by Nathaniel Rakich and Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux
With only 42 days left until the election, Joe Biden has his work cut out for him with Latino voters. That’s according to his senior adviser Symone Sanders, who has had to answer for why Biden appears to be losing ground among Latinos. According to a recent Latino Decisions/National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials poll, 65 percent of Latinos plan to vote for Biden or lean toward him, but this is still 14 percentage points lower than the 79 percent of Latino voters who said they supported Clinton in the pollster’s national election-eve poll in 2016.
It’s true that Latino voters do, as a whole, tend to be more Democratic than Republican, a trend that has only accelerated in recent years. But they don’t vote as a single bloc (in 2016, at least 1 in 5 Latino voters still backed Trump): How Latinos vote in Florida, for instance, can be very different from how Latinos in the Southwest or Northeast vote. These differences especially matter due to the size of the Latino population in a number of key swing states.
The size and diversity of this group make it even more difficult for any candidate — even a Democrat — to take Latino voters for granted. On the one hand, many of the political divides we see play out among Latino voters — along lines of gender, age and religion — are similar to what we observe in other big groups in the electorate, but there are unique considerations here, too, like how long Latino voters have lived in the U.S. or their specific place of origin. And this year, depending on how some of these divides within the Latino community manifest, the “Latino vote” could end up splitting in a number of key states — with Biden benefiting in some instances, and Trump benefiting in others.
Distance from the immigration experience matters
One of the biggest factors in a Hispanic voter’s political identity is how long his or her family has been in the United States. For instance, foreign-born Latinos and the U.S.-born children of Latino immigrants tend to be more Democratic than Latinos whose families have been in the U.S. for at least three generations. According to Latino Decisions’s election-eve poll, first-generation Hispanic Americans1 were 12 percentage points more likely than third- or higher-generation Hispanic Americans to support Clinton in 2016 (84 percent vs. 72 percent), although both groups strongly supported her over Trump.
“Many Latino Americans can trace their family history to before the United States was the United States,” says Melissa Michelson, a professor at Menlo College who studies Latino politics. (Specifically, 32 percent of Latino registered voters are third generation or higher, according to Pew Research Center’s 2019 National Survey of Latinos.) “And they have a very different perspective from folks who are closer to the immigration experience.”
Gary Segura, a co-founder and senior partner at Latino Decisions, sees both economic and cultural factors at play. First, higher-generation Hispanic Americans are likelier to be higher income, which nudges them toward the Republican side of the aisle. But their Hispanic identity also tends to be weaker. For instance, a 2017 Pew report found that only about one-third of self-identified Hispanics whose families have been in the U.S. for at least three generations had parents who took them to Hispanic cultural celebrations or who spoke often about their heritage while growing up, and relatively few live in predominantly Hispanic or Latino neighborhoods. According to that Pew report, Latinos are more likely than white or Black people to marry people of other racial and ethnic backgrounds — which means that Latinos with deeper family roots in the U.S. are also more likely to be of mixed ancestry. Simply put, the longer a Hispanic family has lived in the U.S., the likelier they are to have assimilated — and vote more like white Americans, who lean toward the Republican Party.
On the flip side, foreign-born Latinos and their U.S.-born children — groups that make up about one-third of Latino registered voters each, per Pew — tend to have stronger identities as Latinos or immigrants. That, in turn, makes them likelier to be turned off by President Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, which political scientist Betina Cutaia Wilkinson told FiveThirtyEight “has definitely brought together Latinos more than we would have seen in the past.”
In a survey of the same group of first-generation immigrants conducted before and after the 2016 election, political scientists Michael Jones-Correa and James McCann found that respondents’ fear about the deportation of friends or family members rose after Trump became president, regardless of whether they were personally at risk of being removed from the country. And first- and second-generation Hispanic Americans may be especially likely to have a close friend or family member who is not a citizen, or even undocumented.
That said, the importance of immigration to Hispanic voters can be overstated. In that Latino Decisions/NALEO poll, immigration was tied as the sixth most important issue Latinos wanted the next president to address (that said, “addressing racism and discrimination” ranked third). Instead, Latinos’ priorities tend to mirror the general population’s: The coronavirus ranked first, followed by health care.
Relatedly, Latinos who speak Spanish as their primary language are likelier to vote Democratic than those who primarily speak English. It’s possible that’s just a byproduct of the divide by immigrant generation — Spanish speakers are also likely closer to the immigration experience. Mark Hugo Lopez, Pew’s director of global migration and demography research, conducted a multivariable analysis and found that, once generation was controlled for, language was not a statistically significant determinant of Hispanic partisanship.
