Updated: Jun 14, 2021
1. Introduction: the battle for the soul of America
The “battle for the soul of America” that has seen Joe Biden and Donald Trump challenging each other during the election campaign, and later in the aftermath of the election, has also concerned the Hispanic community. Indeed, the presidential race did not focus exclusively on the coronavirus pandemic, which has hit the United States harder than other countries in the world. Economic recovery was also at stake, since at least 10 million Americans have lost their jobs because of the recession caused by the pandemic. Another key topic was racial justice – minorities are asking for a decent life. Even though in the last few months, Afro-American communities were under the spotlight because of the social protests – the likes of which have not been seen in a while – sparked by George Floyd’s death and by the comeback of the Black Lives Matter movement, the Hispanic community was still on the watch list for this presidential election.
Who is Latino in the US? Whom did Latinos vote for? What do they expect from the next president?
Is it possible to apply to the Hispanic community the maxim – generally attributed to August Comte and well established in social science – according to which the demographics of a group determine its political choices, and therefore can be considered a destiny?
It is better to elucidate a terminological issue first: Hispanic or Latino, which one is the right one? In the old political debate, Democrats and Leftist Latino Groups traditionally preferred the term “Latino,” which refereed to the migration of people from Latin America to the North. Republicans instead generally preferred the term “Hispanic” that emphasizes the Spanish origins of the group and therefore its white, European and non-Indigenous identity. This distinction has practically disappeared in the last few decades, from the moment these communities started to be part of the consumer society, becoming a target for companies marketing campaigns, the U.S. press and Spanish-Language TV networks.
1.1 Who is Latino in the United States?
A law on social and economic statistics passed in 1976 by the U.S. Congress, described “Americans of Spanish origins or decent” as “Americans who identify themselves as being of Spanish-speaking background and trace their origin or descent from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Central and South America, and other Spanish-speaking countries.” In fact in the U.S., people are considered Latinos only if they self-identify as such. In July last year, the U.S. Census Bureau, following this approach, estimated that there were roughly 60.6 million Hispanics in the country, making up almost 18% of the total national population.
The states with the largest Hispanic population are California (15.48 million), Texas (11.16 million), Florida (5.37 million), New York (3.81 million), and Illinois (2.21 million), instead the states where Latinos make up the largest share of the total population are: New Mexico (48.77%), Texas (39.42%), California (39.15%), Arizona (31.39%), and Nevada (28.84%). The 2018 Census shows that Mexico is the top origin country of the U.S. Hispanic population (62.31% of Latinos have Mexican origins), followed by Puerto Rico (9.5%), Cuba (3.94%), El Salvador (3.93%) and the Dominican Republic (3.54%).
Hispanics in the U.S. are mainly young people: in 2016, they had a median age of 28.9 compared to 37.9 for the rest of the American population. In the last few years, the standard of living of the Hispanic community has improved. Although the average per capita income of the Hispanic population is about half that of their white non-Hispanic counterparts ($19,537 vs. $38,487), the percentage of Latinos living below the poverty line reached its all-time low in 2017 (18.3% of the total population). Nowadays, the members of the community are more educated than in the past: in 2017, 88% of Latinos graduated from high school, compared to 59% in 1990; and even college enrollment has increased.
1.2 Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and Cubans: Hispanic Americans politically engaged
Traditionally, in American politics, three Hispanic communities have been more active and engaged than the others i.e. Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and Cubans.
Mexicans are the largest Hispanic origin group; they mainly live in the southern and southwestern parts of the country. Between 2012 and 2016, the majority of Mexicans lived indeed in California, Texas and Illinois, mainly in the metropolitan areas of Los Angeles, Houston and Chicago. The majority of Mexicans living in Texas, as well as in the other states, embrace without any difficulty the strong local identity, helping to shape and transform it. El Paso is, not by chance, one of the safest cities of the United States.
Historically, Mexican political participation in the United States is deeply rooted in the issue of citizenship and in civil rights movements (such as the Chicano Movement). Nevertheless, Mexicans have become the most diversified political group. Their long-standing presence in the Unites State has indeed led to an increase in conservative views, mainly among those who managed to join the upper middle class.
According to the latest Pew Research Center analysis, Puerto Ricans are the second largest origin group of the Hispanic community in the U.S., after Mexicans, accounting for 9.5% of the total population. The majority of Puerto Ricans live in Florida (1.2 million people), making up 27% of all Hispanic eligible voters – but many also live in the northeastern part of the country, namely in Ohio and New York. All Puerto Ricans, both those who live in the United States and those who live in the Caribbean archipelago acquire U.S. citizenship at birth. People born in Puerto Rico have been granted U.S. citizenship since 1917, when Congress passed an act that allowed many Puerto Ricans to join the U.S. army during the First World War. However, only those who live in the United States, commonly called Stateside Puerto Ricans or Puerto Rican Americans, are eligible to vote. For this reason, the right to vote does not only have a political value, but also an emotional one to them: it means voting by proxy for the 3 million Puerto Ricans back home, left out of U.S. democracy.
