Trump's Supreme Court Nominee Was Never Going to Swing Latino Voters | Opinion

Every presidential cycle, political pundits spend a great deal of time handicapping how the candidates will do with particular types of voters. Will Black voters turn out for Joe Biden? Can Donald Trump win over Latino voters? These frames are reductive in critical ways, particularly because they are based on a biological definition of race and the idea that Latino voters will vote a certain way because they are Latino, not because their lived experience might have led them to understand the world in a specific way.

This framing was especially egregious when Trump dangled the possibility of nominating Barbara Lagoa, a Cuban American, to the Supreme Court, which sparked the widespread presumption that doing so would drive Latino voters to support his re-election, particularly in Florida. Although the president announced on Saturday that he is instead nominating Amy Coney Barrett, a conservative federal appeals court judge, to succeed the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, if we want to understand Latino political behavior, it is important that we unpack these claims.

First is the idea that Latino voters will support a Latino nominee regardless of whether they support that person's policy preferences. That assumes that all Latinos care about is descriptive representation, someone who looks like them, rather than representation rooted in support for their policy preferences. In actuality, voters often support people who share their background because they assume that means a common set of life experiences and values. When shown otherwise, that support disappears.

It is possible that conservative Cuban Americans would have been excited about Lagoa's nomination, but they would have supported Trump anyway. And the reality is that Cuban Americans do not make up the majority of Latino voters in Florida, nor are they universally Republican voters.

That raises the second key point: The Latino community in the United States is diverse along multiple axes—national origin, race, class, gender identity, nativity, geography and ideology, among other things. The political context Latino voters grow up in also matters. Puerto Rican voters in New York, for example, have different voting patterns than those in Illinois or central Florida. Meanwhile, it is highly unlikely that liberal Mexican American voters in Arizona are going to be moved to vote for Trump because he nominated a conservative Cuban American woman to the Supreme Court.

These assumptions are not only inaccurate. They are insulting, insofar as they assume there are no policy preferences, values or historical context underlying Latinos' voting patterns. Trump has put Latin American immigrant children in cages and has done his best to vilify Mexican immigrants through his rhetoric and actions. That record cannot be erased by nominating a Latina for Supreme Court justice.

This has been a long-term problem—politicians and their campaign consultants, both Democratic and Republican, believing that Latino voters can be moved to vote for them through cynical appeals. I have called this "mariachi politics," the use of cultural iconography or speaking a few Spanish words to signal solidarity with Latino voters. These superficial efforts don't work because Latino voters aren't stupid. Latino voters don't suddenly experience amnesia regarding politicians' past behavior because they hear a mariachi song that reminds them of their childhood. Latino voters care about jobs, health care and immigration reform. They will vote for the candidate whose policy platform is aligned with their values.

Lisa García Bedolla, Ph.D., is Berkeley's vice provost for graduate studies and dean of the graduate division, as well as a professor of education. She is co-author of the recent Talking Politics: Political Discussion Networks and the New American Electorate and Latino Politics, third edition.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.