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What Will Happen To The GOP? A 'Never Trump' First-Time Voter Wants To Know

Jacob Cuenca, Republican voter
Jayme Gershen for The World and WLRN
Jacob Cuenca, a first-time voter in 2020.

Jacob Cuenca started the election cycle as a Republican leaning towards Trump. Since then it's all gone downhill, and he wonders how the party will adapt to a post-Trump world.

The 2020 election cycle was the first that Jacob Cuenca was able to participate in as an adult. And what a ride it turned out to be.

The 19-year-old started the cycle as a somewhat reluctant supporter of President Trump. WLRN first met and interviewed him last March, on the day he registered to vote as a Republican, and mere days before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in Florida.

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But Trump’s response to the pandemic, coupled with what he saw as the president’s increasingly erratic behavior, led Cuenca to vote for Democrat Joe Biden. He saw it as a practical way to help get Trump out of the White House.

“It's crazy that he's the type of person who was like, my first president,” Cuenca said. “I feel there's not going to be a person like him for a long time afterwards.”

Cuenca's mom is Mexican and his father is Cuban, and he considers himself a fiscal conservative even as he is more progressive on issues like climate change and abortion rights.

On one level, he saw Trump as an entertaining, anti-establishment figure, the kind of archetypal character that he can appreciate. Cuenca wears his hair long and bleached like Kurt Cobain, and listens to grunge rock from the mid-1990s, the kind that celebrates people who thumb their noses at societal norms and niceties.

Yet, driven by what he saw as a counter-productive response to anti-police violence protests and the lagging response to the pandemic, by mid-summer Cuenca conceded that Trump was a “fallen” politician who was beyond repair.

The president did nothing to reverse that assessment for Cuenca. He also found it frightening when Trump refused to concede that he lost the presidential election in November.

“I really expected this, man. Trump is not the type of person to go down without swinging. So he's going to try his hardest. But it's kind of a scary thought that I can see — like sometime in December — he might just go all the way until when Biden is trying to go to the office and hold his own little like Trump supporter rally, like when he's doing his inauguration,” Cuenca said in mid-November. “I think it’s crazy the type of support that he’s instilled into these people, and how some people will fight with him until the end. It's like a cult.”

That prediction turned out to be more than a little justified. Cuenca watched on social media, and on television, as a mob of pro-Trump extremists stormed the U.S. Capitol seeking to reverse the results of the election and inflict violence upon elected officials. Five people died during the insurrection.

“He did do it,” he said afterwards. “It's so strange how much in-fighting he's caused everywhere. In the United States government, politics. I’ve never seen so much division and turmoil.”

It leaves Cuenca feeling a bit vindicated for opting to vote for Joe Biden, even if Trump won Florida.

'Honestly, I Was Tired'

WLRN has been following Cuenca for close to a year now. So we’ve watched his political evolution, we’ve also joined him through major life events during the course of a global pandemic.

He graduated from high school virtually — and without a senior prom. The last part of the school year was spent taking virtual classes, which he called “a joke.”And he had to postpone attending college at the University of Denver for the fall semester. In fact, he hasn’t even been able to visit Colorado at all.

Over the summer, Cuenca said he would “definitely” be attending classes there in January, but now even that has passed him by. Things are still too up in the air with the pandemic, he said, and he’s heard bad things from friends who opted to start in-person college courses during the pandemic.

In the meantime, Cuenca is still living at his parent’s house in Homestead and he found a temporary job at a Doral warehouse shipping liquor bottles across the country.

“It’s given me time to reflect on the state of the world and just like ... chill,” he said. “Also I feel like I needed a full year break from high school. Honestly, I was tired. School was grinding.”

He’s been building up a vinyl record collection and says he wants to buy an electric skateboard to use when he finally gets to school. If things work out according to planned, he will be starting class in the fall — a full year after he hoped. The full-ride scholarship he received will still be valid, Cuenca said.

“If anything, I just need to study math on my own because I know if I slack behind math, I'm just going to be in a dark place when I do get to college,” he said.

'You Just Got To Hope For The Best'

The last year has been a harsh introduction to politics for Cuenca.

He came into the cycle starry-eyed about the importance of the democratic process, gobbling up news and information from wherever he could find it.

Before the election in November, Cuenca had grown more cynical of U.S. political culture, and likened the political divide to the “West Coast against East Coast” hip-hop rivalries of the 1990s that escalated into deadly violence. He found pride in seeing beyond the polarization and voting for Biden, citing popular social programs under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “New Deal” as a reason for why a Democrat might make sense to lead the nation to economic recovery from the pandemic.

But now on the other side of the election, his identity as a conservative has come into sharper relief. Cuenca has come to identify himself as a Republican at heart — but definitely not a Trump Republican.

“He's made it more instead of like ‘you're voting for the Republican Party or you're supporting Republican ideas,’ you're kind of more supporting him. I mean, I don’t know — what's going to happen to the Republican Party after him? Because he kind of seems like the face of it now,” Cuenca said. “But I feel like the Republican Party might change, because you see [Vice President Mike] Pence not siding with Trump and stuff like that, and obviously Mitt Romney has been like that for a minute. So I'm interested to see what's going to happen.”

Any change that brings the party back to its traditional ideals would be welcome, said Cuenca.

He doesn’t hold a very favorable view of Biden, likening him to a “puppet” of his advisors. But he does hope Biden will be able to do things like cancel student loan debt, make higher education more affordable and take more steps than the Trump Administration to protect the environment and tackle climate change.

“You just got to hope for the best and keep moving forward,” Cuenca said.

This story is part of "Every 30 Seconds," a collaborative public media reporting project tracing the young Latino electorate leading up to the 2020 presidential election and beyond.

Daniel Rivero is part of WLRN's new investigative reporting team. Before joining WLRN, he was an investigative reporter and producer on the television series "The Naked Truth," and a digital reporter for Fusion. He can be reached at drivero@wlrnnews.org
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