In the wake of the 2018 midterms, Stephanie Valencia, the co-founder of the research firm Equis, convened a gathering of progressive Latino leaders known as the Latinati. The idea was for people who had either spearheaded movements or multimillion-dollar political campaigns to bluntly share views about how to expand the community’s influence. “Some had protested outside the White House, others had worked inside,” Valencia, who is thirty-eight and served in senior roles during Barack Obama’s two terms in office, told me. “I think that, to effectively build power for our community, we have to be able to talk to one another.” The 2018 midterms had yielded mixed results: turnout among Latinos, who accounted for nearly thirteen per cent of eligible voters, had been exceptionally high, but it hadn’t always favored Democrats. The Latinati were turning their attention to the 2020 general election, in which thirty-two million Latinos would be eligible to vote, becoming the largest minority voting group for the first time in American history.
Over the course of three meetings, held in Denver, Albuquerque, and Las Vegas, the group pondered what Valencia calls “the promise and the peril” of the growing Latino vote. For years, Latinos had been talked about as a constituency that could help Democrats create a durable political majority at the federal and state levels, but the party had struggled to effectively engage them. “Historically, the way that campaigns look at targeting and reaching voters puts Latinos at a disadvantage, because we are less frequent voters,” Valencia said. During the 2020 Democratic Presidential primaries, she invited representatives from each candidate’s campaign to join the Latinati’s final gathering, in Las Vegas, where fundamental questions were asked: Is there a common agenda for the Latino community? Is it a progressive one? How do Latinos engage with their own identity? And how does their identity play into their politics? At an earlier meeting, the Puerto Rican writer Ed Morales had told the group not to expect easy answers. Morales, who had just published his book, “Latinx: The New Force in American Politics and Culture,” cast Latinos as “one of the primary destabilizers” of American identity. In his view, Latinos, who represent various races and nationalities, had upended the “black-white binary” and embodied the “X factor in America’s race debate.” He argued in his book that Latinos presented “a crucial counter narrative, a people that live in a world of many worlds, possessing an identity of multiple identities.”
Instead of questioning Morales’s message, which disrupted long-held views on race, ethnicity, and politics, Valencia embraced it. Together with Carlos Odio, a longtime colleague and friend, she set out to answer those central questions about the Latino electorate, which seemed perpetually unresolved. “We wanted to lean into complexity,” Odio, who is also thirty-eight and an Obama Administration alumnus, said. After the meeting in Albuquerque, he and Valencia met at his house in Miami, where they sketched out their project. “We sat down with a bunch of white papers on the wall and mapped out the critical gaps we saw,” Valencia recalled. It was clear that Latinos were still largely disengaged from the political process—campaigns dismissed them as “infrequent” voters, not to be relied on. The problem was circular: if candidates didn’t bother targeting Latinos, voters would be deprived of the very information they needed to cast their ballots, exert power, and, ultimately, influence policy. They also identified a glaring problem for Democrats in 2020. Despite the Party’s talk about the community’s political importance, there simply wasn’t enough polling data on Latino voters to figure out how to reach them, understand their motivations, or strategize ways to draw them to the polls. “If you’re invisible in the data, it’s hard to make you visible to a campaign,” Odio warned. After much deliberation, he and Valencia came up with a plan for their project, which they decided to name Equis, Spanish for the letter “x.”
The task came naturally to Valencia and Odio, who had been grappling with similar questions since 2008, when they joined Obama’s campaign as deputy Latino-vote directors. A photograph from that time shows the two of them working side by side in the campaign’s Chicago headquarters. She is hunched over her laptop, immersed in its screen. Her black, shoulder-length hair is pulled up in a bun; a serious expression covers her face. Odio is seated behind her, tilted back on his chair. His right hand is on his computer keyboard, but his youthful eyes are looking elsewhere. The moment conveyed their differing work styles: Valencia turns ideas into action, Odio cherishes depth and data. That year, the two of them worked with Marshall Ganz, a veteran organizer who had mobilized California farmworkers alongside Cesar Chavez, and built a strong nationwide ground operation. Millions of Latinos ended up supporting Obama and his signature refrain of “Yes We Can,” inspired by the words of the civil-rights icon Dolores Huerta. On Election Day, Obama won sixty-seven per cent of the Latino vote, the largest share of this group’s support that any Presidential candidate had ever earned. Latinos helped him clinch four key battleground states: Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, and even Florida, where no Democrat had earned a majority of support from Latinos since the late eighties.
