Our recently published research finds a significant proportion of Latinos supported Trump and he even improved upon Mitt Romney’s share among a few key Latino subgroups. If such support continues into the future, it will complicate Democrats’ plans to fully benefit from a growing Latino electorate. The GOP may well receive a significant share of the Latino vote on Nov. 3 — and into the future.
Trump made gains with a few Latino subgroups in 2016. His strategy is to target them again.
We compared five surveys from 2012 and 2016, including the Pew Research Center’s National Survey of Latinos. We found Protestants, third-generation Latinos and lower-income Latinos supported Trump more than they had Romney.
Trump won six percentage points more of the Latino Protestant vote than did Romney, for a total of 31.6 percent of this group. Furthermore, recent data show Latino Protestants remain more likely to support Trump. This is consistent with evidence noting they hold more conservative views about a variety of issues, including immigration. The Trump campaign understands this group’s growth and rising political power, holding a January rally at a Latino evangelical megachurch in Florida, the country’s largest. An evangelical group mobilizing to reelect Trump is explicitly targeting Latino evangelicals.
Third-generation Latinos also supported Trump in larger numbers compared to Romney. These Latinos are the grandchildren of immigrants and were born in the United States to U.S.-born parents. Trump received 30 percent support from these Latinos with deeper ties to the United States. That’s eight percentage points more than had voted for Romney. Nearly three in 10 Latinos are classified as “third or later generation.” Data find Latino identity tends to dissipate across the generations, much as has been true for other immigrant groups. Thus, while some Latinos channeled their anger against Trump in 2016 by voting for Hillary Clinton, others weren’t necessarily disturbed by his immigration rhetoric or considered other issues more important. In fact, Trump’s “America First” rhetoric might have appealed to some Latinos of the third and later generations, most of whom prefer to self-identify as “American” rather than as “Latino” or “Hispanic.”
Finally, lower- and middle-income Latinos were more likely to vote for Trump than for Romney. These Latinos may have responded like non-college-educated Whites to Trump’s “populist” message promising to revitalize blue-collar jobs and manufacturing industries — similar to the many Latinos who found Sen. Bernie Sanders appealing during the Democratic primaries.
Latino voters in 2020 and beyond
Polling from a few battleground states last month found 47 percent of Latinos in Florida and 40 percent in Arizona approve of how Trump has handled the economy. That’s true despite his problematic response to a pandemic that has disproportionately harmed Latinos’ health and financial well-being.
For decades, millions of Latino voters have felt better aligned with the GOP’s core values. Today, some say the Democratic Party is taking an “unprecedented hard left turn,” and this could leave many Latino votes on the table.
The Trump campaign’s strategy of targeting its Latino appeals at just a few slices of this electorate is an attempt to make marginal gains among Latino voters rather than large inroads. By contrast, the Democratic Party’s attempt to mobilize a broader range of Latinos at the last minute can magnify small mistakes. For instance, at a Hispanic Heritage Month kickoff event in Florida, Biden began his remarks by saying “I have just one thing to say” — and played the Spanish crossover hit song “Despacito” on his phone. Biden’s awkward dancing was reminiscent of other times that Democrats engaged in “Hispandering”: non-Latino candidates trying (and often failing) to connect with Latinos on cultural grounds. A Trump Spanish-language ad later attacked Biden for the “Despacito” stumble.
Over the summer, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez touted the party’s ability to run the same Latino-targeted ad in three different Spanish accents: Cuban, Puerto Rican and Mexican. But focusing on cultural resonance is not the same as discussing political and policy issues that might better resonate with segments of the Latino electorate open to voting for Democrats.
The outreach tactics available to Democrats at the moment might prove problematic in the long term. First, Democrats would probably benefit from a surge in turnout among young Latino voters who helped propel Sanders to victories in California and Nevada during the primaries. Sanders’s popularity among Latino voters was due in part to the electorate’s relative youth. This may seem reasonable given that an estimated 800,000 Latinos turn 18 every year. But mobilizing these millions of first-time voters in 2020 and beyond will be a challenge for Democrats. The turnout rate of young people on average is very low, regardless of racial-ethnic background, and increasing it is notoriously difficult.
Second, Democrats would also gain by mobilizing Latinas, considering recent nationwide data suggesting they support Biden by about eight percentage points more than do Latino men. Research has long found a Latino gender gap; polling suggests that will expand this year, although it’s not clear whether that will continue after Trump.
Meanwhile, the three elements of Latino diversity we highlight — religion, class and generational status — could continue to benefit Republicans in the long term, especially if the party continues to espouse a populist economic message. If current trends continue, the group’s growing numbers of Protestants; growing numbers of increasingly acculturated Latino Americans with a smaller share of immigrants and an increasing level of English proficiency; and a continuing high share of working-class voters suggest demography may deliver a larger share to Republicans in the years ahead.
Álvaro J. Corral (@alvarojcorral) is an assistant professor of political science at the College of Wooster.
David L. Leal (@LealDavidL) is a professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.