A Vexing Question for Democrats: What Drives Latino Men to Republicans?

Several voters said values like individual responsibility and providing for one’s family, and a desire for lower taxes and financial stability, led them to reject a party embraced by their parents.

Jose Aguilar said he related to Republican messages about personal responsibility. “There’s really no secret to success,” he said. “It’s really that if you apply yourself, then things will work out.”
Credit…Go Nakamura for The New York Times

  • March 5, 2021

Erik Ortiz, a 41-year-old hip-hop music producer in Florida, grew up poor in the South Bronx, and spent much of his time as a young adult trying to establish himself financially. Now he considers himself rich. And he believes shaking off the politics of his youth had something to do with it.

“Everybody was a liberal Democrat — in my neighborhood, in the Bronx, in the local government,” said Mr. Ortiz, whose family is Black and from Puerto Rico. “The welfare state was bad for our people — the state became the father in the Black and brown household and that was a bad, bad mistake.” Mr. Ortiz became a Republican, drawn to messages of individual responsibility and lower taxes. To him, generations of poor people have stayed loyal to a Democratic Party that has failed to transform their lives.

“Why would I want to be stuck in that mentality?” he said.

While Democrats won the vast majority of Hispanic voters in the 2020 presidential race, the results also showed Republicans making inroads with this demographic, the largest nonwhite voting group — and particularly among Latino men. According to exit polls, 36 percent of Latino men voted for Donald J. Trump in 2020, up from 32 percent in 2016. These voters also helped Republicans win several House seats in racially diverse districts that Democrats thought were winnable, particularly in Texas and Florida. Both parties see winning more Hispanic votes as critical in future elections.

Yet a question still lingers from the most recent one, especially for Democrats who have long believed they had a major edge: What is driving the political views of Latino men?

For decades, Democratic candidates worked with the assumption that if Latinos voted in higher numbers, the party was more likely to win. But interviews with dozens of Hispanic men from across the country who voted Republican last year showed deep frustration with such presumptions, and rejected the idea that Latino men would instinctively support liberal candidates. These men challenged the notion that they were part of a minority ethnic group or demographic reliant on Democrats; many of them grew up in areas where Hispanics are the majority and are represented in government. And they said many Democrats did not understand how much Latino men identified with being a provider — earning enough money to support their families is central to the way they view both themselves and the political world.

Like any voter, these men are also driven by their opinions on a variety of issues: Many mention their anti-abortion views, support for gun rights and strict immigration policies. They have watched their friends and relatives go to western Texas to work the oil fields, and worry that new environmental regulations will wipe out the industry there. Still, most say their favorable view of Republicans stems from economic concerns, a desire for low taxes and few regulations. They say they want to support the party they believe will allow them to work and become wealthy.

Public polling has long showed political divides within the Latino electorate — Cuban-Americans have favored Republicans far more than have Mexican-Americans, for example. During the 2020 election, precincts with large numbers of Colombian and Venezuelan immigrants swung considerably toward Mr. Trump. Surveys conducted last year by Equis Research, which studies Latino voters, showed a striking gender gap, with Latino men far more inclined than Latina women to support Republicans.

And researchers believe that Mexican-American men under the age of 50 are perhaps the demographic that should most concern Democrats, because they are more likely to drift toward conservative candidates. According to a precinct-level analysis by OpenLabs, a liberal research group, Hispanic support for Democrats dropped by as much as 9 percent in last year’s election, and far more in parts of Florida and South Texas.

Winning over Latino men is in some ways a decades-old challenge for Democrats — a nagging reminder that the party has never had a forceful grip on this demographic. Still, some strategists on the left are increasingly alarmed that the party is not doing enough to reach men whose top priorities are based on economics, rather than racial justice or equality. And they warn that Hispanic men are likely to provide crucial swing votes in future races for control of Congress in the midterm elections, as well as who governs from the White House.

“Democrats have lots of real reasons they should be worried,” said Joshua Ulibarri, a Democratic strategist who has researched Hispanic men for years. “We haven’t figured out a way to speak to them, to say that we have something for them, that we understand them. They look at us and say: We believe we work harder, we want the opportunity to build something of our own, and why should we punish people who do well?”

According to exit polls, 36 percent of Latino men voted for Mr. Trump in 2020, up from 32 percent in 2016.
Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

Jose Aguilar grew up in McAllen, Texas, in the 1960s, raised by parents who had limited means for buying food and clothing. They were hard workers, and instilled in him that “if you apply yourself, you will get what you deserve.” His family welcomed relatives from Mexico who stayed for a short time and then returned across the border; some managed to immigrate legally and become citizens, and he believes that’s how anyone else should do so.

Still, Mr. Aguilar did benefit from an affirmative action-style program that recruited Hispanic students from South Texas to enter an engineering program.

“They were trying to fill quotas to hire Hispanic people in their company,” he said. “The first I ever got on was on a paid ticket to interview for a job, so I did. I saw that as a good opportunity for me to take advantage of, this was my chance, to take that opportunity and run.”

Mr. Aguilar, who now lives near Houston, said he saw Mr. Trump as a model of prosperity in the United States.

