Hispanics won’t be loyal Democrats forever

Democrats could do with Hispanics in the Sun Belt what Donald Trump did with white voters in the Rust Belt  but it won’t yield as big a dividend as the party might hope.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Much noise has been made about the US's white voters without a college degree. In 2016 their marked and uniform swing to Donald Trump, and their willingness to turn out in key midwestern states, caught the Clinton campaign off guard and was a key factor in securing the Trump presidency. 

In 2020, the Republican grip on blue-collar white voters is waning. So, too, is the demographic’s importance as a voting bloc. In 1980, white working-class Americans made up 63 per cent of all those who voted. In 2016, that number fell to 34 per cent, and forecasts for 2020 expect it to fall further, to between 30-32 per cent.

In their place, two growing blocs are emerging. The first are white voters with a college education; the second are Hispanics. White people with a college degree have in the past been reliably Republican. Hispanics  who have accounted for over half of the country’s population growth since 2010  have not, and in 2016 split 70/30 in favour of Hillary Clinton.

The votes of ethnic minorities cannot be assumed. It would be wrong, for example, to say all things populist, or Trumpian, are anathema to US minority groups. Hispanic Americans are just as conservative as the nation as a whole  and on some issues, such as abortion, even more so.

Nevertheless, only once have Republicans come close to winning the Hispanic vote nationally: George W Bush’s re-election win of 2004. 

Voting Hispanics have been reliable Democrats
US election exit polling, demographic breakdown

The reasons for this inability by the GOP to reach out should be evident. The perception is now, and has been for some time, that liberal-leaning politicians are more immigrant-friendly. Bush went on to institute harsh border controls  a decision on which Mitt Romney doubled-down in his 2012 campaign  and the Republican gain amongst Hispanic voters was short-lived.

As the US becomes less white and more middle class, Democrats eye an opportunity for electoral breakthrough. Texas and Arizona, states rich in diverse Latino populations, have been reliably Republican in almost every election cycle for the past 50 years. Now strategists on both sides are contemplating a breakthrough for Biden. The key? Achieving a high turnout among that growing Hispanic vote.

Where are America's Hispanics?
America's Latino population without a college education, mapped

But Hispanics have proven to be unreliable as a partisan bloc vote. In 2016, as Donald Trump spoke of building his wall, there was much talk of a surge in participation. What materialised was a mere trickle  notably so in Texas. Of those who did turn out, there was a swing, not in Clinton’s favour, but rather in Trump’s. As in all recent elections, the proportion of eligible Hispanics voters who turned out was lower than among their white counterparts.

With states increasingly disrupted by shifting and widening demographics, campaigns have two choices. They can either move with the times, embracing and readjusting their messaging accordingly; or they can hunker down by focusing on one bloc and try to squeeze out every drop of turnout. Trump did something like the latter with white voters in the Rust Belt. Democrats could try something similar with Hispanics in the Sun Belt, but how easy and fruitful this would be is questionable. As a strategy, it rests on some rocky assumptions.

The main one is that minorities have always been of a liberal lean. In the 2014 midterm elections, there were 25 million eligible Latino voters, but only seven million turned out to vote. Of those who did, more than six in ten plumped for the Democrats. If all Latinos turned out, would the ratio have stayed at six to four? No. A Pew Survey in 2016 found likely Hispanic voters were less conservative-minded than those who were not as politically engaged. Since 2012, as the absolute number of Hispanics eligible to vote has surged, the share of those with favourable opinions towards the Democrats has fallen.

But that’s not all. Active association with the Democratic Party has drifted too. In Florida, the number of Hispanics registered to vote this year is up nearly 500,000 on 2016, but the proportion who identify with or lean to the Democrats is down two percentage points, at 38 per cent. The proportion registered as Republican, though still woefully behind the Democrats, is unchanged on 2016.

Florida: Dems see a fall in the share of Hispanics identifying with them
Share of registered Hispanic voters in Florida, by party affiliation

What’s happening in Florida is special in one regard, and yet also part of a wider problem. The special aspect is that Florida’s Hispanic populace is a lot more socially conservative than the American norm, not least because most are Cuban American. In the state as a whole, Cuban Americans account for one in every 20 Floridian voters significant when an election is tight and four years ago they plumped for Trump by 54-41 per cent. Polls for 2020 suggest that gap might be widening.

This observation is unique to Florida. Two in every three of America’s voters with a Cuban heritage live in the state. It also explains, in part, why the state has been tighter than national polls would imply. What isn’t unique is the growing disassociation of Hispanics of all national backgrounds with the Democrats.

[see also: US election swing states: The Florida Factor

Newly naturalised Hispanics, born overseas and bilingual or primarily Spanish-speaking, are extremely prone to voting Democrat. This makes intuitive sense: put simply, new-ish arrivals to a country are likely to prioritise protecting their rights.

When Hispanics are more settled, however – be they American-born “second-generationers” or simply those who use English more often in their day-to-day life – the correlation with voting Democrat falls. Republican support is highest among Latinos who speak English exclusively, or at least more often than Spanish. 

U.S. born and English speaking Hispanic voters are less likely to identify with the Democrats than those born overseas
Hispanic propensity to identify with the Democratic Party, by characteristic

Though the majority of Hispanics do still identify with the Democrats, recent years find that number falling, and has continued to fall even following the election of Donald Trump. New data from the Democracy Fund and UCLA Nationscape finds that compared to 2016, Trump is performing better among Hispanic voters against Biden than he did against Clinton, particularly among young Hispanics and those with a college education.

Analysis from the news website FiveThirtyEight analysis of the poll data finds that Trump has narrowed the Democrat lead among Hispanics from 37 points in 2016 to 23 points today. That figure is more pronounced among men, where Biden’s lead over Trump has nosedived by 15 points.

What do these nuanced swings mean? The main take-away might simply be that old political wisdom about people voting along simple demographic lines is no longer fit for purpose. Biden is gaining among white voters without a college degree; Trump is gaining among second-generation Hispanics. The battlegrounds that were upended in 2016 are being upended again. It may be there is no simple strategy the Democrats can use to turn out more Hispanic supporters without energising the disengaged conservatives of Hispanic America. The truth may be that the more diverse America becomes, the more nuanced political thinking needs to be; that might turn out to be a good thing for everyone.

[see also: Why I’m starting to doubt my long-held belief that Trump will win the US election]

 Ben Walker is a data journalist at the New Statesman

Free trial CSS