But Michelson noted that language is intimately tied to assimilation — and media consumption. Spanish-language news, in particular, encourages viewers to think of themselves as part of a pan-ethnic Latino group living in the United States, Michelson said. That kind of coverage can shape the way people think about issues like immigration, even if they haven’t been personally affected.
Ethnicity also factors into partisanship
Latinos tend to identify with their specific nationality first, and as Latino second. The Hispanic experience can be very different depending on one’s place of origin. Puerto Ricans may not have all that much in common with Mexican Americans, who may find it hard to relate to Cuban Americans. This, in turn, can affect how and why they vote.
Take Cuban Americans. At only 4 percent of the national Latino population,2 they don’t seem like an influential group at first blush — but they are disproportionately concentrated in the crucial swing state of Florida, where they make up a plurality (29 percent) of the Hispanic population. After Fidel Castro and his communist regime came to power in 1959, Cuban Americans began fleeing to the U.S. in droves and embraced the Republican Party, which was perceived as tougher on communism throughout most of the Cold War; in addition, many Cuban Americans blamed Democratic President John F. Kennedy for the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.
But Cuban Americans have been drifting toward Democrats in recent elections — they basically split their support between the two candidates in 2016. That, it turns out, is due to generational changes: According to an analysis by EquisLabs, a data firm that focuses on the Latino vote, voters who personally fled Cuba are still strongly Republican, while the growing share of Cuban Americans born in the U.S. actually lean Democratic.
However, there’s mounting evidence that Trump is making a comeback of sorts with Cuban Americans this year. “Trump has reversed Obama’s policies on Cuba and taken a hardened stance on Venezuela,” whose socialist dictator Nicolás Maduro is seen as a modern-day Castro, said political scientist Dario Moreno. “That has improved his standing with Cubans.” Indeed, a recent EquisLabs poll of Florida found Trump leading Biden among Cuban Americans, 54 percent to 37 percent.
Other Latino origin groups lean toward Democrats to varying degrees. Mexican Americans — who, per Latino Decisions, supported Clinton 81 percent to 15 percent in 2016 — basically singlehandedly drive the narrative that Latinos are core Democratic voters thanks to their overwhelming numbers: 63 percent of the national Latino population is of Mexican descent, and that figure is even higher in swing states like Arizona, Nevada and Texas. According to Florida International University Professor Eduardo Gamarra, the group has trended toward Democrats in large part because of the clear contrast between the parties on racial and immigration issues.
Like Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans are solidly Democratic: Latino Decisions found they supported Clinton 79 percent to 19 percent. However, there is a sense that Puerto Ricans have yet to live up to their potential for Democrats. “Puerto Rican political participation on the island is above 80 percent,” Segura said, but “Puerto Rican turnout on the mainland is lower than any other subgroup of Latinos.” And according to Moreno, Puerto Ricans in Florida (where they make up 21 percent of the Hispanic population, as opposed to just under 10 percent nationally) are less Democratic than their counterparts in the Northeast. While Trump has a fraught relationship with the commonwealth, Moreno says that might not matter much to Florida’s Puerto Ricans because many left the island precisely because they have a negative view of the Puerto Rican government.
There is little research on the political leanings of the remaining Latino nationalities — mostly because they are too small to poll easily. However, combined, they may have small but significant voting power: For example, Central American origin groups like Salvadoran Americans, Guatemalan Americans, Honduran Americans and Nicaraguan Americans combine to make up a decent share of the national (9 percent) and Floridian (11 percent) Hispanic population. Clinton won 82 percent of Central American voters in 2016, per Latino Decisions, and Biden could do even better this year. Central Americans “have really been damaged by the president’s immigration policy,” such as his efforts to end Temporary Protected Status, explained Moreno. “This is where Democrats will have some opportunities.”
Finally, several experts told FiveThirtyEight that Trump’s hardline stance toward Venezuela appears to be endearing him to Venezuelan American voters, but they also cautioned against making too much of it. According to Gamarra’s polling, Trump is still under 50 percent with Venezuelan Americans. More importantly, they represent a mere drop in the bucket of the broader electorate: They make up just 3.7 percent of the Hispanic population in Florida and 0.7 percent of the Hispanic population nationally.