Twelve years later, as the 2020 election approached, the electoral map had dramatically changed. Florida remained a battleground, and three other states, North Carolina, Michigan, and Wisconsin, had become pivotal as well. New Mexico and Colorado were seen as likely locks for Democrats. The Latino vote had grown. In 2008, Latinos accounted for less than ten per cent of all eligible voters. In 2020, they represented thirteen per cent. The community had also changed. Latino voters were overwhelmingly young, and little was known about their political interests or priorities. “More than half of eligible Latino voters this year couldn’t vote in 2008,” Odio said. “Because it’s a constantly changing electorate, there isn’t this sense of institutional memory that you’re carrying from cycle to cycle.” Valencia felt that the strategies that worked for Obama and Democrats in the past might not apply. “It’s not necessarily a walk for Democrats,” Valencia said. “It’s a lot more fragile than maybe we would like it to be.”
Raised in Las Cruces, New Mexico, Valencia grew up attuned to the complexities of the Latino identity. In the late eighteen hundreds, southern New Mexico had been forcibly incorporated into the United States after the Mexican-American War. Her mother, Dianne Rivera, always made their relationship to the politics of the border clear to Valencia: “We didn’t cross the border. The border crossed us.” The roots of their family in New Mexico went back five centuries. When Valencia was three years old, her father, Jack, was elected to the Las Cruces City Council. She recalls walking precincts with him as a child and learning about Latino politics and public service through him. “I grew up in a community where everybody looked like me and sounded like me,” Valencia said. “I didn’t ever feel like an outsider.” When she attended Boston College in the early two thousands, that changed. She had little in common with her peers from the Northeast, and the Latinos she met on campus were unlike any she had previously known. They were Puerto Rican, Dominican, and Panamanian. Some had been living in the country for decades; others had arrived recently. Spanish was the first language for many. “I realized I was part of a broader Latino community that was very diverse,” she said, of the dozens of nationalities it encompasses. When she studied abroad in El Salvador and in Mexico, she found a peculiar affinity to the locals and their cultures; her feeling of belonging deepened.
After graduation, Valencia worked on the Hill as a fellow with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute and later for then Senator Ken Salazar, a Democrat from Colorado. Her office was on the same floor as Obama’s, whose politics she came to admire. After Obama was elected, Valencia oversaw the immigration, housing, and health-care agendas in the White House Office of Public Engagement. She also led the effort to secure the confirmation of Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina Supreme Court Justice, and served as a chief of staff to Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker. Over the years, Valencia remained close to Odio, who worked in the Administration’s Office of Political Affairs. When Donald Trump narrowly won the 2016 election, they decided to work together again. “We didn’t want to be Monday-morning quarterbacks,” she said, but they both felt that the Party needed to broaden its understanding of the community. “Democrats have spent millions and millions of dollars, trying to understand every aspect of white swing voters. My argument to the Democratic establishment, and to progressives, was that Latinos should be treated the same.”
The Obama and Trump campaigns had shown that data could be methodically used to better understand certain groups of voters. Valencia and Odio wanted to apply that approach to Latinos in 2020. “We had to figure out, how could we help bring in investment in sophisticated methods that are typically used to understand soccer moms in the suburbs?” Odio recalled. National polls often featured only a small number of Latino respondents. Sweeping conclusions were often drawn from the responses of fewer than a hundred members of the community. To be effective, campaigns needed more breakdowns of the Latino vote by age or gender, and surveys conducted in Spanish. A year before the 2020 election, Equis surveyed more than eight thousand Latinos in eleven states, from traditional battlegrounds like Florida and Nevada to states where the Latino electorate was growing and largely unstudied, such as Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Michigan. An unmistakable pattern emerged: the gender gap in the Latino community was as much as three times larger than that of any other voter group. Latino men and women had strikingly divergent views on Trump, immigration, and abortion. “It just pervaded all of our analysis,” Odio said. “Any way you wanted to slice and dice, gender was just staring at you.”
