How Trump’s strong play for Hispanic evangelicals helped him stun Biden in Florida

‘I think the Biden campaign is going to say, ‘We blew it: we took for granted the Latino vote and the evangelical vote,’’ said the Rev. Tony Suarez, vice president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.

Demonstrators pray outside the White House on Nov. 3, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

WASHINGTON (RNS) — Democrats agonizing over Joe Biden’s dramatic underperformance in Florida, a state that many wrongly projected would end up in the former vice president’s column, have begun looking at why Hispanic voters, a majority of the population of Miami-Dade County, went soft on Biden in the Sunshine State and elsewhere.

One answer, said the Rev. Gabriel Salguero, founder of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition and Florida resident, is religion.

“It confirmed what I’ve been saying for about three or four election cycles: that Latinos are not a monolith writ large, and that Hispanic evangelicals are quintessential swing voters,” said Salguero, who served on the White House’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships under former President Barack Obama.

Salguero pointed to two major Hispanic voting blocs in the state: ones with ties to Cuba, which President Donald Trump carried with 55%, according to NBC exit polls, and others with ties to Puerto Rico, only 30% of whom backed the president.

Cubans and Puerto Ricans, Salguero noted, represent roughly the same percentage of the Florida electorate — around 29% and 27%, respectively, according to Pew Research. But Hispanic evangelicals, while a small group overall, overlap with both groups and tend to be swayed by issues rather than loyalty to one party.

“You have those very close races, and who’s going to make the difference? Probably the quintessential faith voter in Orlando, in Tampa and in Miami.”

Members of the Hispanic Federation, a nonpartisan organization that encourages voting in the Latino community, gather for a photo during an event Nov. 1, 2020, in Kissimmee, Florida. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

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Political concerns had an effect as well. The Rev. Tony Suarez, vice president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference and one of Trump’s evangelical advisers, said that Cuban Americans — along with a more recently arrived population from Venezuela — favor the current president’s aggressive stance toward some strongmen in South America and elsewhere.

Suarez also singled out immigration: Some Latinos, he said, still connect mass deportations more with the Obama-Biden administration than with Trump. Then there is what Suarez calls “the new ‘S’ word: socialism,” an ideology that haunts many Florida Hispanic voters especially, and that Trump concertedly tried to pin on Biden and his running mate, California Sen. Kamala Harris.

But Suarez said that Trump’s opposition to abortion and support for religious liberty are powerful draws for religious Hispanics as well.

Supporters of President Donald Trump pray during an “Evangelicals for Trump” coalition launch event at King Jesus International Ministry church on Jan. 3, 2020, in Miami. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

Both evangelical leaders also pointed to a partisan gap in efforts to court Hispanic evangelicals. The president’s approach was aggressive: He launched his Evangelicals for Trump initiative from a primarily Spanish-speaking evangelical church in January. Vice President Mike Pence, a staunch evangelical, has repeatedly visited similar communities in the region.

“Pence came multiple times to central Florida, to Orlando and Kissimmee,” Salguero said. “The Trump-Pence campaign had an intentional and long-standing outreach to the Hispanic evangelical community.”

The Biden campaign’s overtures to the group were milder — a trend Suarez says persisted before this election. “I think the Biden campaign is going to say, ‘We blew it: we took for granted the Latino vote and the evangelical vote,’” he said.

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Biden, who made faith a fixture of his White House bid, did reach out to some Hispanic evangelical leaders, and Salguero even opened this year’s Democratic National Convention with a prayer.

Faith leaders pray with President Donald Trump during a rally for evangelical supporters at the King Jesus International Ministry church on Jan. 3, 2020, in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

But both leaders argue it simply wasn’t enough. In future campaigns, they said, political strategists need to address the growing Hispanic evangelical community’s array of concerns, lest they forfeit a fast-growing swing vote.

“Latinos are pro-life voters,” Salguero said. “They value immigration. They value DACA. They value standing up against xenophobia rhetoric — but (abortion) is not a small thing.”

He said that’s especially true for Hispanic evangelicals: “They are the quintessential swing voters in the quintessential swing states.”

When all the votes are counted this year, both agreed that strategists in both parties would do well to pay closer attention to Hispanic voters in general, and Hispanic evangelicals in particular.

“I think that every politician needs to leave this election with a newfound respect for the Latino vote,” Suarez said. “It’s not a given, it’s not in the bag for anybody and you have to work for it.”

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