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Republicans and Democrats don't understand Latino voting bloc, strategist says

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Political strategist Mike Madrid grew up in California, a third-generation Mexican American. He came of age as a conservative. He's now a strong critic of Donald Trump. He's a data guy who says every credible survey of Latino voters over the last 30 years has identified jobs and the economy as their top issues. Madrid believes neither Democrats nor Republicans understand what matters to Latinos in this country. In his new book, "The Latino Century," he argues that is why so many eligible Latino voters do not vote. But if they do turn out, the sheer growth of their population in the battleground states could determine the outcome of the presidential election.

MIKE MADRID: Latinos really exist as a multiethnic, aspirational, working-class community. And whichever party is able to pull all of that together is likely to be the dominant party for the next generation. The working class has been moving away from the Democratic Party for the better part of a decade now - working-class voters - and the working class is dramatically quickly becoming nonwhite. The Latinization of America is also the Latinization of the blue-collar, non-college-educated workforce.

And I think our conceptions of race in America have always believed that nonwhite people would be left-of-center, you know, Democratic voters. And that is rapidly not becoming the case, and it's challenging our notions as a country of what it means to be a minority. But it's really challenging the Democratic Party because it has so focused and prioritized racial and ethnic issues as the way to communicate to nonwhite voters that they've lost the capacity to engage them on these economic issues.

And Republicans, for their part, are winning a bigger and bigger share of nonwhite voters broadly - Latinos, specifically - because of the economic populist messaging that they have been putting out and because they are perceived to be the protectors of a lot of these industries which range from the construction trades, energy production, agriculture, mining, forestry - all of these industries which are rapidly becoming a browner, Latino workforce.

And so in a nutshell, while Republicans have had trouble with being a more diverse ethnic party, they have been really concentrating on the economic issues. And as Latinos become less of a racial voting bloc and more of an economic voting bloc, they're becoming the beneficiaries of the fastest-growing segment of the electorate.

MARTÍNEZ: It feels, in some ways, as if Republicans have done a good job - or maybe decided to realize that, for Latinos, it isn't necessarily about their brownness, but it's about their green - in their wallet, in their pocketbook...

MADRID: Yeah.

MARTÍNEZ: ...Right? - in their purse. That's what Latinos care about. But I think Democrats maybe are still stuck where it feels like immigration and identity is No. 1, but, I mean, who doesn't want to make a buck, Mike?

MADRID: Well, that's the perfect encapsulation, A. And, again, from both of our experiences growing up the way we did, I mean, we can relate to that. We understand that. Let me give you a really specific example of this. Joe Biden's campaign for Latinos is called Latinos Con Biden, a Spanish-language phrase. He launched it at a restaurant in Tucson, in Arizona. And it really kind of resembled some of the campaigns you've seen from both major parties since the 1970s - a Spanish-language term, a Mexican setting, the sombreros, you know, a mariachi playing in the background - sort of the stereotypical -almost a caricature of who Latinos are.

Trump, you know, begins and changes his effort from 2020 to call it Latino Americans for Trump. And that's significant because he's tapping into the fastest-growing segment of the electorate, which is overwhelmingly - 80%-plus - U.S. born. These are people who Pew Hispanic Research Polling suggests overwhelmingly identify as Americans first and prioritize over their ethnicity and their race.

And the Biden campaign is sort of, again, falling back - to your point - to a more stereotypical, caricaturized imagery of who Latinos are or are not. And who is right is going to determine who's the next president of the United States.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. You write, let's move beyond Black and white. Let's talk about brown in all its shades. Is race in America simply a Black-and-white issue in that the conversation is framed and guided and powered around Black and white people, and brown people maybe not as involved?

MADRID: That's such a powerful question, and it is absolutely the case. And I did not experience this until I went to the East Coast. You know, again, I grew up a Mexican American kid, where race is much more blended. There's much more seamlessness in our discussions between race. I went back to the East Coast for college and, you know, was interested in ethnicity and identity and politicization, and I couldn't find anybody that had any specialty beyond a Black-and-white discourse.

So there's a very, very East Coast, very Southern bias in our racial understanding in this country for very obvious and understandable reasons - that's our legacy. That's our history, at least up until this point. But what is happening is, as the Latinization of America unfolds and we become a nonwhite nation, the Latino population is exploding - overwhelmingly U.S.-born. And that brownness - in between Black and white - is changing the blended nature and complexion of our country. And I think that we can start having a more positive discussion about what race is, what it means, and what it does not mean.

And there's a lot of evidence, especially with younger people - again, these under-30 voters - the most diverse generation of Americans in our history, who we always wanted to not see race - that's always been the promise and the hope for this generation. But the irony is they are not seeing race as much as we are, but they are seeing some of the economic dislocation in a clearer way, and they're responding politically in a way that I think we never expected. So yes, race is becoming far less of a primary driver for this younger generation, and economics - especially economic populism - is taking its place.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Mike Madrid. His new book is "The Latino Century: How America's Largest Minority Is Transforming Democracy." Mike, thank you.

MADRID: Thanks for having me, A.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.