To Valencia and Odio, the 2020 election was a game of margins. Trump didn’t need to win a plurality of Latino voters, only enough to hold off Biden in battleground states. So, if Latinas turned out to vote in big numbers, the President’s gains could potentially be offset. Early this year, Valencia shared her findings with the actresses Eva Longoria and America Ferrera at a meeting in Los Angeles. They both had campaigned for Democrats in past elections and said they were tired of seeing the Party treat outreach to Latinos as an afterthought. “Our communities are not dumb,” Ferrera told me. “It always came down to the last month before an election and a candidate saying, ‘Hey! We’ve got Ugly Betty! And she’s going to get Latinos to turn out to vote, so that should cut it, right?” Valencia described the gender gap and her other research which showed that Latinos were the youngest electorate in the country—their median age is thirty—and their presence on social media was immense. Ferrera and Longoria saw the potential of investing in Latinas, who have traditionally been the heads of households. “The empowerment of Latina women is the empowerment of their entire family,” Ferrera said. “For us, the question was, ‘How do we engage Latinas in a long-term and consistent way that really translates to them understanding their power?’ ”
Any new outreach effort needed to address what Valencia called “the confidence gap”: Latina turnout rates were growing but remained low compared with those of Latino men, as well as white and Black women. In her view, Democrats needed to find the right mix of politics and culture—one that made it clear that women’s choices would determine what happened not only in Washington but also in their own communities. “If you wanted to reach the people who had not previously been reached by campaigns and who were historically on the sidelines, we had to go broader and create a platform that served broccoli with ice cream,” Valencia said. In August, she, Ferrera, and others launched “She Se Puede,” an initiative that they called “A New Destination for the Modern Latina.” She Se Puede was designed specifically for the country’s thirty million Latinas: the overlooked trailblazers and underappreciated bedrock of the arts, business, health care, education, and food worlds. Their goal was to create a place where Latinas could find everything from inspiring talks by celebrities to tips on how to treat their curls, or register to vote. When early voting started, in September, the numbers sparked optimism among Democrats. “In 2016, working-class Latina voters cast 589k early votes,” read an Instagram post from She Se Puede. “In 2020, working-class Latinas cast more than 1.8 million early votes.”
On Election Day, turnout exceeded all expectations. Between fourteen and fifteen million Latinos cast ballots, and more than half of them did so early. According to the polling firm Latino Decisions, which had worked closely with Equis, the number of voters aged twenty-nine and younger who voted early increased by three hundred per cent compared with 2016. Turnout aided Biden in states such as Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Nevada, where a record Latino turnout contributed to his margin of victory. But, in Florida and Texas, high Latino turnout helped propel Trump to comfortable wins in states that Democrats had hoped would be part of a Biden landslide. Shocking Democrats, Trump received more Latino support in Florida’s reliably blue Miami-Dade and Texas’s Rio Grande Valley than he had in 2016. Even so, high Latino turnout helped Biden fare as well as Obama nationally, according to some estimates, winning nearly seventy per cent of the community vote. “There is no state Joe Biden loses because of the Latino vote,” Odio said. “But there are several states he wins thanks to critical contributions from Latino voters.”
