Texas Latino Voters Were Searching for a Vision in 2020: Bernie and Trump had one, Biden did not

The chart below displays a phenomenon that media outlets througout the country were puzzling over in the immediate aftermath of the 2020 presidential election: majority-Latino counties in Texas, which were historically blue and expected to be a boost for Democrats after four years of Trump’s antagonism towards immigrants, did indeed turn out in greater numbers, but most notably, for Trump. On the top right corner lies Starr County, where over 96% of the population is Latino, and where Trump went from capturing 19% of the vote in 2016, to over 47% in 2020 – a whopping 28-point jump. The graph shows that the more Latino a county is, the more it increased its support for Trump with respect to 2016. Indeed, these counties appear to be where Trump realized some of his greatest gains in the entire country.

How could this be? Pundits in media sources like New York Times or Wall Street Journal chalked it up to mostly economic variables: Trump spoke directly in support of fossil fuel industries which Texas workers depend upon, or he was receiving credit for strong employment figures in the area, or for the $1200 pandemic stimulus checks with his signature. Many also pointed to the long-standing neglect and lack of investment of the Democratic Party in the Lonestar state overall. Other outlets highlighted the socially conservative proclivities of these Latino populations, staunchly against abortion and supportive of law enforcement, military, and Border Patrol. Proposing more nuanced identity politics narratives, op-eds in the Washington Post or Politico argued that, contrary to popular belief, most Latinos of the area did not personally identify as either Latino or Mexican-American, but as “Tejano”, and therefore did not feel targeted or vilified by Trump’s rhetoric as expected. In fact, they argued, this identity aligned more closely with Trump’s “America First” discourse. The combination of these factors, the argument goes, of social conservativism, immunity to Trump’s identity-specific or perceivably racist attacks, along with a favorable economic performance, made Trump a more attractive pick than Biden for many Latinos in the region.

Although these narratives all admit that the Latino vote for Trump in 2020 cannot be explained through any single issue nor through the conventional identity politics frames, they continue to use the same fundamental factors to explain truly unprecedented voting patterns. Rather than exploring deeper causes of such a seismic shift – something that may have resonated at a more profound level in contrast to past elections – they explain it away through interactions of the same basic reasons. This despite the fact that none of the aforementioned – not the more nuanced Latino or “Tejano” identification, nor southern Texas Latinos’ social conservativism, nor the region’s economic dependence on fossil fuel industry jobs, nor the Democratic Party’s lack of investment – are new (except perhaps the $1200 stimulus checks). And even if some of these factors could partly explain the shift, none of these narratives manage to explain why Trump especially appealed to Latinos in Texas significantly more than his Republican predecessors who supported the same general policies.

Perhaps because the motivation runs deeper than policy. What Trump seems to have accomplished far better than other Republican candidates or Democratic competitors is to capture the zeitgeist of the 2010s – the popular mistrust and widespread rejection of the political establishment. He captured not only the attention of his base, but their imagination. Regardless of whether he intended to defy Washington establishment or not (I contend that he did not, but that is a subject for another time), Trump seemed well aware that anti-establishment discourse was a winning ticket, to the point that he was uncharacteristically cautious of criticizing his outsider counterpoint on the left, populist Bernie Sanders, while attacking ruthlessly his establishment opponents on both left and right.

Trump’s “American carnage” and “drain-the-swamp” platform came in response to the disillusionment with Obama’s “hope” platform, which, after 8 years, seemed to align more closely with Washington’s cautious politics-as-usual. In terms of Latinos, this was apparent in Hillary Clinton’s underperformance with these populations in 2016 compared to 2012 , where she was widely considered Obama and the Democratic establishment’s preferred pick. But it would be a mistake to view the anti-establishment tide that Trump rode to victory in 2016 as a sudden phenomenon. We can find inklings of it from over a decade ago. The following 2008 New Yorker passage highlighted key differences in Barack Obama’s and Hillary Clinton’s platforms during the 2008 Democratic Primary:

The alternatives facing Democratic voters have been characterized variously as a choice between experience and change, between an insider and an outsider… Obama offers himself as a catalyst by which disenchanted Americans can overcome two decades of vicious partisanship, energize our democracy, and restore faith in government. Hillary Clinton presents politics as the art of the possible, with change coming incrementally through good governance… These rival conceptions of the Presidency – Clinton as executive, Obama as visionary – reflect a deeper difference in how the two candidates analyze what ails the country. Obama said that the Presidency has little to do with running an efficient office: “It involves having a vision for where the country needs to go… and then being able to mobilize and inspire the American people to get behind that agenda for change.” In reply, Clinton likened the job of the President to that of a CEO who has “to be able to manage and run the bureaucracy.

