Hispanic voters played a key role in Florida and Arizona on Tuesday, solidifying Republican control of one state and flipping a former GOP bastion in the other.
The diverging paths are a clear example of the diversity of Latino voters, and how different campaign messages and outreach resonated with distinct subsets of that demographic.
President Trump’s popularity among Latinos rose throughout the country, but especially in Florida, winning the state and propelling two of his allies to pick off Democratic House seats in Miami-Dade County.
Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Giménez beat Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D-Fla.) in what was expected to be a close race, and former television reporter Maria Elvira Salazar beat Rep. Donna Shalala (D-Fla.) in a neighboring district.
“The Shalala district caught me totally by surprise,” said Dario Moreno, professor of political science at Florida International University.
One factor that helped Giménez and Salazar is that they are both Cuban Americans in a city where roughly a third of the population is of Cuban descent, and where the city’s political and cultural identity is closely tied to its Cuban heritage.
Mucarsel-Powell, who was born in Ecuador, angered some Cuban Americans by saying that the “Cuban-American mafia” in Tallahassee was after her, according to Moreno.
“It was true, the Cuban legislators in Tallahassee wanted to get rid of her because she was a Democrat and it’s party politics,” said Moreno.
“By calling it the ‘Cuban-American mafia’, it upset a lot of Cuban voters and it raised the issue that Debbie wasn’t Cuban and it hurt her,” he added.
But Republican success in Florida went beyond Cuban Americans, and Trump’s numbers with Latinos improved across the board, not just with Cubans.
According to the American Election Eve Poll, a biannual poll measuring the attitudes of minority voters taken right before each national election, Trump was supported by 38 percent of all Florida Latinos in 2020, compared to 31 percent in 2016.
Part of Trump’s success in 2020 was that he campaigned on the economy, rather than on immigration, an issue where his positions turned off many Latino voters in 2016.
And Republicans in Florida successfully made the case that Trump is uniquely positioned to combat socialist governments in Latin America, particularly in Cuba and Venezuela.
“Shalala and Debbie both made anti-[Venezuelan President Nicolás] Maduro statements but they weren’t visible enough,” said Moreno, adding that the two Democrats overestimated the degree to which young Cubans have distanced from the issue that defined the region’s politics for decades.
Trump was deeply engaged on that issue for much of his first term, creating a constant connection with Florida Hispanic voters that Republican campaigns were able to bank on.
In Arizona, a consistently red state won by Democrats for the first time in 24 years, Democratic nominee Joe Biden banked on similar long-term engagement with the state’s Latinos, but rather than coming from the party or the candidate, it came from grassroots movements.
“It’s not like, ‘Oh my God what did Biden do in Arizona?’ No, a lot of it has to do with the work done by people behind the scenes,” said Clarissa Martínez de Castro, deputy vice president for policy and advocacy at UnidosUS, the country’s largest Latino civil rights organization.
Arizona’s Latinos were key in delivering the state to Democrats, raising comparisons to the way Hispanic voters turned California into a Democratic bastion.
“In Arizona, a lot of the Latinos are Californian immigrants,” said Moreno.
The largely Mexican American Arizona Hispanic community has been especially politically active over the past decade, in great part as a reaction to the state’s anti-immigration S.B. 1070 law.
The political rise of California Latinos came as a reaction to Proposition 187, the first statewide immigration restriction law, passed in 1994.
That degree of community organization created a structure ready for Democrats to latch onto, and to an extent nullified Trump’s pivot away from immigration that warmed Florida voters toward him.
Unlike in Florida and parts of Texas, Democratic campaigns were able to ride that wave of community organization to electoral success in Arizona.
Sen.-elect Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), for instance, started holding Hispanic-centric events in 2019, and spent more than $2.2 million on advertising targeting Hispanic voters.
“It doesn’t necessarily have to translate to blue and red outcomes, but it does translate to a repudiation of those who repudiate the community,” said Martínez de Castro of the grassroots infrastructure.
In both Arizona and Florida, successful Hispanic outreach shared two characteristics: It was long-term and it micro-targeted the needs of particular communities within the larger Hispanic community.
“If both parties internalize that these voters are critical for both of them and try to reflect that on the Democratic side by doing more outreach and the Republican side by doing more actions on Latino priorities, that would be good,” said Martínez de Castro.