The 2020 election woke up many Americans to Latino political diversity. President Donald Trump's gains with Latinos sent shock waves through politics and exposed oversimplified thinking about this crucial slice of the electorate.
But the notion that the Latino vote is complex and differentiated is not news to political professionals. For more than 50 years, strategists in both parties have wrestled with how to understand — and exploit — Latino diversity. While outwardly embracing the notion of a unified Latino political identity, they have regularly used tactics that divided Latinos in the name of political gain.
The idea of a "Spanish-speaking vote" (as it was first called) crystallized in the 1970s. In the two decades prior, large migrations of Cubans to Florida and Puerto Ricans to New York had joined the Mexican Americans of the Southwest as prominent potential Latino voting blocs. A growing sense of shared priorities and political weakness among the latter two groups drove them to form alliances, and to lobby the federal government to see them as a collective.
Most of these voters were Democrats. But in a divided political moment, both parties took notice and began trying to craft a unified appeal. In 1971, a Republican operative called this the "Spanish-speaking concept."
The two parties, however, envisioned and courted these voters in very different ways. Mexican American and Puerto Rican leaders, like their African American counterparts, called for an activist government to eradicate the poverty and discrimination plaguing their people. Wary of being played off one another, they formed a "Latino Caucus," which demanded that Democrats treat them as equal parts of a united, nationwide "Boricua-Chicano" (Puerto Rican-Mexican American) community.
Democrats crafted their appeals accordingly. In 1972, Democratic nominee George McGovern's campaign tried to respect this desire for Latino unity, without turning a blind eye to the unique needs of the Mexican American and Puerto Rican communities. At the same time, the campaign tried to convince these communities that McGovern's broader agenda, which focused on economic uplift for the working-class and the poor, addressed their collective condition. Uniting class concerns and cultural representation, Cesar Chavez and the United Farmworkers of America took center stage at the Democratic National Convention and on the campaign trail. The campaign hoped to convince Latino voters of all stripes that blue-collar economic issues were Latino issues, thereby driving Latino voters to McGovern.
But this appeal failed to rally Latino voters to McGovern. With McGovern's overall campaign flailing and even Latino staff members accusing it of "tokenism," the party was left scrambling to keep traditional Latino Democrats from voting for President Richard Nixon - who was also courting them.
Nixon also paid homage to the idea of one "Spanish-speaking vote," but with a very different conception of who it targeted. His administration offered a range of inducements to convert upwardly-mobile Latinos to Republicanism. Nixon appointed Spanish-speaking Americans (often Democrats) to high government positions, extended the group access to affirmative action in federal jobs and created a small-business aid program for Latino entrepreneurs known as "Brown capitalism."
Yet behind the scenes of this seemingly national outreach, Nixon's campaign embraced a biased and divisive strategy.
Nixon considered outreach to Puerto Ricans a waste of time because they voted for Eastern establishment Republicans whom he hated. Additionally, because they competed politically and for jobs with the Northern White blue-collar voters who Nixon was attempting to cleave from the Democratic coalition, an overt appeal to them risked compromising the president's broader political strategy.
Campaign strategists also found Puerto Ricans too racially ambiguous to embrace Nixon's politics of racial backlash — the key to capturing these White "hard hat" voters. As one strategist wrote, "since some Puerto Ricans are black — and no one knows how many," Republicans could not enlist them by invoking two of Nixon's favorite issues for polarizing the electorate: busing and the "black/brown issue."
Accordingly, Nixon's "Spanish-speaking" campaign team — known to insiders as his "Brown Mafia" — systematically excluded Puerto Ricans from access to patronage jobs, grants and outreach from the wider Nixon campaign.
Instead, they focused on Mexican Americans in the Southwest, especially those who had white-collar occupations and who Nixon's aides saw as sufficiently conservative to fit into the coalition they were building. Grounding the GOP's Hispanic strategy in the Sun Belt suburbs set the stage for Republicans to dismiss the plight of the urban poor as not a legitimate "Hispanic" issue.
Nixon netted a third of the Spanish-speaking vote (then a record haul for a Republican) in 1972, including strong surges in South Texas and South Florida. But his ranking of Hispanic blocs complicated party activists' efforts to achieve their "impossible dream" of grass-roots Hispanic unity within the GOP.
The growing involvement of Cuban Americans in domestic politics added another layer of difficulty. Cuban Republicans rejected the notion that Mexican Americans could speak on their behalf. Having once looked askance at "minority" politics, some now joined GOP Hispanic organizations precisely to assert their independence from these groups' traditional Mexican American spokespeople.
And in a party moving fast to the right in the mid-1970s, these Cuban Americans fit more naturally than their Mexican American counterparts. Republicans could continue to appear ethnically inclusive by anchoring their Hispanic strategy in the more conservative Cuban American community, while still appealing to the rising conservative movement whose support President Gerald Ford desperately needed as he fought for reelection in 1976.
President Ronald Reagan's ascension in 1980 led the GOP to double down on outreach to Cuban Americans.
Early in his administration, Reagan and other GOP leaders aided conservative Cubans in supplanting the party's moderate Mexican-American faction as the leaders of Republican outreach to Latino voters. They sought to recast Hispanic Republicanism in the service of a newly conservative party by redefining what issues resonated most with Latino voters, elevating assertive foreign policy aimed at leftist enemies abroad, along with prayer in schools and tough-on-crime policies. The goal was to create a Hispanic conservatism, one that would be amenable to the new direction of the Republican Party and that would pull Latino voters toward the GOP while papering over the issues where Latinos were less conservative.
Reagan's popularity with those attracted to this message helped cement their loyalty to the GOP. It led to increased Hispanic vote shares in the decades to come (Reagan and George W. Bush received 37% and nearly 40% Hispanic support in their respective 1984 and 2004 reelection bids), and almost fanatical levels of backing in Miami, the latter a matter of extraordinary import given Florida's outsized influence on presidential contests.
While the issues have evolved over the years, the process of superficially treating Latino voters as a bloc while dividing them and amplifying Latino or Hispanic characteristics and values congenial to a particular campaign's message has continued. The Biden camp's microtargeting of advertisements, with Spanish language accents geared to match particular Latino national origin groups reflects only a modest update from the strategies of the 1970s. And the Trump campaign's attempt to make Miami and South Texas the stand-ins for the Latino vote in a global conflict between capitalism and socialism shares a history that dates to that era as well.
That the strategies of each campaign worked in some places but flopped in others further underscored that there would be no one-size-fits-all approach to this diverse electorate. After working for decades to establish a collective place in American politics — creating the very idea of a "Latino vote" — having some of the real differences in Latino political communities again laid bare in such a public fashion has the potential to spark renewed debate about the strategies and goals of a nationwide "Latino politics."
Party leaders will continue to try to influence — and manipulate — that discussion, to be sure. But so will a growing number of independent and grass-roots organizations committed to mobilizing Latino/a voters on their own terms. Demography may not be destiny. But with Latinos proving critical for both candidates in a variety of states, it is obvious that their diverse array of experiences and identities have already transformed American democracy.
Francis-Fallon is author of "The Rise of the Latino Vote" and assistant professor of history at Western Carolina University. This piece was written for The Washington Post.