It is telling that this description could apply seamlessly to the 2016 Democratic Primary if we replaced “Barack Obama” with “Bernie Sanders”. Since well over a decade ago, Americans were pining and voting for the promise of fundamental change and candidates who offered it. Against all odds, Obama, the visionary outsider, captured the Democratic nomination and his “hope” platform would propel him to the presidency in 2008, where he handily defeated John McCain by over 10 million votes and with 365 electoral votes. In 2012, however, Americans seemed less convinced that Obama would deliver that change and, despite his incumbent status, his victory over Mitt Romney – who was not a particularly strong or charismatic candidate – was much narrower, winning the popular vote by just under 5 million votes. Importantly, turnout in 2012 dipped to 57.5% of eligible voters from 62.3% in 2008; Democrats’ dip was especially pronounced, falling 4.2 percentage points from 2008.

While Clinton managed to fend off Sanders’ challenge in 2016 – in large part thanks to the tacit support of the Democratic National Committee and the undemocratic structure of the primary which tilted the balance in her favor through “superdelegates” – the primary was a harbinger of the intense internal struggle for the soul of the Democratic Party leading up to 2020. This struggle was visible in the Latino counties of Texas, where analysis of the results of the 2020 Democratic primary reflects how predominantly Latino Texas counties were similarly drawn to Bernie Sanders and put off by Joe Biden:

As shown above, in the 2020 Democratic Primary, the more Latino a Texas county was, the less likely it was to vote for Biden and the more likely it voted for Bernie. Now, this should not be especially surprising given that Joe Biden’s campaign made little outreach to Latino voters in general, and even went so far as to tell an immigration activist to “go vote for Trump” when he was questioned on Obama-era deportations. Bernie’s campaign also invested heavily in turning out these communities. However, this conflicts with the “Tejano” cultural narrative which posits that this particular Latino group favors tough stances on immigration; in that regard, Biden would be the obvious choice over Sanders. In fact, in terms of both social and economic policy, Biden is far more conservative than Sanders and his platform seems closer to Trump’s. However, a regression of Texas counties with over 50% Latino populations shows that higher support for Bernie in the 2020 Democratic Primary is significantly correlated with higher shift in vote share for Trump in the 2020 general election:

Why would Latino communities support Bernie, a self-avowed democratic socialist, in the Democratic Primary and then move heavily towards Trump, a far-right president, against Biden in the general election? Of course, there are several ways to interpret this, and this relationship appears to hold mostly for Latino-majority communities. One story is that disenfranchised Latino communities in South Texas were politically activated by Bernie Sanders’ campaign who offered a more inclusive and compelling vision of the future of the country and the Democratic Party, but his perceived unfair treatment by the Democratic establishment prompted a backlash that resulted in increased Trump support. Or it could also be that inflamed political messaging during a highly contentious election and a global pandemic crisis activated more voters than ever before, and increased Trump support was a response to Sanders’ leftist mobilization and Trump’s ability as incumbent to amplify his own narrative (unsurprisingly, increased Trump support as a backlash to progressive mobilization is one of the favored arguments of moderate pundits and politicians in the aftermath of the 2020). In either case, the data suggests that paradigm-shifting, visionary candidates successfully sparked an unprecendented Latino voter mobilization in Texas.

Post-mortem analyses will likely continue to parse out the many factors that might explain Texas Latino voting behavior. However, this case highlights how the modern political landscape does not appear to follow the usual paradigms and it casts doubt on the view of the American voter falling within a linear, left-to-right policy spectrum. As shown by the erratic polling which consistently underestimated Trump support, and the exceptional allowances Trump received from the American public despite his constant blunders, it should be obvious that we are not living in a politics-as-usual age. Belief in a grand political vision for change and belongingness to a greater cause, however nefarious or misguided, can distort or redefine traditional voter behavior. Policy stances become the result, not the drivers, of behavior. Voters begin to look to candidates that speak to their reality, but also spark their imagination.

This was also palpable on the ground. It was the first time in history the Rio Grande Valley had seen tailgate parties for a political candidate, with supporters parading through their cities waving flags emblazoned with Trump’s name. It was also the first time that armies of young people felt compelled to go door-to-door in the area to successfully promote a democratic socialist as a presidential candidate. If these events are not indicative of a search for transformative change, nothing is. Suddenly, the radical choice resonates more than the traditional one which routinely ignored or disenfranchised these communities. Ironically, in voting for someone as inflammatory and exclusionary as Trump, Latinos in Texas raised alarms for the state’s Democrats and sent their loudest appeal for inclusion ever. Hopefully, the rest of America will finally listen.