Latinos might just define who will sit in the Oval Office for the next four years. With more than 32 million eligible voters, Hispanics and Latinos make up the largest racial or ethnic minority in the United States’ electorate — for the first time.
That’s about 13% of all Americans who will cast a vote in the November elections. Latinos could very well shape the electoral outcome in 2020, as they are expected to vote in record numbers this year, with 90% in Texas saying they intend to cast a ballot next month. What does this mean for them and the US?
Historically, Latinos have leaned towards the Democrats. According to the Pew Research Center, 63% of Latino registered voters identified with the Democratic Party in 2019, up from 57% in 1994. On the other hand, 29% identified with the Republican Party last year, a percentage that has remained unchanged since 1994.
This doesn’t mean that the Democrat candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden, should take the Latino vote for granted.
Latino voters in key states
Latinos are far from being a homogenous group. Americans of Latin American descent range from Jewish Argentinians to Black Colombians and Cubans who left their country following the mid-century revolution. This diversity also applies to the role they play in their adopted country’s political arena.
In Florida, Hispanics are the largest minority group, according to data from the 2019 US Census Bureau. Cuban-Americans make up the largest group of Hispanic origin in the state, and they have historically leaned conservative and sided with Republican candidates.
Florida has the third highest number of members of the Electoral College, with 29 electors, the same number as New York, behind only California, with 55, and Texas, with 38. This gives the southeasternmost US state — and thus Cuban-Americans — political power.
Cubans come in as the third largest population, along with Salvadorans, of Hispanic origin living in the US, according to the Pew Research Center. The vast majority of them, 66%, live in Florida. Comparatively, only 5% of Cuban-American are in California, the state with the second highest concentration of this ethnic group, according to the same Pew Research Center report.
In 2016, 54% of Cubans backed President Donald Trump, making them twice as likely to support the Republican candidate as non-Cuban Latinos.
While there have been bipartisan efforts to dissuade Cuban in Florida from voting to re-elect Trump, they are unlikely to succeed. An NBC News/Marist poll shows Trump leading Biden among Latino voters, 50% to 46%. In fact, recent polls show Biden is trailing behind among Florida’s Latino voters even when compared to his predecessors Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
California and Texas
The two other major electoral states, California and Texas, also have large Latino populations. Unlike Florida, both have Mexico as the country of origin most commonly found within these groups. And, unlike Cuban-Americans, Mexican-Americans lean Democratic.
Eight in ten Latinos who are registered to vote rated the economy as very important in the 2020 election. Abortion, by comparison, was rated as very important by only 48% of Hispanic women, a percentage that dropped to 36% among Hispanic men
But not by a lot. In Texas, almost 38% of Latinos support Trump while 48% support Biden. This marks an increase from the 32% share of Latinos who voted for the current president in 2018 and also higher than John McCain and Mitt Romney, the two previous Republican candidates, were able to achieve.
In California, 30% of Latinos say they intend to vote for Trump, according to a Pew Research survey. Unlike Texas, a significant 63% said they will vote for Biden, which is unsurprising considering California is one of the "blue states."
The bottom line
What these numbers show us is that Latinos in the US are generally moderates. In his book “Hispanics and the Future of America”, Louis DeSipio argues that, despite many Latinos’ conservative, religious background, issues such as abortion, the death penalty and traditional gender roles – issues often linked to Republican rhetoric – rarely drive the group’s political engagement.
Education and social services have traditionally ensured many Hispanics’ loyalty to the Democratic Party, particular those of Mexican and Puerto Rican descent, he continues. These demographics tend to favor an expanded role for government, which is often accompanied by their willingness to pay higher taxes to fund government services, DeSipio notes.
For Latinos, policy concerns trump ideological self-identification. And for many communities within these groups, government assistance and programs have been vital.
As a September Pew Research survey shows, the issue that concerns Latinos the most in 2020 is the economy, followed by health care and the COVID-19 pandemic. Eight in ten Latinos who are registered to vote rated the economy as very important. Latinos also expressed higher concerns over health care than the general voting population, with 76% of Latino voters rating it as very important vs. 68% of overall voters. The same was true for the coronavirus outbreak, at 72% vs. 62%.
Abortion, by comparison, was rated as very important by only 48% of Hispanic women, a percentage that dropped to 36% among Hispanic men, according to the same survey.
How come Latinos are ambiguous about Biden but felt the Bern?
Earlier this year during the primaries, Latinos helped carry Bernie Sanders, a 79-year-old white senator from Vermont, to victory in unlikely states, particularly in the Southwest. Latinos also gave the most political donations to Sanders of all of the Democratic candidates.
Latinos in the US historically vote at lower numbers than other groups because they feel their vote has no weight
One reason behind the strong support of Latinos for Sanders is age. The Latino voting bloc is overwhelmingly young. While the majority of whites in the United States are 54, the majority of Latinos are 19 years old.
What Sanders did so successfully was address the issues relating to young Latinos, focusing specifically on free education, health care and immigration.
Latinos in the US historically vote at lower numbers than other groups. This is not because they are uninterested in politics. On the contrary, many Latinos are engaged in and care about politics, as the overwhelming support for Sanders showed. The problem? They feel their vote has no weight, a recent study found, according to Houston Public Media.
“We actually found that all of the non-voters were following political news and following politics but they had a harder time articulating what the parties stood for and how the government directly impacted their lives”, researcher Cecilia Ballí told the Texas publication.
The bottom line is: Democratic candidates must focus on policy and address the specific issues affecting Latino communities throughout the US if they want to continue to count on their vote.
Biden playing and dancing to “Despacito” and Clinton claiming she always carries a bottle of hot sauce in her bag is not, and never was, enough.