Latino evangelicals are a swing group
Religion is another fissure within the Latino community that often matters a lot politically — although not in the ways you might expect. Recent data from the Pew Research Center shows that slightly less than half (47 percent) of Hispanic adults identified as Catholic in 2018, while 24 percent were Protestant and 23 percent were religiously unaffiliated. That means Latinos are about as likely to be nonreligious as the American population as a whole — and the uptick in the share of religiously unaffiliated people is largely coming at the expense of the Catholic population, which has been losing ground in the past 10 years.
The fact that Latino Catholics make up a smaller share of the population is a potential downside for Biden, since Hispanic Catholic voters are one of the most Democratic religious groups around, and Biden’s Catholicism might be a motivator for some Catholic voters this year. In general, though, the fact that Catholic voters mostly seem to be heading into the nonreligious — rather than the Protestant — column isn’t a bad thing for Democrats, since nonreligious voters are moving steadily into the Democratic camp with no real outreach from the party or the candidate, and Latinos are no exception. “An increasing share of Latinos are identifying as liberals, and that’s being driven by the growth of the ‘nones,’” said Juhem Navarro-Rivera, the political research director at Socioanalítica Research, a consulting firm that specializes in Latino and Hispanic politics.
But the group among which Biden is most liable to struggle — and where Trump may have the most success picking up or maintaining support — is among evangelicals, who make up the vast majority of Latino Protestants. Navarro-Rivera and other experts told us that Latino evangelicals tend to be more right-leaning than Catholic or nonreligious Latinos, although they’re nowhere near as conservative as white evangelical Protestants. According to Latino Decisions’s 2016 election-eve poll, 60 percent of Latinos who identify as born-again Christians (a group that overlaps heavily with evangelicals) supported Clinton, while 37 percent supported Trump. By contrast, 82 percent of Hispanic Catholics supported Clinton and only 15 percent supported Trump.
“Latino evangelicals are more conservative, but they’re not heavily Republican — really, they’re a kind of swing group,” said Navarro-Rivera.
It’s been difficult, though, for Republicans to make more inroads with this group as the share of Latinos who are Protestant has held steady for at least the past decade. Not to mention, the party has largely stood behind Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, and that might give some Latino evangelicals pause. “Immigration is a complicated issue for [Latino evangelicals], because they are more conservative generally but many are immigrants or work with immigrants,” Navarro-Rivera said. “So there are these cross-pressures that complicate the way they approach these issues.”
Latinos are also divided by age and gender
The rising share of Latinos who are nonreligious highlights another cleavage that could matter a lot electorally: age. Like religiously unaffiliated Americans overall, nonreligious Latinos are overwhelmingly likely to be young. And the population as a whole is young, too: According to a Pew analysis from 2018, 61 percent of Latinos were under the age of 35. Most young Latinos are also U.S. born, which means they’re eligible to vote.
Young Latinos tend to be more liberal — but less loyal to the Democratic Party — than older generations. But it’s hard to untangle how much of these differences are unique to Latinos or just a reflection of broader divisions within the electorate. “I think a lot of younger Latinos’ worldview is shaped by a sense of the Democratic Party’s failures,” said Bernard Fraga, a political science professor at Emory University who studies Latino politics. “In their lifetimes they’ve seen a failure to deliver on immigration reform, and a lot of compromising and settling for second best.” That, according to Fraga, helps explain why young Latinos are more dissatisfied with mainstream Democratic candidates than their parents or grandparents. And it emphasizes why why this might be a difficult group for Biden to reach. As we wrote during the Democratic primary, Sanders benefited from his campaign’s extensive outreach to Latinos — particularly young Latinos — in states like Nevada and California, while Biden struggled to connect with this group.
Gender is an example of another division that matters for Latinos — but maybe not in a way that’s so different from Americans as a whole. Over the past few years, turnout among Hispanic women has risen, and they’ve simultaneously become an even more reliable Democratic voting bloc. Lopez noted that education could be at least partially driving this shift: The share of Hispanic women with a four-year college degree has risen to 22 percent, up from only 14 percent about a decade ago. Hispanic men are also increasingly likely to go to college, Lopez said, but not at the same rate as women. But he also noted that these trends don’t significantly differ from those seen in female voters overall. And most of the experts we talked with agreed that this is probably an area where Latinos are largely being influenced by the same forces that are shaping the entire American electorate.
Nathaniel Rakich is an elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight. @baseballot
Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight. @ameliatd