Democrats can’t assume they have the ‘Latino vote,’ especially in rural Iowa

LULAC in Storm Lake collaborates with SALUD Multicultural Health Coalition to raise money for a young man diagnosed with cancer. (Photo submitted by Joanne Alvorez)

It’s no surprise to Joanne Alvorez that some Latino and Hispanic voters in her community cast their ballots for President Donald Trump.

In Storm Lake, the economic and political spectrum of the Latino community is vast and complicated. 

Joanne Alvorez is the head of Storm Lake’s LULAC chapter. (Photo submitted by Joanne Alvorez)

There are third and fourth generations of Latinos who are well-established. There are class and ideological divides. Some Latinos in town are staunchly religious. Others work in predominantly white workplaces with high-paying jobs.

So if a Democrat comes into Storm Lake and expects to sway the community solely on immigration reform, they don’t understand the nuanced dynamics of Latinos, who make up 38% of the 10,000-person town.

“You’re not going to get them to vote solely because of immigration,” said Alvorez, the president of the local League of United Latin American Citizens of Iowa chapter. “Because especially Latinos who are already citizens or have status, what they want to hear is, ‘What about the economy? What about my taxes?’”

Trump, Iowa Republicans, make gains with Latino voters

Though Latinos nationwide overwhelmingly voted for Biden, Trump also made gains in parts of rural America where the rural-urban political divide continues to amplify, regardless of race or ethnicity.

Exit poll data from Edison Research shows 32% of Latinos surveyed nationally said they cast their ballots for Trump, up 4% from 2016. In comparison, Biden secured 66% of Latino voters — a percentage similar to what Hillary Clinton garnered the last presidential election.

In Iowa, rural counties maintained their support for Trump, helping flip the 1st District from blue to red and maintaining Republican dominance at the Legislature.

While detailed election data isn’t available yet, national exit polls and Trump’s victories in rural, Latino-majority counties along the U.S.-Mexico border also point to possible gains for Republicans in this increasingly important demographic, according to Politico.

CNN’s 2020 exit poll shows 31% of Iowa Latinos supported Trump. That’s a 5% gain compared to the 2016 poll.

“We got some numbers that Latino voters thought Donald Trump would be a better president to improve the economy and jobs,” said Steffen Schmidt, a Colombian-born political science professor at Iowa State. “There’s this percentage of Hispanics who found Donald Trump’s message and the Republican message more to their liking.”

Iowa’s first-ever Hispanic legislator

This year, the first-ever Hispanic legislator to be elected into the Iowa Legislature is a Republican. 

Mark Cisneros campaigned on typical rural Iowa priorities: Protecting the second amendment, lowering taxes and opposing abortion. He won Muscatine’s House seat.

Mark Cisneros is Iowa’s first Hispanic legislator. He is a Republican from Muscatine. (Photo by Mark Cisneros campaign)

Cisneros’ victory is indicative of growing Republican support from the Latino community, as well as the GOP’s effort to connect with them, said Nick Salazar, state director of LULAC.

In early 2020, Salazar, who lives in Muscatine, said he received mailers and targeted messaging. He said Republicans invested money into Cisneros’ campaign and rallied around him. 

In comparison, Sara Huddleston, a Latina Democrat who ran for the House seat in Storm Lake, did not receive full support from the Democratic party, Salazar said. He pointed to a comment from Iowa Democratic Party Chair Mark Smith that referred to her campaign as a “sacrificial lamb” for the state party, according to The Storm Lake Times.

“If we give these candidates more support, more confidence, I think Democrats will get more support than they think they can get,” Salazar said.

Neither the Iowa Republican Party nor Cisneros acknowledged any attempts to reach rural Latino voters and said their policies appealed to a wide range of Iowans.

“I do not see this election as a decision voters made on the basis of ethnic heritage, but rather on the merits of my platform, conservative values, and community involvement,” Cisneros said in a statement. “However, the Republican Party is a good and safe place for all people who value hard work, economic freedom, and family values to make their home.”

The Iowa Democratic Party did not respond to a request for comment.

From town to town, a wide range of concerns, upbringings and barriers

In Denison, Alma Puga, president of the local LULAC chapter, said religion is a major reason why Latinos vote Republican.

Pastors show their support for Trump on social media. And banning abortion remains a top priority for many Latino Catholics and Evangelicals.

Alma Puga is the head of the LULAC chapter in Denison. (Photo submitted by Alma Puga)

“I’d say it’s the number one reason why Latinos support Trump or the Republican Party,” Puga, 24, said.

But beyond religion, there is also pressure to fit in with the rest of the small town. Hispanics and Latinos make up nearly 50% of the 8,200-person town, but no one, especially immigrants, wants to stick out from their white peers, who are likely voting for Trump.

“They don’t want to feel left out,” Puga said.

In Storm Lake, Alvorez said there is a language barrier for some immigrants and access to information can prove cumbersome. That makes it easier for inaccurate political news to spread.

“If you’re looking for a fact-checking website in Spanish, I have yet to find one,” Alvorez said. “When I fact-check things, I can do it in English, but I can’t do it in Spanish.”

But towns like Muscatine and Storm Lake are very different from Mount Pleasant, where the majority of the Latino and Hispanic residents are only first or second generation, said Maria Mellado, president of the LULAC chapter.

While some voted for Trump, Mellado said the majority of people voted for Biden. 

Voter eligibility, however, remains a major barrier. Many of the immigrants are first or second generation and came recently from Guatemala and Mexico.

“We don’t have a lot of long history yet,” Mellado said.

Growing political power of Latinos in Iowa

The estimated Latino population in Iowa in 2019 was 198,550, according to the Iowa State Data Center. That is a 140% increase from 2000, with no signs of slowing down. By July 1, 2050, Iowa’s Latino population is projected to grow to 407,451 or about 12% of the state’s population.

By that time, the already-influential electorate will gain even more political sway, making it an increasingly important demographic to not only win, but understand.

Salazar said he would like both parties to acknowledge their wide range of concerns. Latinos are moving into the suburbs and are often fiscally conservative. There’s concerns about food deserts and hospital access. Education also remains a top priority.

Connecting with the spectrum of the community could prove politically beneficial in the long run.

“Whoever engaged with the community now will run the tables in the distant future,” Salazar said.