The presidential election results coming out of heavily Latino areas of the US took some by surprise, but affirmed what Latinos themselves have known all along.
More religious than Americans on average, the nation’s largest minority group is a growing part of the electorate. It’s also one that doesn’t vote as a monolith, with political priorities varying in different parts of the country and among Latinos of different national backgrounds.
“There’s a real awareness and awakening to the power of the Latino faith vote,” said Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition and pastor of the Gathering Place in Orlando, Florida. “People are realizing, ‘Okay, we could be a determining vote in places like Arizona, Nevada, and Florida.’”
As surveys had projected, President Donald Trump made significant gains among Latino voters overall, thanks in part to campaign outreach directed at evangelicals.
“Latino evangelicals helped Trump to do better than anyone expected in Texas … and in Florida,” said Gastón Espinosa, a professor at Claremont McKenna College who conducted the most comprehensive study of Latino voters leading up to the 2020 election.
National Election Pool results indicated that in Texas, Trump took 40 percent of the Latino vote (about a quarter of the Texas electorate) to Biden’s 59 percent of the Latino vote. In Florida, he took 47 percent of the Latino vote (19% of the electorate) to Biden’s 52 percent of the Latino vote.
The president launched his Evangelicals for Trump efforts at a Hispanic megachurch in Miami at the beginning of the year and held a lively rally among Hispanic voters there just two days before the election.
“His campaign has engaged the Latino community, and you see the influence of the Latino community in his administration,” said Tony Suarez, an evangelical leader and Trump adviser who took the stage to pray and stump for the president.
Suarez, executive vice president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, saw Latino voters ignited by Trump’s pro-life stance and policies such as a prosperity initiative directed at Hispanic American job access and his First Step prison reform.
But he also believed Joe Biden’s candidacy was a turn-off for Latinos who were frustrated by the Obama administration’s stalemate on immigration reform and those who fled socialist regimes and do not want to see socialism take hold in American politics.
Latino evangelicals across the spectrum agree that no party has a hold of the demographic. Salguero called them “the quintessential swing voters.” And no single issue—not even immigration—dominates their political interests. Instead, they’re looking at a range of domestic and foreign policy issues.
“I personally know many Hispanic evangelicals who struggle with the question of what to prioritize and who to support: Do we choose the leader who advocates for the unborn or the leader who advocates for immigrant children?” said Alexia Salvatierra, a leader with several Christian immigration initiatives including the Matthew 25/Mateo 25 network and the New Sanctuary Movement.
“It’s only when we understand the history of issues in this country and the various strategies for dealing with social problems like abortion and immigration that we may find a clearer path,” said Salvatierra, also an assistant professor at Fuller Theological Seminary. “Younger Hispanic evangelicals or those who are born here often have a very different perspective than older or recent immigrants—one that identifies more with other racial and ethnic minorities in the US.”
Juan Martínez, former professor of Hispanic studies and pastoral leadership at Fuller, told CT in 2018 that Latinos’ party-defying political stances—such as being conservative on issues like abortion and liberal on issues like education and immigration—will stand out more as they grow to become a larger percentage of the voting bloc.
Latino Catholics and Latino evangelicals view their faith as a core motivation for how they vote and share many positions on social issues. It’s nationality that divides Latinos politically more than religion.
This year, Americans saw the contrast between Latino voters from different backgrounds play out in two major metro areas in US swing states—Maricopa County in Arizona and Miami-Dade County in Florida.
In the Phoenix area where many of the Hispanic voters are Mexican American, according to the AP, the county went for Joe Biden, turning the state blue for the first time since 1996. Yet in Miami, bolstered by Cuban American, Venezuelan American, and Nicaraguan American turnout, Trump went from losing the county by 30 percentage points to Hillary Clinton in 2016 to reach single-digit margins with Biden this year.
“The reality on the ground is typically more nuanced than often recognized. For instance, Cuban American evangelicals in south Florida may have a different outlook from Mexican American evangelicals along the US-Mexico border,” said Daniel Castelo, a bilingual theologian at Seattle Pacific University.
“Many of these communities have experiences of trauma of various kinds. Some have the memories of leaving autocratic regimes, while others have the recent experiences of having family members identified and deported by ICE authorities,” he said. “These experiences of trauma will undoubtedly play a role in how particular groups view President Trump and in turn the Democratic party. Their fears will weigh heavily in terms of what they see as appealing and urgent.”
As Pennsylvania pastor Eli Valentin put it, people who immigrated for political reasons, such as Cubans and Venezuelans, tend to vote differently than those who immigrated for economic reasons, such as Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and Dominicans.
Valentin, who leads The Bridge Church of God (Cleveland, TN) in Allentown, Pennsylvania, supported Biden this election, his first time endorsing a candidate. He said his church includes Latino Trump supporters who—like white evangelicals—prioritize Trump’s stance on abortion.
The 2020 race may result in more attention toward Latino voters in elections to come. “I think it’s time to stop talking about Latinos as a homogenous voting bloc,” said Daniel Bennett, who teaches political science at John Brown University, noting the Republican gains among the demographic in Florida and Texas.
With reporting by Daniel Silliman.