Arizona, which no Democrat had won since 1996, was among the largest of those states. Latinos represent one of every five voters there—six hundred thousand went to the polls this year—and the vast majority of them voted for Biden. “Arizona was no fluke,” Valencia said, noting that Trump won the state four years ago by merely eighty thousand votes. She credited a decade of organizing in response to Senate Bill 1070, the “show me your papers” law, which was designed to crack down on the state’s immigrant community by allowing police officers to arbitrarily question individuals about their legal status. For years, Latinos whose relatives, friends, or acquaintances had been impacted by the law and scarred by the climate of fear fostered by Sheriff Joe Arpaio had organized politically. In 2016, Arpaio lost his reëlection bid, ending a two-decade tenure. The same civil-rights groups that helped defeat him continued mobilizing in 2020, including Living United for Change (LUCHA), which placed twelve million calls to potential voters with a coalition of organizations. “We’ve been here for ten years,” Tomás Robles, LUCHA’s executive director, said. “Elections are simply a marker for us.”
Similar efforts were mounted in Wisconsin, Georgia, and Nevada, which Biden won by slightly more than thirty thousand votes. In Las Vegas and Reno, the Culinary Union, which represents sixty thousand workers, including porters, bellhops, and casino cooks, mounted its largest political effort in its eighty-five-year history, knocking on half a million doors. “We’re always on the field,” Geoconda Argüello-Kline, the union’s secretary-treasurer, said of their organizing philosophy. To Valencia, conducting robust field operations is the key to success. “Where we invest in organizing year-round in Latino communities, we can turn those into long-term victories,” she said. “We can’t come in and out of these communities every two years and expect people to show up.”
If Arizona and Nevada proved how important a consistent Democratic presence can be, Texas exposed the risks of neglecting the community. In Hidalgo, the Rio Grande Valley’s largest county, which is ninety-two-per-cent Latino, Biden won by eighteen points, less than half of Hillary Clinton’s victory margin four years earlier. The losses were more dramatic in Starr County, which Trump lost by sixty points in 2016 and this year by only five. For Danny Diaz, who oversaw the get-out-the-vote effort of the nonprofit La Unión del Pueblo Entero (L.U.P.E.), the results were hardly a surprise. “I don’t know the last time that Democrats put money here,” Diaz said. He complained that the bulk of resources were spent on urban and suburban Texas voters, groups that are trending more Democratic. L.U.P.E. contacted two hundred and fifty thousand infrequent voters via phone and text in the valley. Most people ignored their texts, but the roughly ten per cent who responded appeared to be new voters who fervently backed Trump. “They were all Latinos who had never voted in their lives, texting us back, ‘Trump 2020,’ ‘Ridin’ with Trump,’ ‘Trump all the way!’ ” Diaz recalled. “It almost feels like the Trump propaganda got to them way before we did.”
In many states, Republicans aggressively targeted Latinos with disinformation. In Florida, the Trump campaign cast Biden as “socialism’s Trojan horse” and claimed that the Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro was actively promoting the former Vice-President’s candidacy. Online, far-right sites mounted coördinated efforts to sow fear among Latinos over the Black Lives Matter protests, raise doubts about the election’s legitimacy, and pit communities of color against one another. In Texas, the propaganda centered on the notion that Biden’s clean-energy plan would eliminate all jobs in the oil industry. “Oil, man, it’s very simple,” Diaz recalled friends who had voted for Trump telling him. The same logic influenced those who worked in law enforcement—one of the biggest employers in Texas. Diaz pointed out that the Texas counties that boosted Trump in November had overwhelmingly supported Bernie Sanders during the primaries. However opposed the two men’s platforms were, Diaz saw a commonality: Sanders and Trump had both cast themselves as standard-bearers for populist movements and promised transformative change, particularly when it came to economics. Next to their messages, Biden’s promises seemed mundane, even if more realistic.
