With the 2016 election, we have a new set of data to help us investigate this question. My county-by-county comparison of election results in 2016 and 2012, drawn from data available at CNN.com, Politico.com, PBS.org and other sites, shows that rural white and rural Hispanic voters have a lot in common.
Or to put it another way, the election of 2016 revealed an urban/rural divide that was as strong as the white/Hispanic divide.
Election analysts have noted that Donald Trump ran up the vote in rural, largely white counties in the Rust Belt and the Midwest. He flipped or narrowed Hillary Clinton’s margin of victory in others. Because these rural voters came out so strongly, states that hadn’t helped elect a Republican for a long time — Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and most likely Michigan — delivered his electoral victory, however narrowly.
And here’s the surprise: many rural Southwestern counties with large Hispanic, predominantly Mexican populations, moved in Trump’s direction as well.
But if you look closely at many largely Hispanic rural areas in these states, you find that Trump did better — and Hillary did worse — than did Mitt Romney or Barack Obama. Voting in these counties was much like that in similar counties in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin.
There’s been contention about how Hispanics voted
When postelection reports suggested that Trump performed surprisingly well among Hispanic voters, the polling firm Latino Decisions rejected the claim. The firm specializes in polling Latino voters, and enumerated the risks of relying on exit polls to understand that electorate’s behavior. The firm vigorously defended its own election eve polls, which suggested that Clinton would rack up historically wide margins from Latinos.
But Latino Decisions, in defense of polls it conducted leading up to the election, has focused on overwhelmingly Hispanic precincts in more urban areas, not the rural communities that tell a different story.
In dozens of rural counties throughout the Southwest, Clinton performed worse in 2016 than Obama did in 2012, as you can see in the figure below. In Guadalupe County, N.M., about an hour’s drive east of Albuquerque, she received 17 percent less of the vote than Obama did four years ago — 53 percent compared with Obama’s 70 percent. In several other counties where Hispanics accounted for half to nearly all of the population — Rio Arriba, N.M.; Costilla, Colo.; Greenlee, Ariz.; and Duval, Tex., for example — Clinton took home roughly 10 percent fewer votes than did Obama in 2012. In many more heavily Latino counties, her votes lagged behind Obama’s by 3 to 8 points.
Even in the South Texas counties that Latino Decisions has named bulwarks of Clinton support — the Rio Grande Valley below San Antonio, where she won between 70 and 85 percent of the vote — she didn’t do as well as Obama had done four years earlier. In Brooks County, which, according to the 2015 American Community Survey, is 89.5 percent Hispanic, Clinton’s tally was 3.9 percent less than Obama’s. In Zavala County, which is 93.1 percent Hispanic, it was 5.6 percent less. In Duval County, which is 88.8 percent Hispanic, it was 9.8 percent less.
Meanwhile, as you can see below, Trump did much better among Hispanics in the rural Southwest than Romney did. He received a greater share of the vote than Romney had in more than a dozen counties with large Hispanic populations: six percent more than Romney in Starr County, Tex., which is 95.8 percent Hispanic; 7.5 percent more in Costilla County, N.M., which is 63.6 percent Hispanic; and 9.1 percent more in Duval County, Texas, which is 88.8 percent Hispanic.
Clinton may have received more votes than Obama did in many parts of South Texas, where, as a politically-motivated student at Yale Law School, she knocked on doors in predominantly Mexican neighborhoods for the McGovern campaign. But Trump also received more votes in South Texas than Romney did. Clinton rallied thousands more voters, but so did Trump. His supporters there matched the enthusiasm of Clinton’s, just as they did in dozens of rural counties with large Hispanic populations in New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, Arizona, and Texas.
In fact, two Colorado counties where Hispanics constitute about half the population flipped from blue to red. Conejos County, which is 53.7 percent Hispanic, went for Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016. So did Las Animas County, which is 42.6 percent Hispanic. In both counties, turnout was lower for Clinton than it had been for Obama, and higher for Trump than it was for Romney.
To be sure, some of these rural Southwestern counties are extremely small compared with the big cities where Hispanic support for Clinton was strong. In small counties, the Hispanic vote adds up to hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands — while in cities, it totals hundreds of thousands. Therefore, rural Hispanics won’t be credited with moving the needle much in one direction or the other.
So yes, there was a Hispanic “surge” in big Southwestern cities that helped Clinton hold on to New Mexico, Colorado, and Nevada, and helped make Trump’s margin of victory in Arizona and Texas narrower than it had been for any Republican in two decades. But that ignores the vote in rural counties across the country — including those that are largely Hispanic — that led to Trump’s victory.
Why would Hispanics vote for Trump, despite his many anti-immigrant and anti-Mexican statements?
One answer: poverty. The Hispanic communities in the rural Southwest that moved toward Trump were some of the poorest in their states.
Take San Miguel, Guadalupe, and Mora Counties in New Mexico, whose populations are 77.1, 79.2, and 80.2 percent Hispanic, respectively. These three counties have New Mexico’s lowest median household income, highest rates of unemployment, and lowest rates of labor market participation. The median income in these counties for families with a head of household between the ages of 25 and 44 is between $25,000 and $30,000 per year, or about half the national median income ($55,000) for families with heads in the same age range. These counties lost, on average, about 5 percent of their population between 2010 and 2015.
In other words, they’ve suffered the same tough economic circumstances as did some of the Midwestern counties that handed Trump the election. They’re more similar to than different from other forgotten counties across the United States, where voters upended the predictions of pollsters and shouted against the status quo.
Ruben Navarette Jr. wrote in The Daily Beast that the election “boiled down to a brutish tug-of-war between Latinos in the battleground states of the West … and working class whites in the Rust Belt” — let’s add the upper Midwest — and “in the end, Trump found enough white voters to offset losses with Latinos.”
But that’s only partly true. In reality, many rural Hispanics and working class whites pulled on the same side of the rope.
Geraldo L. Cadava, author of “Standing on Common Ground: The Making of a Sunbelt Borderland” (Harvard Press, 2016), is associate professor of history and Latina/o studies at Northwestern University. Follow him on twitter @gerry_cadava.