NEW YORK — Julián Vasquéz, a Puerto Rican salsa musician from the Bronx, supported Donald Trump. So did his mother, Milva Ortiz.
“I felt the sincerity when he speaks,” Vasquéz said. “He's not the most eloquent speaker, but you can tell that it’s from the heart. I believe he means well for the nation regardless of all the backlash the man is getting."
"He is a man who is sincere that when he speaks. He speaks in truth. He is not hiding things," added his mother, in Spanish.
President Trump made gains among Latino voters in key battleground states like Texas and Florida, where he won those states combined 68 electoral votes. In Florida, he won 45% of Latino voters, up from 35% of the vote in the 2016 election, according to the AP VoteCast survey. But in other states, like Arizona and Nevada, a growing Latino population voted overwhelmingly for the Democratic candidate, Vice President Joe Biden.
For many advocates, the election results highlight the importance for both parties to recognize that the Latino electorate is not a monolithic voting bloc.
“As a whole, [the Latino vote] is up for grabs,” said Jared Nordlund, Florida state director of UnidoUS, a Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization. “You're not going to have a one-size-fits-all message out there.”
Even though a majority of Latinos in the U.S. identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center pre-election survey, organizers say their votes can’t be taken for granted.
“They're voting on a lot of different issues, but they're being expected to fall in line with identity politics,” said Ana Sofia Pelaez, co-founder of the Miami Freedom Project, a progressive advocacy group. “There's a lot of identities within the Latino vote, so if that's your hope that that's where you have to deliver, then you're going to fall short.”
Across the U.S., Biden appears to have gotten roughly twice as many Latino votes as President Trump, according to exit polls. But in places like Miami-Dade County, the most populous in Florida, President Trump’s courting of Latino voters throughout his presidency paid off.
“For Republicans, Miami's always a home game,” said Pelaez. “Democrats tend to be the visitors, and we need to have them here year-round.”
The coronavirus only exacerbated this difference.
“It was a problem for both parties, but it was a bigger problem for the Biden campaign,” said Gary Segura, senior partner at the polling firm Latino Decisions. “It was largely because they followed the rules. They didn't believe in creating mass-spreader events, and so they didn't do in-person on the ground campaigning.”
Though President Trump’s rhetoric is often seen as anti-immigrant, the perception of the Republican party as more hawkish than Democrats and harder on crime resonates with certain sectors of the Latino population.
For Cuban Americans in Miami, who carry the historical trauma of fleeing a socialist regime, President Trump’s labeling of Biden as socialist was a successful tactic.
“When they hear Democrats refer to themselves as Democratic Socialists, it doesn't mean what it means when Fidel and Raul Castro or Nicolas Maduro says it, but that's not what they're hearing,” said Segura. “They're hearing the same word. The Trump campaign made good use of that as a way to tag them with an unfavorable identity.”
And for Latinos along the Rio Grande border in Texas, who comprise a large portion of law enforcement there, the party that’s seen as tough on crime holds sway.
“When you talk about defund the police or abolish ICE, you're talking about their pocketbooks,” said Domingo Garcia, national president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, who also said the Republican pro-life agenda was an important factor for many devout Catholic Latino voters.
While Trump strengthened his gains among Cuban American voters in Florida, Biden won over other segments of the state’s Latino electorate, such as Puerto Rican voters in central Florida. The turnout there along with Democratic strongholds in counties like Broward and West Palm ultimately gave Biden an overall victory among Latino voters in the state.
And in other key states like Nevada, Arizona, and Wisconsin, Biden’s gains among Latino voters are being touted by experts as the potentially decisive factor behind a Biden victory.
“Latinos also were crucial in Wisconsin, where they made up about 7% of the vote,” said Garcia. “That was the margin that put Biden over the top in Wisconsin.”
While the final votes are still being tallied, experts are keen to point out that Trump’s gains in Florida don’t represent the big picture.
“Florida is very much a one-off because look at what happened in Arizona—profound turnout for the first time in a generation,” said Segura. “There are more Latinos in Arizona than there are in Miami-Dade.”
And for advocates like Pelaez, who is Cuban American, the big takeaway is that both parties need to abandon preconceived notions about the Latino electorate as a whole.
“You expect Latinos to be in lockstep, and they're not,” said Pelaez. “They're responding to a lot of different issues, and they're not always falling in line on what people expect.”