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Book Excerpt: Party of the People

Dear Readers: Today we are featuring an excerpt from Patrick Ruffini’s new book, Party of the People: Inside the Multiracial Populist Coalition Remaking the GOP. Ruffini, a Republican pollster and cofounder of the firm Echelon Insights, meticulously tracks the political changes in the wake of Donald Trump’s ascension to the top of the Republican Party. In the excerpt below, Ruffini documents the improvements Trump made in 2020 among nonwhite voters even as he lost his reelection bid. We also spoke with Ruffini about his book as well as recent polling trends on our “Politics is Everything” podcast.

The Editors

From PARTY OF THE PEOPLE: Inside the Multiracial Populist Coalition Remaking the GOP by Patrick Ruffini. Copyright © 2023 by Patrick Ruffini. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, LLC.

The story in the 2020 presidential election was largely that of an electorate that had made up its mind on Donald Trump four years earlier, with just the right number of votes in just the right states turning a narrow victory into a narrow defeat—but with one crucial exception. In most of America’s nonwhite communities—especially those filled with first- and second-generation immigrants—Trump did better than he had in 2016.

In many Hispanic and Asian communities, the shift was in double digits. Estimates from the Democratic data firm Catalist show that, nationally, the Hispanic vote shifted the most, by a net of 16 points on the margin. Between 2012 and 2020, a blend of available data sources shows Hispanics shifting a total of 19 points in a Republican direction, African Americans 11 points, and Asian Americans 5 points. The GOP’s underwhelming performance in the 2022 midterms did not see a reversal of these trends. Republicans had their best midterm ever with Hispanic voters, and the Republican share of the Black vote for the House rose to at least 13 percent, which, while modest, also happened to be their best showing in a midterm election in recent memory. The fact that all racial and ethnic minority groups swung toward Trump is notable in light of the fact that the rest of America—and by this I mean white America—swung against him. Areas dominated by whites with college degrees swung several points against Trump, furthering the white educational divide, while the white working-class vote trended one or two points against him. The net result was a somewhat weaker Trump coalition, a bit more downscale than the one in 2016—but much more diverse.

Generations of immigration to the United States have created a multiethnic, multiracial patchwork that still dots the political landscape. Different groups of Europeans imparted their own politics wherever they settled. To take one example, Scandinavians settling in states like Minnesota and Wisconsin made those places more progressive than the rest of the Midwest, which saw mostly German migration. Yet, over time, these differences have started to fade, giving way to a mostly uniform pattern of partisan polarization among whites dictated by density and college education. In 2016, the last of the Democratic ancestral holdouts fell, with places like Minnesota’s Iron Range, Ohio’s Mahoning Valley, and southwest Wisconsin breaking down and joining the old Democratic strongholds of Appalachia that had swung over the last decade.

Exceptions to the polarization trend lived on in places that were more diverse. First established in the 1964 election, a pattern of nearly uniform Black support for Democrats endures, with only subtle partisan differences across urban, suburban, and rural communities. Rural Black communities continued to support the Democratic Party in large numbers, as had similar places with large Hispanic populations, like the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. The ideological polarization that would whittle away the remaining Democratic holdouts in the white working class in 2016 would also come for nonwhite voters in 2020.

This led to a remarkably consistent shift to the right in nonwhite-majority areas throughout the country. It was stronger among Hispanics and Asians than it was among Black voters. It was stronger in places populated by exiles from communism—places like Little Havana in Miami and Little Saigon in Orange County, California. But the trend was broad-reaching. The shift could be seen in Hispanic neighborhoods from Lawrence, Massachusetts, to Reading, Pennsylvania, to Las Vegas, Nevada. It reached Cubans, Mexicans, Colombians, Puerto Ricans, and Dominicans. It reached into Asian American enclaves as distinctive as Hmong Village in Saint Paul, Minnesota. There was an associated shift among groups of whites without a Western European, Christian background: from Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, to the heavily Jewish community of Great Neck on Long Island, to the Persians of Los Angeles—Muslims, Jews, and people of other faiths—who swung heavily in Beverly Hills and the Westside neighborhood known as Tehrangeles. Far from the dying last gasp of white Christian America that the modern Republican Party was supposed to represent, the 2020 election saw almost everyone except for white Christians surge toward the Republican Party in numbers almost great enough to save Donald Trump from defeat.

After the election, the media dispatched feature writers to places like Little Havana and the Rio Grande to understand what they had missed, in a revival of the West Virginia diner-style of coverage after the 2016 election. Often, the theories revolved around issues specific to discrete regions or ethnicities, ignoring the fact that the shift was much broader than just a few ethnic groups or regions.

