Mark T. Mulder and Gerardo Martí: Why did Biden underperform among Latinx voters?

Photo credit: Latinos for Trump Facebook page

Donald Trump bumped up his support among Latinx voters 3 percentage points in the 2020 election. Is voters’ religious identity key to understanding this trend?

Though it took months for the current occupant of the office to acknowledge it, Joe Biden won the presidency. Indeed, Biden received more votes than any other presidential candidate in history, winning by a substantial margin.

Perhaps most satisfying for Democrats, the Biden campaign seems to have rebuilt the “blue wall” by securing states that Donald Trump won in 2016 -- including Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. A significant portion of that success relied on leaning into Democratic tendencies to capture more votes in areas with increasing population density and education levels.

However, the Biden campaign experienced an erosion of support among some racial minorities. Compared with 2016, Trump bumped up his support among African American and Latinx voters by 4 and 3 percentage points, respectively.

Biden’s underperformance within Latinx communities is especially bewildering. Close examination reveals that in 2020, Trump improved his vote percentages in 78 of the country’s 100 Latinx-majority counties.

For example, The New York Times reports that almost every precinct in Chicago with a Latinx-majority population “showed an increase in enthusiasm for the president.” And this movement toward Trump occurred even as the president deployed rhetoric and implemented policies that would presumably alienate Latinx communities in the U.S.

Confusion regarding Latinx voting patterns is due to the fact that Latinx political and social concerns defy stereotypes. The heterogeneity within the demographic makes broad categorizations and sweeping pronouncements futile.

For instance, a September survey from Claremont McKenna College reported that among Latinx Christians, the top three voting issues had little to do with immigration or the border wall.

Instead, Latinx Christian voters cited the economy, COVID-19 and concerns about racial violence.

Moving from religious orientation to ethnic background, simply breaking down the Latinx vote by ancestry demonstrates clear divergence.

Among voters with South American ancestry, the swing toward Trump from 2016 to 2020 was a whopping 47 percentage points.

Mexican Americans also moved toward the president, but by a much lower 15 percentage points.

The smallest shift occurred among Cuban Americans -- but they, of course, ended up favoring Trump over Biden.

Much of the Cuban American affinity for Trump has been attributed to a Republican strategy of linking Democrats with socialism. With that ancestral group’s unique history related to communism, such an explanation seems plausible in clarifying Cuban American antipathy toward Democratic candidates.

But it fails to explain Latinx attraction to Trump in Arizona or Texas or Illinois, where Cuban American representation is small.

Instead, what seems to offer a more robust interpretation of these voting patterns is the growing adherence within Latinx communities to Protestant faith. Indeed, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) has stated that “religion is the largest demographic divider among Hispanic Americans.”

A preelection survey from PRRI reported that 57% of Latinx Protestants approved of how Trump was doing as president -- compared with 36% of Latinx in general and 27% of Latinx Catholics. It may be that these Latinx Protestants in the pews mirror the attitudes of their national-profile leaders.

Tony Suarez, the executive vice president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, has been an evangelical adviser to Trump and has cited the president’s opposition to abortion and ardent support of religious liberty as foundational to continued Latinx Protestant support.

The sharp growth of Latinx Protestants over the past two decades has occurred alongside the more aggressive political mobilization of their white evangelical brethren. In the latter group, anxieties over conservative issues like abortion and same-sex marriage have aligned with economic concerns for lowering high-income taxes and boosting corporate profits.

The shift of so many Latinx groups toward evangelicalism has led them to embrace the political priorities of the religious right. Thus, more conservative cultural and theological inclinations among Latinx Protestants have fostered more openness toward Republican candidates and positions.

The GOP and other conservative-leaning political organizations have realized the potential for mutual affinity and instigated an aggressive pursuit of Latinx voters, finding especially fertile territory among Latinx Protestants.

According to a recent New York Times story, the Libre Initiative, an arm of the Koch family’s Americans for Prosperity, has been “training activists, building relationships and nurturing a new generation of conservative Latino leaders.”

Libre has strategically pursued Latinx evangelicals, the most conservative of Latinx Protestants, by emphasizing stories of self-reliance that resonate well within these congregations, the Times says: “Libre works like an old-fashioned political machine -- or like a church -- educating and mobilizing Latinos to its own ends.”

In fact, Daniel Garza, the founder of Libre, remarked to the Times reporter that God and good credit function as the secrets to success in America -- an implicit endorsement of white Christian libertarian ideals of limited government.

Libre has built clout to spread its message during the next four years within Latinx communities across the country and stands ready “to push back on Biden’s agenda for health care, education and environmental policy,” the story reports. As Garza told the Times: “You can’t stop it now. It’s too late. Cat’s out of the bag.”

As a burgeoning wing of Christianity in the U.S., Latinx Protestants represent an enticing swing vote within the electorate. Demographers predict that in a little over a decade, Latinx communities will account for 18% of the electorate, and religious researchers continue to see a rise of Latinx Protestants. Thus, for upcoming election cycles, we will likely see even more organized Republican initiatives among Latinx Protestants.