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The US presidential contest was shaken earlier this month by a bombshell NBC/Marist poll, which showed President Donald Trump and former Vice-President Joe Biden tied at 48% in the crucial battleground state of Florida. On top of this are reports that Joe Biden’s lead against the President has almost disappeared in the important Republican state of Texas. The latest polls could be a sign that the Trump campaign is hitting all the right notes during and in the aftermath of the Republican National Convention.
What is striking in the latest NBC/Marist poll is the strong Latino support for Trump in the key battleground of Florida. Trump is at 50% and Biden at 46% regarding the Latino vote in Florida who make up 20% of the total voter base in the state. This lead is thanks in large part to the huge lead Trump has with Cuban Americans of as much as 38 points, while among other Latino groups in the state Biden leads. If such support is replicated or increased in other battleground states with significant Hispanic voter presence, Latinos could play a crucial part in returning Trump to the White House.
None of this is surprising – in 2016, despite his divisive remarks about Mexicans, the President won a third of the Latino vote, and the Trump campaign has been reaching out more and more to Latino voters since 2019. This courtship of Latino voters, on which Trump is way ahead of the Biden campaign, is now bearing fruit.
This was most notable during both party conventions this year. While the Democratic National Convention rarely featured Latinos, with prominent Latino Democrats absent from key roles in the speaker lineup, many slots were instead taken by the breed of new Democrats, the so-called “Never Trumpers”. Time will tell whether this was the right strategy ahead of the critical phase of the campaign, but there are good reasons to believe that it was rather short sighted.
During the RNC, the story was different: Latino Republicans were featured more prominently, showcasing the Lieutenant Governor of Florida, Jeanette Nuñez. President Trump even held two naturalisation ceremonies for Latino Americans on the virtual RNC stage.
When you take these differences into account, the candidates’ contrasting fortunes with Hispanic voters in some key battlegrounds are not surprising.
Polls during the Democratic primary showed that Joe Biden was performing poorly with this voting group for a Democrat candidate. Currently he is underperforming what Hilary Clinton achieved in terms of the Latino support in the 2016 election cycle by 2%. Maria Teresa Kumar of Voto Latino, a Democratic Latino outreach organization, has warned him that this could cost him the election. On the other hand, Trump, vilified by many as anti-Hispanic, has made outreach to this voting bloc an important part of his campaign.
None of this means that we should be getting carried away. Biden is still ahead among Hispanic American voters – but in a tight race, small margins could make a big difference. According to one recent poll from Pew Research, 32% are planning to vote or lean voting for Trump. It showed that a full 66% still back his Democrat challenger. But, for Trump, even a significant minority is a victory of sorts – especially if this 32% are concentrated in key battleground areas.
The Republican strategy is to appeal to the entrepreneurial spirit of Latino Americans, who account for the fastest growing group of small business owners in America. While the Democrats aim to appeal to those who want more welfare policies, Republicans or supporting groups, such as the Libre Initiative or executive orders like the House Hispanic Prosperity Initiative, talk about free markets, enterprise and the much-fabled American dream.
The focus for the Team Trump pitch here is the economy, and his approval numbers on this front more generally have remained strong, despite falling with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. In some senses, perhaps, the phrase “It’s the economy, stupid” coined by James Carville still rings true, even in an age of identity conflict.
Most importantly, Trump has the potential to build on what has become a consistent core group of Hispanic Republican voters, a group that might yet propel him to the White House. The seeming slowness of the Biden campaign to understand the trouble he is facing with his Latino outreach gives Trump an opening to expand his voting bloc. If Trump can outperform in his Latino vote, edging it up by just a few percentage points, it would seriously derail the Biden campaign push to take states such as Texas and Florida.
It could also force the Democrat challenger to funnel valuable campaign time and financial resources into these seats, in an effort combat any Trump surge, rather than focusing on other key areas for the Democrats, like the State of Pennsylvania. The Biden campaign could turn into a firefight rather than blazing ahead on its own terms.
Latinos are increasing as a proportion of voters in key states, and both Presidential campaigns realised this. While Trump has started early on, Biden is slowly moving to reverse his gains. With the final fifty days left until the election takes place on November 3, it seems that anything can still happen. Don’t bet on Biden taking Latino voters in a landslide – and don’t write off a President who may, against all the odds, have done just enough to persuade Hispanic Americans to help give him another four years in the White House.
Ojel L. Rodriguez is Head of Philosophy and Ideology at the Orthodox Conservatives think tank and a Ph.D. student at The University of St Andrews.