In the 2020 election, the rightward shift among Latino voters raised eyebrows. Post-election surveys have disagreed about the exact split in the Latino vote, but it appears around 3 in 5 (or slightly more) voted for President Biden over then-President Donald Trump. Yet many of those same surveys as well as precinct-level analysis of the 2020 vote suggest that, compared with his performance in 2016, Trump made gains among Latinos — and in some places, quite sizable ones. Going forward, such swings among Latinos — the largest ethnic or racial minority group in the country — could affect each party’s chance of carrying important states like Arizona, Florida and Texas while also putting Democratic-leaning turf in play for the GOP.
Yet for all the talk about Republicans making serious inroads with Latino voters, new data from Gallup suggests that Latinos’ lurch toward the GOP could be overstated, at least when it comes to how they identify with the two major parties. In Gallup’s survey data for 2021, the pollster found that 56 percent of Hispanic Americans identified as Democrats or as independents who leaned toward the Democratic Party, while 26 percent identified as Republican or as leaning toward the GOP. Those figures represent very little change from what Gallup found in 2020 and, as the chart below shows, largely fall in line with Hispanic party-identification data over the past decade.
There’s been really only one inflection point in Gallup’s Hispanic party-ID data, which came around 2015 and 2016, when the share of Hispanics identifying with the Democratic Party shot up to 62 percent, while the share identifying with the Republican Party fell below 30 percent. Perhaps not coincidentally, this coincided with Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, which was strongly nativist and hostile toward Latinos.
Even still, those changes didn’t necessarily produce a big shift in electoral fortunes. In fact, in 2016, Trump probably performed better with the Latino electorate than Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney had four years earlier. That’s partly because shifts in party ID may not actually be all that predictive of how Latino voters will ultimately vote.
Latinos are pretty swingy compared with other voting blocs, as they’re just not that attached to the two major parties. Case in point: In Gallup’s 2021 polling, 52 percent of Hispanic Americans identified as independent, which was 10 percentage points higher than the population as a whole (42 percent). And when asked if they leaned toward one party, Latino independents were more likely to identify with the Democratic Party. But since most Latino Americans first identified as independent, this means that of the 56 percent who identified as or leaned Democratic, around two in five were actually independent leaners. (Among Republicans, almost three in five were independent leaners.) And while studies show that voters leaning toward a party do tend to back that party, they are still more likely to vote for the other side than voters who strongly identify with a party.
And among Latinos, ties to the two parties may be particularly weak because they aren’t as likely as other Americans to form a strong partisan identity at a young age. For starters, about one-third of Latinos weren’t born in the U.S., which means many haven’t developed a strong allegiance to either party. As a result, many first-generation Latinos haven’t instilled loyalty to either party in their children, which is often how younger voters in the U.S. form their partisan identities.1 It’s no surprise then that younger Latinos, in particular, hold only weak affinities for the two major parties or identify as independent, as they often have to find their own way politically.
These looser partisan attachments mean that a sizable bloc of the Latino electorate is persuadable. This was one of the takeaways from Equis Research’s post-mortem on the 2020 election, which found that Trump won over many Democratic-leaning Latino voters. This was true both in heavily Hispanic South Texas, where the Democratic margin shrunk from 33 points in 2016 to just 17 points in 2020,2 and in Nevada, where 11 percent of Latino voters in Trump’s coalition had backed Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016, according to Equis’s data.
The analysis from the Latino-focused research outfit pointed to Latino approval of Trump’s economic policies as a key factor that helped Trump win over Latino voters worried about how COVID-19 would impact the economy. And because concerns about COVID-19 and the economy dominated the spotlight, immigration issues that might have kept some Latinos from backing Trump became less salient. That was important because Trump’s anti-immigration and anti-Latino rhetoric had kept some more conservative-leaning Latinos from voting for him in 2016, but with immigration pushed to the background in 2020, these voters now felt more comfortable casting a ballot for Trump. Additionally, GOP attempts to label Democrats as “socialists” likely contributed to these shifts as well.
That said, how Latinos voted in 2020 may also not square with Gallup’s party-affiliation data because Latinos are less likely to vote than other major racial and ethnic groups. In 2020, 54 percent of voting-eligible Latinos cast a ballot, according to data compiled by the Center for Latin American, Caribbean, and Latino Studies at City University of New York, and while this was the highest turnout mark for Latinos on record, it still lagged well behind Asian Americans (60 percent), Black Americans (63 percent) and white Americans (71 percent).
In other words, understanding which Latinos voted in 2020 is incredibly important. Equis found, for instance, that lower-propensity voters, many of whom were young, were less likely to have negative views of Trump than high-propensity voters, and that many ultimately backed Trump. For example, 17 percent of the Latino voters who backed Trump in Nevada in 2020 didn’t vote in 2016. Moreover, according to Equis, even though many younger Latino voters (those under the age of 50) had negative opinions of Trump, his standing among them improved by the fall of 2020. This means that as Latino voter turnout surged, especially among 18- to 44-year-olds (i.e., 60 percent of eligible Latino voters, per CUNY’s data), Trump stood to gain.
What does all this mean for Latinos’ party preferences looking ahead to the 2022 midterm elections? In short, despite the continued Democratic edge in party ID, there’s potential for the GOP to win over more persuadable Latino voters this November. Biden’s approval rating has fallen especially hard among Latinos, and like other Americans, Latinos are particularly worried about issues like the economy, COVID-19 and crime, which could benefit Republicans, especially if immigration, an issue that has benefited Democrats among Latinos, remains mostly sidelined.
With a Democrat in the White House, we’d also expect Republican-leaning Latinos to be more likely to vote in a midterm. Biden’s flagging numbers may also cost Democrats support from some Latinos in the middle, as well as depress turnout among Democratic-leaning Latinos. Recent generic-ballot polling, though, generally finds Democrats leading among Latinos, although the margins have varied in ways that could portend a narrower gap between the parties. (In most cases, though, we’re relying on small samples of Latino voters within polls, so remember that means larger margins of error.)
Still, at this point it seems more likely than not that Latino voters will continue to prefer Democrats in the upcoming midterm elections. However, given the 2020 election results, the prominent issues that voters are worried about and Biden’s standing with the public, there’s plenty of reason to think that Republicans can further trim Democrats’ lead among Latino voters in 2022 — even if Democrats retain a sizable party-ID advantage among all Latinos.