“I’m an American, I can take advantage of whatever opportunities just as Anglo people did,” he added. “There’s really no secret to success — it’s really that if you apply yourself, then things will work out.”

Sergio Arellano of Phoenix, Ariz., said he had a story he liked to tell about the moment he registered as a Republican. When he was an 18-year-old Army infantryman on home leave, he went to a July 4 event and spotted the voter registration table. He asked the woman sitting there: What’s the difference between Republicans and Democrats?

Democrats, he recalled her saying, are for the poor. Republicans are for the rich.

“Well that made it easy — I didn’t want to be poor, I wanted to be rich, so I chose Republican,” Mr. Arellano said. “Obviously she figured I would identify with the poor. There’s an assumption that you’re starting out in this country, you don’t have any money, you will identify with the poor. But what I wanted was to make my own money.”

Last fall, Mr. Arellano campaigned for Mr. Trump in Arizona, and this year, he narrowly lost his bid for chairman of the state Republican Party. Still, he does not fit the Trumpian conservative mold, often urging politicians to soften their political rhetoric against immigrants.

“Trump is not the party, the party is what we make it — a pro-business, pro-family values,” he said. “People who understand we want to make it as something here.”

All of this sounds familiar to Mike Madrid, a Republican strategist who is deeply critical of the party under Mr. Trump, and who has worked for decades to push the party to do more to attract Hispanic voters.

“Paying rent is more important than fighting social injustice in their minds,” Mr. Madrid said. “The Democratic Party has always been proud to be a working-class party, but they do not have a working-class message. The central question is going to be, Who can convince these voters their concerns are being heard?”

Credit…Scott McIntyre for The New York Times

Ricardo Portillo has contempt for most politicians, but has been inclined to vote for Republicans for most of his life. The owner of a jewelry store in McAllen, Texas, for the past 20 years, Mr. Portillo prides himself on his business acumen. And from his point of view, both he and his customers did well under a Trump administration. Though he describes most politicians as “terrible” — Republicans, he said, “at least let me keep more of my money, and are for the government doing less and allowing me for doing more for myself.”

In the last year, Mr. Portillo, 45, has seen business dip as fewer Mexican citizens are crossing the border to shop at his store. Before the coronavirus pandemic, business was brisk with customers from both sides of the border.

A sense of economic security is a shift for Mr. Portillo, who grew up often struggling.

“We were brought up the old-school way, that men are men, they have to provide, that there’s no excuses and there’s no crying. If you don’t make it, it’s because you’re a pendejo,” he said, using a Spanish term for idiot. “Maybe that’s not nice, but it breeds strong men, mentally strong men.”

The question now, he said, is “what am I going to be able to do for myself and for my family? We don’t feel entitled to much, but we’re entitled to the fruit of our labor.”

As a child in New Mexico, Valentin Cortez, 46, was raised by two parents who voted as Democrats, but were personally conservative. Mr. Cortez was around “a lot of cowboys and a lot of farmers” who were also Hispanic, but he never felt as though he was part of a minority and said he never personally experienced any racism.

Like so many other men interviewed, he views politics as hopelessly divisive now: “You can’t have an opinion without being attacked.”

Though a handful of friends have blocked him on social media when he expressed conservative views, he said, he does not feel silenced in his own life.

Mr. Cortez occasionally resents being seen as a minority — he grew up around other Hispanics in New Mexico and believes he has the same kinds of opportunities as his white counterparts. The bigger problem, as he sees it, is the lack of willingness to disagree: “I’ve got friends, they think that I hate my own culture. I have been shut down personally, but I am comfortable with who I am.”

Credit…Audra Melton for The New York Times

Like other men interviewed, Mr. Cortez, a registered independent, said he voted for Mr. Trump in large part because he believed he had done better financially under his administration and worried that a government run by President Biden would raise taxes and support policies that would favor the elite.

Some of the frustrations voiced by Hispanic Republican men are stoked by misinformation, including conspiracy theories claiming that the “deep state” took over during the Trump administration and a belief that Black Lives Matter protests caused widespread violence.

In interviews, many cite their support for law enforcement and the military as reasons they favor the Republican Party.

For Chuck Rocha, a Democratic strategist who helped run Senator Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign last year, the warning signs about losing Latino men were there for months. In focus groups conducted in North Carolina, Nevada and Arizona, Hispanic men spoke of deep disillusionment with politics broadly, saying that most political officials offer nothing more than empty promises, spurring apathy among many would-be voters.

“We’re not speaking to the rage and the inequality that they feel,” he said. “They just wanted their lives to get better, they just wanted somebody to explain to them how their lives would get better under a President Biden.”

To Mr. Rocha, the skepticism of Democrats is a sign of political maturity in some ways.

“We’re coming-of-age, we’re getting older, and now it’s no longer just survival, now you need prosperity,” he said. “But when you start to feel like you just can’t get ahead, you’re going to have the same kind of rage we’ve long seen with white working-class voters.”

For some Latino men who favor Republicans, they simply want the government to stay out of their way and not impede their chances of success.

“You can’t legislate equality, you can’t legislate work ethic and you can’t legislate being a good person,” Mr. Ortiz said. “I am not perfect and nobody is perfect, but for me it starts with individual responsibility.”