Despite Biden’s poor results in South Texas, Odio pointed out that only fifteen per cent of Latino voters in the state lived in the Rio Grande Valley. He, Valencia, and their partners hoped that Democrats could see that Texas was turning purple. “Joe Biden was the first Democratic candidate in nearly forty years to break forty-six per cent,” Tory Gavito, who leads the progressive-donor network Way to Win and collaborates with Equis, said. “If Democrats are serious about the future of this country, they have to take Latinos seriously.” Equis’s most recent analysis of county-level vote returns suggested that Trump also gained Latino support in areas outside South Texas or Florida. His performance had improved in myriad places, including in precincts in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, New Jersey, Nevada, and Massachusetts. In the city of Paterson, New Jersey, Trump had managed to double his support among Latinos; in Lawrence, Massachusetts, his raw number of votes had increased by more than sixty per cent. Trump had even improved his standing in Arizona, but not enough to offset the gains made by Democrats. “There is this baseline shift,” Odio said. “It cuts across geography and it cuts across place of origin.”
Over the years, Valencia and Odio had seen Democrats make decisions guided by the notion that demography was destiny, that Latinos would inevitably vote Democratic. Odio, who is of Cuban origin and was raised in Miami, had heard it in every election cycle in Florida, where more than forty per cent of Latinos voted for Trump this year. Before the election, Democrats had argued to him that a new generation of Cubans, as they reached voting age, would help turn Florida blue. They also contended that the state’s politics would be transformed by the arrival of growing numbers of Puerto Ricans. Neither proved to be the case in 2020. “Demographics don’t absolve you from reaching out to the community, engaging the community on the issues it cares about, and showing up year-round,” Odio said. “People just leave after elections.” Republicans, he argued, maintained a consistent presence on the ground in Florida. During his years in office, Trump never stopped soliciting Cuban and Venezuelan voters. “That full-court press has been missing on the Democratic side,” Odio argued.
The exact cause of Trump’s gains in some areas remains unclear. Four years ago, Trump had underperformed among Latinos and earned roughly twenty-eight per cent of their votes nationwide—a number that paled in comparison with the at least forty per cent won by George W. Bush in 2004. In 2020, Trump received approximately thirty-three per cent, according to exit polls. Odio said it was possible that the trend reflected the large number of Latinos born outside the country who have yet to define their partisan identity, or that many conservatives who refused to support Trump in the last election had changed their minds, or both at once. Some saw Trump’s gains as a return to the traditional distribution of Latino votes among both parties that predated him, but Odio and Valencia wanted to understand exactly why his numbers had improved. Had Biden and Trump both received large numbers of Latino votes because they each turned out new voters in droves? Had Trump been able to convert Democrats? Had those voters found his bravado, conservative values, and populist style appealing? If so, why had they withheld their support four years ago and backed him now? Did his decision to campaign on the economy rather than on immigration have anything to do with it?
Democratic leaders are also calling for the Party to face the warning signs that emerged in 2020. On Election Night, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pointed out Trump’s strong performance in Florida. “There is a strategy and a path, but the necessary effort simply hasn’t been put in,” she tweeted. “We have work to do.” Julián Castro, the former Presidential candidate and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, hailed Biden’s victory but said the Party needs to engage Latinos who voted for Trump. “Latinos absolutely helped propel Joe Biden to victory,” he said. “Yet, we would be fools not to do the work of understanding why we did see some backsliding in certain geographic areas, because those areas and those people are going to be important to our coalition going forward. And, you know what? We have to be big enough to do both of those things.”
Throughout 2021, Valencia and Odio will try to untangle these two realities. When the voter files are updated early next year with complete returns, they’ll know more. “We really have more questions than we have answers,” Valencia said. Odio argued that answering those questions with additional data analysis and polling before 2022 and 2024 is vital. “In 2020, you have a coalition that is fed up, you have an anti-Trump coalition. That’s not going to be the same set of voters who come together to elect Democrats going forward,” he said. “Where we were closest to the truth is where we went deepest.” The smallest of margins had affected the final outcome—episodic attention was not enough. “If we’re not proactive, it could get worse,” he warned. Valencia agreed. Assuming that Latinos, or any group, will uniformly vote Democratic four years from now is politically perilous. “It presents this unique opportunity and challenge for Democrats: to not be able to treat these groups with a cookie-cutter approach,” she said. “That may not feel natural to a lot of people, because we want to believe that Latinos are a base constituency. But the reality is, what this last election showed us is that that may not always be the case.”