(These comparisons aren’t perfect — summer polls aren’t the same as election results; pollsters break down Hispanic and Latino identity in different ways and polling a young, mobile, often multilingual group is difficult. But these numbers suggest Biden has some work to do with these voters.)
Team Trump might be tempted to see this softness as an opportunity. If Biden is failing to match Clinton’s numbers amid a global pandemic and a record-breaking recession, Trump should be in a position to make up some of the ground he’s lost to Biden. But Trump has his own problems with this demographic: he seems to be stuck under a persistent 25 to 30 percent ceiling with the Hispanic and Latino vote.
This ceiling first appeared in 2016, when Trump won roughly 29 percent of the Latino vote. At the time, that seemed like an achievement for Trump — he had made racist statements about Hispanic and Latino people throughout the campaign and agitated for a border wall, yet he still managed to roughly match Mitt Romney’s 30 percent showing in 2012. But soon, the ceiling hardened: even when Trump’s broader approval drifted upward after his election, his approval among Hispanic and Latino voters remained in this general range.
And now, when Trump needs more votes from anywhere he can get them, he’s still struggling to break through that ceiling. Trump won 25 percent of the Hispanic and Latino vote in the June edition of the New York Times/Upshot poll and averaged roughly 30 percent in other polls that had a Hispanic or Latino breakdown. Despite the challenges in polling Hispanic and Latino voters, that’s remarkably close to the 29 percent of the Latino vote Trump won in 2016.
It’s easy to explain Trump’s stable numbers: Trump frequently makes both flat-footed and clearly racist statements about Hispanic and Latino people in the United States. He’s an immigration hard-liner who instituted family separation and attempted to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which allowed undocumented immigrants who entered the United States as children to stay. If Trump’s support has sagged since 2016, it is likely because they know him better now.
Meanwhile, Hispanic and Latino voters tend to support government intervention into the economy and support the Affordable Care Act. So when Trump abandoned his election-year economic populism and signed the GOP tax cuts and attempted to repeal and replace the ACA, he may have limited his appeal to Latino voters.
In theory, these problems aren’t intractable –– but Biden’s issues seem easier to solve.
As others have pointed out, Biden doesn’t have an obvious policy position or personal trait that would make him unappealing to Hispanic and Latino voters. Many simply preferred Sanders in the primary or aren’t yet fully familiar with Biden. But Biden’s moderate instincts and Catholic faith also offer some appeal to voters who may admire Sanders’s economics buffet but lean culturally more to the center.
In any case, Biden is taking concrete steps to bolster his appeal. He’s started airing Spanish-language ads, hiring Hispanic operatives and specialized pollsters, meeting with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and he’s worked with Sanders on compromise policies that might help secure the Vermont independent’s primary voters. Time will likely help Biden, too: Hispanic voters are disproportionately young, and antipathy toward Trump will likely push overwhelmingly Democratic Latino millennials and Gen Z voters toward Biden as the election season wears on.
As Biden puts the work in, my guess is that he’ll become a Generic Democrat in the eyes of Latino voters and end up winning the group by at least the 2-to-1 margins that Clinton and Barack Obama posted in their elections. This outcome wasn’t a given. Had Trump taken a more common sense position on immigration, handled the coronavirus pandemic competently, followed a more populist path on economics and dialed down the rhetoric, he might have shattered his own ceiling. There is little prospect of that now.