish ads comparing him to Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez and Cuba's Fidel Castro; and held a "Fighters Against Socialism" tour in Florida last month.

Jorge Duany, head of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, said the idea among some Latinos is that "Democrats are socialists, radicals or left wing and even if they aren't, they would be subject to the pressures from Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez."

Biden has repeatedly disputed those claims and his primary campaign, in which he clashed ideologically with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, and his record over more than 40 years in the public eye, has left little room for confusion about where he stands.

Former President Barack Obama assured attendees at a drive-in rally in North Miami last month that Biden was not a socialist.

"Some of the rhetoric that you're hearing down here in South Florida, it's just made up — it's just nonsense," Obama said. "Listening to the Republicans, you'd think that Joe was more communist than the Castros! Don't fall for that garbage."

"What is true," Obama added, "is that he'll stand for ordinary people ... he'll promote human rights in Cuba and around the world, and he won't coddle dictators the way our current president does."

There are nearly 2.5 million Latinos registered to vote in Florida, making up 17% of the state's registered voters, according to the Pew Research Center. The number of registered Democrats is higher than Republicans but voters with no party affiliation are closely behind.

Some of those voters are evangelicals who some experts have called the "quintessential swing voters."

"Hispanic Evangelicals are politically homeless," Rev. Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition and co-lead pastor of The Gathering Place in Orlando Florida.

Hispanic evangelicals are not "one-issue voters." They oppose abortion rights while supporting immigration and criminal justice reform. Salguero says they were put off by Trump's xenophobic and anti-immigrant rhetoric but his campaign had longer and more sustained conversations, which made a difference for some evangelicals.

Trump launched his "Evangelicals for Trump" coalition in January at Ministerio Internacional El Rey Jesus, a South Miami megachurch with a large Spanish-speaking congregation, and continued engaging them for months.

As the election cycle wraps up, experts and advocates, including Cadava and Salguero, agree that Latinos can't be seen as a monolith.

Latinos have arrived in the US from different places and for different reasons. Some of have lived in the country for generations, have different class backgrounds and different ideas about sex and gender.

"There is no such thing as the Latino vote. Yet, there are millions of Latinos who vote," Cadava said.

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