The writer served as opposition research counsel for George H W Bush’s 1988 campaign
Although Democrat Joe Biden continues to hold a nationwide lead over Donald Trump, the US presidential race has tightened in the key states of Florida and Nevada. With that shift comes heightened focus on the Latino vote, a demographic that is not monolithic and very much in play.
In most scenarios, the president badly needs to win Florida and he is making a play for Nevada, holding a controversial indoor rally there. Hispanics make up 27 per cent of each state’s population, compared with 18 per cent nationwide.
Four years ago, Hillary Clinton’s losing campaign captured two-thirds of the Hispanic vote nationally, and more than 60 per cent in Florida. But Mr Biden barely leads there and actually trails Mr Trump among the state’s Hispanic voters, according to recent polls.
Instead, weaknesses overshadowed by Mr Biden’s successful primary campaign are re-emerging.
He was not the first choice of Hispanic Democrats. Senator Bernie Sanders won them over with promises of Medicare for all and higher wages, both lunch-bucket issues that resonate with a demographic group that leads Americans in workforce participation.
The numbers tell the story. In February’s Nevada caucuses, Mr Sanders garnered half the Hispanic vote, and won that contest by more than 25 points. Significantly, that trend continued to replicate itself as Mr Biden notched up an impressive string of victories in the March Super Tuesday primaries.
While whites with college degrees and blacks in general comprise the heart of Mr Biden’s coalition, other racial blocs appear to be giving Mr Trump a second look, especially Latinos and whites without four-year degrees.
To be clear, Mr Trump does not need to win the bulk of Hispanic voters to be re-elected. Rather, he just needs to win enough of them in the right states.
In the end, politics is about margins, and in presidential elections it is the electoral college, not the popular vote, that matters. The magic number is 270, not 50-plus-one per cent, and Florida and Nevada with their large Latino populations can make the difference.
This is especially true in Florida, where one quarter of Hispanics are of Cuban origin, a group that historically voted Republican.
The Democratic ticket is also potentially vulnerable because its message conflicts with some Hispanic voters’ view of themselves.
In her campaign memoir, The Truths We Hold, Kamala Harris, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, makes clear her enthusiasm for identity politics. The book’s preface proclaims: “We need to speak truth: that racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and anti-Semitism are real in this country, and we need to confront those forces.”
This may galvanise a broad swath of the Democratic base, but may be off-putting to other potential supporters. A significant portion of US Hispanic voters categorise themselves as “white”, including more than half of Cubans in the Miami area, a recent survey found. In other words, not all of them feel woke, let alone inclined to refer to themselves as “Latinx”.
Indeed, two of the Senate’s leading Republicans are Hispanic and self-identify as white even as they invoke their bilingualism as the situation may demand.
During the 2016 Republican presidential debates, Marco Rubio intimated that Ted Cruz could not speak Spanish, and the Texan proved the Floridian wrong. For the record, both of Senator Rubio’s parents are Cuban, as is Senator Cruz’s father.
Still, let us not get carried away. Ethnicity as a lightning rod for prejudice is not disappearing anytime soon. And Mr Trump has alienated many Latino voters with his rhetoric and treatment of immigrants on the Mexican border.
Hispanics also more strongly support affirmative action than non-Hispanic whites. In 1996, California’s Latino voters unsuccessfully opposed by a three to one margin efforts to scrap affirmative action in the state’s universities. Removing that ban will be on the state’s ballot this autumn.
With under 50 days to the election, the Democrats need to double-down on Hispanic outreach. Beyond that, the Biden-Harris ticket would do well to hammer away at Mr Trump’s continuing efforts to gut the Affordable Care Act amid a raging pandemic.
It is a message that cuts across race and gender. Few things in politics are that simple.