In Miami-Dade County, the center of the country’s Cuban American population and home to a large contingent of Colombians and Venezuelans hostile to socialism in their homelands, the explanations centered around the renewed visibility of socialist leaders in the Democratic Party. These included Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, elected in 2018 along with other members of her “Squad.”

Others conjectured that the Hispanic shift came because of an issue that mostly wasn’t discussed in 2020, in stark contrast to 2016. That issue was immigration. “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” Donald Trump famously declared in his June 16, 2015, announcement speech, words that would echo throughout the entire 2016 campaign. “They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” Gone in 2020 was this sort of sweeping invective directed toward members of the largest Hispanic nationality group in the country, replaced by an immigration discourse that centered more on threats to public safety, particularly in border communities. One can add to this fact that the border security problem seemed to be more manageable after four years of wall building and enforcement—not to mention a pandemic that temporarily stopped global migration. The lack of a shift against Trump among Hispanics in 2016 followed by a large shift in 2020 could be interpreted as a sign that Hispanics were ready for the populist Republican Party of Trump, only hesitating due to his hostile immigration rhetoric. When that rhetoric went away, pent-up demand was released.

Others look to Latin American political traditions for why Trump ultimately proved more successful among Hispanic voters than mild-mannered Republicans like John McCain or Mitt Romney. Trump’s machismo, a “strongman” style common to the region, resonated. His blunt language, backers of this theory argue, was more in line with the way Hispanics (and working-class people in general) talk among themselves. The image of Trump as a brash, tough-talking businessman disrupting a corrupt establishment was appealing to those familiar with Latin American politics, where political corruption runs rampant.

Another explanation centers around the issue that replaced immigration at the center of cultural discourse in 2020: crime and policing. Hispanics in polling take a strong law-and-order position, and by the time the 2020 election came around, Hispanics were more unfavorable than they were favorable toward the Black Lives Matter movement. In Echelon Insights polling after the election, Hispanics were the swing group most concerned about defunding the police under a Democratic majority. To the extent the 2020 issue environment lent itself to a stronger Trump Hispanic performance, crime and policing may have contributed.

A more general theory is that a focus on cultural issues rather than economic issues in the Trump era sparked a shift among nonwhite voters who are more conservative culturally than they are economically. What made the Republican Party toxic for nonwhite voters in the Obama years was not the idea that the party was racist or xenophobic, but that it was run by out-of-touch country-club elites who looked out for their rich business buddies first. When these issues were taken off the table, by a different kind of ultrarich candidate who promised to blow up the system he had benefited from, Hispanics and other nonwhites felt freer to vote on the cultural issues on which they were to the right of the modern Democratic Party.

A competing explanation points to the economy itself, which was booming prior to the pandemic, with those groups more likely to be at the margins of the economy—Hispanic and Black voters—prospering more in relative terms. Incomes among Hispanics and Asian Americans had surged in the years leading up to 2020. Black poverty and unemployment rates reached new lows under Trump. And when it came to the pandemic itself, people working with their hands or in service industries—people whose jobs could not be done over Zoom—could get back to work a lot faster, thanks to red-state governors like Florida’s Ron DeSantis and Texas’s Greg Abbott quickly reopening their state’s economies. In Texas, this meant a sizable group of people working in the oil and gas industry, where demand for the product was crushed by stay-at-home orders.

Alas, votes for president do not come with rationales attached. If they did, we could divine all the mysteries of the political universe. The only truly foolproof data source is the election results themselves, which tell us broadly which kinds of communities and demographics swung, and large-scale preelection surveys about the issue preferences of individual voters. The theories outlined pretty much all point in the same direction: toward a Hispanic and new-immigrant swing to Trump, but the exact role each issue played is and will remain an enigma.

What we do have clear evidence of is an ideological shift: Trump won many more nonwhite voters who call themselves conservatives in the 2020 election as compared to the 2016 election, with shifts of at least 36 points among conservatives who were either Black, Hispanic, or Asian American. In general elections, candidates are often advised to tread lightly on ideological rhetoric, lest they turn off swing voters. This advice applies first and foremost to white voters, where appearing more ideologically extreme serves to turn off moderate voters. But sharpening ideological contrasts serves a useful purpose with nonwhite voters, since so many who are in the middle still vote Democratic. Emphasizing the ideological stakes of the election—on crime, the economy, culture wars, and pandemic lockdowns—combined to produce a surge among ideological conservatives who agreed with Trump on these issues. And Republicans did not yet need to do a lot of persuading of voters in the middle to achieve these gains. They just needed to collect votes from already-aligned conservatives, votes previously unavailable to Republicans. As stated before, the erosion of racial voting patterns in favor of ideology presents a major opportunity for the Republican Party to realign nonwhite conservatives—and their fair share of moderates also. All of the bespoke explanations for the 2020 surge fit within this framework of ideological polarization.