Of all the uninspiring epithets that have come to characterise US President Donald Trump, one stands out markedly – racist.

He is widely seen as a White Nationalist (also White Supremacist) leader who selectively caters to the ethno-racial impulses of White America. With the homeland engulfed in rage over racial injustice and police murders of Black people in recent months, particularly since the killing of George Floyd in May, this image only took a fillip.

The obvious corollary then is that Black people and other Persons of Colour (POC) would reject Trump en masse in this election.

The general assumption is that while Trump might receive mandates from some non-White groups, the numbers would certainly be lesser than 2016, not least because of his offhand attitude towards racial justice, reluctance to call out white supremacist violence, and his frenzy to build a border wall with Mexico to keep undocumented immigrants away from the homeland.

But as the final returns from this year’s Presidential election trickle in slowly, amidst an unusually stretched-out counting leg, a somewhat different – and counterintuitive – picture emerges.

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The Black vote

According to a Vox analysis based on data provided by AP VoteCast, Edison exit polls and the 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Study, the President received more Black votes in 2020 than in 2016, with an upward margin of about 2 to 4 percentage-points.

This is notwithstanding the fact that an overwhelming 90% of registered Black voters and 63% of Latinx voters have chosen Vice President Joe Biden over Trump, as per AP VoteCast.

According to Edison, Trump gained new Black and Latinx votes across both genders, with slightly higher returns from men.

Also read ‘Trump or Biden, the Crisis of American Dream Isn’t Going Anywhere

On the other hand, according to NBC, Biden got lesser Black male votes than both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. This data, however, isn’t conclusive.

AP VoteCast shows that 86% of Black men voted for Biden in 2020, which is 5% more than what Clinton got in 2016 (81% according to Pew Research Centre) and just 1% shy of what Obama got in 2012 re-election (87% according to NBC).

According to one July study on the Black electorate, while 90% of Black voters above the age of 60 thought that Trump was racist, a smaller number (79%) of young Black voters (18-29 years) believed so. Further, more young Black people (35%) than older ones (10%) “liked the way [Trump] shows strength and defies the establishment” despite not favouring all his policies.

Clearly, when it comes to Trump and race, nothing is in black and white.

The Latinx vote

While 63% of the national Latinx vote went to Biden this time (according to AP VoteCast), Trump managed to sway a larger chunk of the community to his side than in the last election – from 28% in 2016 to 35% in 2020.

In Florida (29 electoral votes), which was anticipated to throw up a tight race, Trump won with ease. Compared to the slim margin of 100,000 votes that gave the state to Trump in 2016, this time, the President clinched it with a comfortable margin of 375,000 votes.

The President particularly made dramatic gains in the Miami-Dade county, which is dominated by Cuban-Americans, climbing up from 333,999 votes in 2016 to at least 532,460 votes this year. Biden managed even lesser returns than Clinton this year in this crucial country.

To a large extent, this is due to a bump in Florida’s hispanic vote for Trump, from 35% in 2016 to 45% this time. According to NBC’s exit poll, “around 55 percent of Florida’s Cuban-American vote went to Trump, while 30 percent of Puerto Ricans and 48 percent of “other Latinos” backed Trump.”

Revelers during the 11th annual North Hudson Cuban Day Parade on Bergenline Avenue in Union City, New Jersey, 6 June 2010 | Photo: Luigi Novi, Wikimedia Commons

A large chunk of Cuban-Americans in Florida voted for Trump – nearly 55%. This isn’t surprising. Even in 2016, almost 54% of Cuban-Americans in Florida chose Trump over Clinton. Moreover, according to a Pew study from October, 58% of Cuban registered voters nationally preferred the Republican party over the Democrats.

The Cuban vote for Trump, specifically in Miami-Dade, has a lot to do with the President’s stern approach towards Communist-ruled Cuba, which seems to have resonated with the “historic exiles” – those who fled Fidel Castro’s regime.

According to Politico:

“Team Trump’s winning formula included a heavy dose of messaging that sought to brand Democrats as socialists and anti-police, a focus on opening the economy despite the coronavirus pandemic, generous spending on a traditional ground game, and the buildout of a coalition that Trump in the past had paid little attention to, according to nearly a dozen Florida Republicans and campaign officials.”

But it isn’t just the Cuban-Americans who voted for Trump this year. Even Venezuelan-Americans drifted towards the Republican President, while Nicaraguans and Colombians also gave him higher returns than in 2016. It is clear that Latinx support for Trump is more comprehensive than assumed so far.

What do these numbers mean?

A failure for Democrats?

Bernard Fraga, an associate professor of political science at Emory University, says:

“If your starting point is that not a single Latino should vote for Trump, then of course you are going to need a more complex explanation for understanding why Trump would win 25 to 35 percent of the [Latino] vote nationally.”

Like in any other electoral mandate, the hispanic vote for Trump cannot be explained by just one or two factors. For instance, while the President’s anti-socialism plank appeased Cuban exiles, low unemployment rates amongst the broader Hispanic and Latinx communities might have driven others to vote for him.

There were some incidental factors too. According to one NBC analysis, “Venezuelans in Miami were surprised and elated when the president, less than a month in office, tweeted a picture of himself at the White House with Lilian Tintori, the wife of a leading opposition leader in Venezuela who was jailed at the time.”

But can we simply attribute all of this to Trump? Or does the Latinx shift also indicate an epic failure of the Democrats to woo the community?

According to Domingo Garcia, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC):

“The Democrats cannot take Latinos for granted. I think Biden missed a grand opportunity to have been able to carry both Florida and Texas. If he had just invested in the Latino community more, if he had delivered the correct message.” 

It is indeed unusual that a significant segment of the Hispanic and Latinx communities would vote for a President who has shown clear White Supremacist tendencies, spewed venom against immigrants from down south, started building a border wall with Mexico and doubled down on hard immigration enforcement through the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

For any opposition, discrediting such a President before the Latin American immigrant community should have been a cakewalk. But it wasn’t. The Democrats even managed to give away Rio Grande Valley, an immigrant-dominated region in Texas bordering Mexico, to the Republicans.

Also read ‘Why Does the Latin American Migrant ‘Caravan’ Exist?

One could argue that the Democrats failed to map Latinx-Hispanic impulses accurately. For instance, according to Garcia, immigrant communities in border states like Texas are concerned about law and order issues, and campaigns like #DefundThePolice don’t help.

But, Biden was unambiguously opposed to the idea of defunding the police. Still, he lost sizeable chunks of the Hispanic vote in Texas.

This, however, doesn’t take away from the fact that the Democrats failed to offer a platform that was robust and compelling enough for the Hispanic and Latinx communities to vote for Biden. It was so frail that Trump not only managed to retain old-time Republican-leaning Latinx voters, but also gain new ones.

This also shows that ethno-nationalism, with all its cultural supremacy and hate-driven rhetoric, can consume unlikely voter bases through cautious ground-level optimisation of agendas, helped only by a weak opposition. In such a situation, ‘race’ doesn’t remain a monolithic plank that liberals can blindly use to challenge right-wing nationalism.

To say the least, this should be a wake up call for the Democrats. While Biden is very close to clinching the Oval Office – and that’s a solid reason for the Democratic Party to rejoice – America’s centre-left and left must pay close attention to the specific needs of communities of colour within a rapidly changing inter-generational context.

The key here is to not assume anything, least of all that non-White communities would summarily reject White Nationalists like Trump and choose White liberals like Biden. Fair to say that this time, the Democrats indeed made such assumptions and were ultimately proved wrong.