BookWatch: Trump appeared to be gaining with Latino voters — and then coronavirus hit

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Until the coronavirus pandemic, Donald Trump appeared poised to maintain the estimated 28% of the Latino vote he won in 2016, if not build on it.

Hispanic business owners in particular had been raving about President Trump’s tax cut and financial deregulations. Raymundo Baca, the head of the Border Hispanics for Trump group, told me he thought Trump could win 35% or 40% of the Latino vote. Trump surrogate Steve Cortes, a radio talk show host who also is the spokesperson for a Trump-supporting super PAC, predicted on March 9 that Trump could “win the Hispanic vote in November.”

Winning a majority of the Latino vote would be no mean feat: it’s something no Republican candidate for president has ever accomplished. Even at the time, Cortes was being an overly optimistic partisan, but now it seems even less likely that Trump will be the first to do so.

If Trump can’t hold on to his share of the Latino vote from 2016, the pandemic’s devastating financial impact on Latino business owners will be the reason. As much as their religious beliefs or anti-communism — which aren’t entirely separable from their financial concerns — the pro-business attitudes held by many Latinos has driven their support for the Republican Party since at least the Nixon years.

It was President Nixon who appointed the first Hispanic to head the Small Business Administration, created the National Economic Development Association to help Latinos start their own businesses, established the Office of Minority Business Enterprise, and more generally saw support for the Latino business community as the Republican Party’s signature civil rights initiative that was every bit as important as the social and political efforts waged by Democrats.

Ever since, Republicans have believed that they have the edge among Latino business owners, a relatively small but influential group of Latino voters overall. This has remained true during the Trump years.

Republican share of the Latino vote
Year Candidate Vote, according to exit polls
1980 Reagan 35%
1984 Reagan 37%
1988 G. Bush 30%
1992 G. Bush 25%
1996 Dole 21%
2000 G.W. Bush 35%
2004 G.W. Bush 40%
2008 McCain 31%
2012 Romney  27%
2016 Trump 28%
Source: Pew Research

Despite the fact that Trump began his campaign with a rant against Mexican immigrants and has remained focused on the construction of his border wall — two issues that have not played well with Hispanic voters — there were signs that his approval among Latinos was holding steady or even increasing.

Conservatives cited polls conducted in 2019 finding that almost half of Latinos approved of the job Trump was doing. In the early days of the pandemic, Cortes cited polls finding that Latino support for Trump — including for his handling of the coronavirus — hovered at around 40%, which, he said, was a “massive problem for the Dems.” Even today, according to a Hill/Harris X poll, some 44% of Hispanics have reported their approval of Trump.

It would be a massive problem for Joe Biden and Democrats, indeed, if Trump wins 40% of the Latino vote and therefore hangs onto Florida, Texas, Pennsylvania and the critical Midwestern states.

The cornerstone of Trump’s sales pitch has been that the economy he built has helped Latinos reach heights they hadn’t reached under any other president. The hundreds of attendees at the annual “Legislative Summit,” held in Washington, D.C. in early March, appeared to agree. They were Trump’s Latino foot soldiers, the ones who would return home afterward and rally support for the president.

The event was hosted by the Latino Coalition, an advocacy group for Latino business owners who make up the fastest-growing group of business owners in the United States: The number of Latino business owners grew by 34 percent over the past decade while the number of all other business owners in the United States grew by only 1%, according to Stanford Latino Entrepreneurship Initiative estimates. Over the same period, the revenue of Latino-owned businesses increased 14%, outpacing the growth of the U.S. economy in general.

In his keynote speech to Legislative Summit attendees, Trump highlighted his administration’s accomplishments. “Latinos are achieving record gains,” he said. Some 600,000 Hispanics had been lifted from poverty in the past four years; their median household income surpassed $50,000 a year for the first time ever; a record share of Hispanic households earned more than $200,000 a year.

While these figures have been on the rise over the past decade, Trump has been happy to claim credit for them.

Because of his tax cut, four in five Latino-owned businesses expected to increase their revenue this year and many business owners, Trump said, planned to hire more workers. Because of the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), Latino-owned businesses will gain even greater access to North American markets, he said.

Over the past two months, though, coronavirus has turned the economy upside down, including for Latinos. The government’s biggest program to help small businesses suffering because of COVID-19 hasn’t really worked for Latino businesses. Almost a quarter of Latino-owned businesses applied for funds from the Paycheck Protection Program, and one survey of 500 Latino business owners found that fewer than 20% of Latino applicants received money. Many applicants never heard back.

The upshot is that 86% of Latino-owned businesses, according to another report published by the Stanford Latino Entrepreneurship Initiative, has experienced “immediate negative effects” caused by COVID-19, including “loss of revenue, complete closure, loss of clients and client engagement (including contractors and employee furloughs), and project delays or postponement.”

Almost two-thirds of Latino business owners said their businesses wouldn’t be able to survive longer than six months, and more than half said they had already begun to lay off workers or reduce their hours.

In concert with the White House and the Small Business Administration, the Latino Coalition has been hosting conference calls with Latino business owners. Administration officials such as Jovita Carranza, the Mexican-American head of the SBA, has told them that her agency is spending more money than ever before, and that she personally is working around the clock for them. When the Latino business owners on the other end of the line have asked why they haven’t heard back from lenders or haven’t yet received funding, Carranza has urged patience.

But it’s unclear how long Latino business owners — seen as a critical voting bloc by both the Trump and Biden campaigns — will be patient, since their community has been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus.

It’s certainly possible that they won’t blame Trump or his administration for their woes. When they head to the polls in November, they could conclude that the coronavirus was a once-in-a-century event that Trump didn’t cause, that he worked hard for them both before and after the coronavirus hit, and that, no matter how bad for them the financial crisis has become, they would have been, and will be, worse off under a Democratic president who would raise taxes and could reimpose some of the regulations Trump has lifted.

But this would be asking a lot of them considering their plight.


Instead, they may wonder if some of their pain could have been avoided if Trump had taken different actions, if he had demonstrated greater leadership rather than deferring to state leaders whom he pitted against one another, or if the leader had been a Democrat who might have ensured more economic stability for workers whom business owners rely on as patrons and consumers. These voters also may have been forced to lay off their employees, close their business, and face the same tough circumstances that other Americans face right now, whether it’s losing their jobs, their ability to pay for their children’s education, paying rents, losing their homes or something else.

If this is where Latino business owners land even when the economy starts to recover, they may well conclude that a Democratic alternative to President Trump wouldn’t leave them any worse off than they are at the moment.

It wouldn’t be a decision they would make lightly, since many of them have been loyal Republicans for decades, but the result would be that Trump could lose a constituency he cannot win the election without.

Geraldo Cadava is an associate professor of history and Latina and Latino studies at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and the author of “The Hispanic Republican; The shaping of an American political identity, from Nixon to Trump.” Follow him on Twitter @gerry_cadava.