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Nov. 28, 2020

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Allen: Message or messenger: Why did so many Latinos in Texas turn out to vote for Trump?

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After months of devastating polling data and the relentless media narrative that President Donald Trump was going to be consumed by a dumpster fire of his own making before the first precincts had closed, the reality that (presumptive President-elect) Joe Biden’s apparent victory is so narrow is difficult for many to comprehend.

What’s harder to accept is that for a Republican, Trump did exceptionally well among minorities, Latinos in particular.

Despite years of being pegged as a racist and a xenophobe (not always without warrant), Trump actually increased his margins among minority voters.

The question that will plague the political class throughout the election postmortem is why.

Was it the message — religious freedom, social conservatism, school choice, law and order, and a strong economy — or was it (heaven forbid) the messenger?

Zapata County, Texas, a roughly 85 percent Hispanic community, went red for Trump but not other statewide Republican candidates, suggesting a Trump-specific event.

Israel Ortega, press secretary for the Libre Initiative, a group committed to empowering the Hispanic community in Texas, said there’s something to that.

“The messenger does matter,” he told me.

George W. Bush earned a historic 44 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004 thanks to tremendous grassroots outreach efforts. Trump will not eclipse that, but he’ll do significantly better than John McCain and Mitt Romney did.

That’s because “to his credit, Trump and his team have shown up” for Hispanics, Ortega said.

Despite a dearth of media coverage on the subject (has anyone heard of the President’s Advisory Commission on Hispanic Prosperity?), Trump’s White House has been surprisingly engaged with the Hispanic community.

And where other politicians have failed to appreciate the demographic’s nuances, the Trump administration has done well at tailoring its pitches to, say, Hispanics in Texas vs. those in Florida.

But Ortega says the message itself has been a huge factor, too.

Jobs and the economy are top of mind to Hispanics. Until the pandemic shutdowns began crippling local economies, Latinos were largely thriving, attributable at least in part to Trump’s efforts at deregulation and tax relief.

“The idea of expanding opportunity resonated with Latinos,” said Ortega, and the promise of economic prosperity is especially important to recent immigrants.

But so are education and religious freedom — the latter is no abstraction for some immigrants of faith. And Trump delivered on those, too.

“It’s easy to buy into the narrative that immigration is the only issue that matters,” Ortega added. “That isn’t true.”

Speaking of false narratives, Trump’s support among Hispanics suggests that identity politics as a rallying issue does not resonate with minority communities the same way it does with white progressives and urban elites.

Take, for example, the insistence by progressives on using “Latinx” to describe people of Hispanic origin, despite the reality that almost no Hispanics (3 percent) use the term.

But the disparity between Hispanic self-perception and elite-imposed identity doesn’t end there.

“The idea of getting ahead through individual agency is probably the biggest difference between how (Latino) immigrants see themselves and how the woke see them,” said Mike Gonzalez, a fellow at the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation, who believes that identities are little more than a political tool.

In a recent column for The Wall Street Journal, he wrote that “the progressive cobbling of pan-ethnicities that dates to the 1970s (is) a way to instill members of minority groups with grievances.”

That effort has accelerated in recent years and reached a fever pitch this summer with the insistence that Hispanics, as people of color, are first and foremost victims of America’s entrenched systemic racism.

This year’s election suggests that there are plenty of Hispanics who think otherwise — and vote otherwise, too.

Whether message or messenger, the motivations behind Trump’s minority supporters will be fascinating to unpack.

They suggest that Republicans — even obnoxious, bombastic ones — are making inroads with minority groups that Democrats have long taken for granted. That’s a win for Trump, even if he lost the election.


Cynthia M. Allen is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Email: cmallen@star-telegram.com.

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