The rejection of the political status of their country of origins – deemed by some as colonial – as well as the serious discrimination that they endure in northern urban areas, and low incomes explain their voting orientation: Puerto Ricans generally, though not exclusively, support liberal and leftist ideologies.
Cuban Americans are potentially another politically influential group. In 2017, an estimated 2.3 million Hispanics of Cuban origin lived in the United States, making up the third largest Latino group in the country (tied with Salvadorans). Compared to other Hispanic origin groups, Cubans are more educated and fewer live below the poverty line (16% compared to 19%).
Cubans mainly live in southern Florida, where Cuban exiles arrived at the beginning of the Sixties. There, many were able to reap the benefits of conditions conducive to profits and individual business initiatives. For this reason and for their fierce opposition to Castro’s regime back home, Cuban Americans were often crucial for Republican presidential victories, especially for Regan’s and Bush’s victories. Since 2017, President Trump himself has worked hard to obtain Cuban Americans’ support. Indeed, he held a speech in Miami announcing that he wanted to achieve a “free Cuba,” unraveling the détentestarted by the Democrats and supporting human rights activists, namely Las Damas de Blanco.
2. Minorities don’t vote solely according to their ethnicity
This year, a record 32 million Hispanics were eligible to vote, making up nearly 13.3% of all the U.S. eligible voters. In fact, currently, Latinos are the second largest ethnic group in electorate; second only to white non‑Hispanic voters and slightly outnumbering African Americans.
Because of the large number of Hispanics living in the U.S. and their low voter turnout, political pundits have often referred to the Latino community as a “Sleeping Giant” ready to wake up and potentially tip the election.
According to some observers, their low turnout depends on some demographic variables. Indeed, in every ethnic group, young, less educated people with lower incomes tend to have low levels of electoral participation. These categories are over-represented in the Hispanic community.
Anyway, Latinos’ low turnout does not imply that they do not participate at all in American political life. Among those going to the polls, variables such as age, level of education and economic status generally determine political choices.
However, the metaphor of the “Sleeping Giant” is based on the assumption that Latinos are a monolithic group and that they all vote the same way. This assumption could become factual in the event of a candidacy of a member of the community, as it was the case with Barack Obama in 2008 who catalyzed nearly 95% of the black vote. This assumption could be misleading if applied to this year’s complicated election.
Regardless of the election results, pundits, commentators and political parties often make the mistake of considering minorities as a single homogenous block.
Latinp Americans can indeed be divided into several groups according to factors such as country of origins, place of residence, age, level of education, etc. According to the context of the election, these universal categories could be more or less relevant, whatever the ethnicity of the voters is.
Historically, the majority of Latinos have always supported the Democratic Party, at least since 1980, although generally their vote had a limited impact on the election results because of their low turnout and the fact that they live in states voting consistently for one party or the other. The faith of Hispanic voters – namely women and graduates – in the ability of Joe Biden to tackle key issue such as the coronavirus pandemic seems to be another blow for the Democrats. Instead, the majority of Latinos seem to doubt Trump’s ability to address these challenges.
According to some election polls, economy is on average the top priority among voters – although this trend is more pronounced among Republicans – healthcare comes second. The same goes for Latinos who seem to attribute even more importance to economic issues than other voters, the polls show that Latinos’ results are close to those of Republican voters.
Therefore, the importance attributed to economic issues could have led many Hispanics to vote for Donald Trump, whose administration has always prioritized the economy over the health crisis. The universal categories above mentioned may have played a key role in the election results mainly in battleground states.
Indeed, while these observations carried out on a national base could be useful to analyze general trends, they do not provide sufficient information to try to hypothesize – or to explain – the result of the election.
Please note that presidential candidates need 270 electoral votes to win the White House. Electoral votes are assigned under the first-past-the-post system. The candidate that gets the most votes in a state wins all the electoral votes proportionally allocated to that state. Therefore, the votes of a small group in a battleground state might have a greater impact on the result than the votes of a bigger group in a state where the outcome is already known. Thus, to have a clearer picture of the situation it is better to focus the attention on battleground states rather than on the entire country.
3. Battleground States
While Latinos are distributed in many areas of the country, they probably had a greater impact in swing states than elsewhere.
States with the largest share of eligible Latino voters are New Mexico (42.8%), California (30.5%), Texas (30.4%), Arizona (23.6%), Florida (20.5%), Nevada (19.7%), and Colorado (15.9%). In Arizona, Florida and Nevada the 2020 presidential race was very close (Δ < 3.5%). Moreover, the share of eligible Latino voters is very similar in each of these states (nearly 20% of the total electorate). Therefore, it might be interesting to try to analyze the political choices of Latinos in these states.
As shown in the table, the Grand Canyon State has a population of nearly 7,172,000 people and 5,042,000 eligible voters, and it holds 11 electoral votes. According to the data available, roughly 3,400,000 people went to the voting booths, a turnout of 65.5%. According to the results, Biden narrowly won Arizona (49.4%) over Trump (49.1%) with a margin of around 10,000 votes.
The light election campaign of incumbent President Donald Trump in Arizona could have pushed many Latino voters closer to the Democratic Party sphere of influence. Even Biden’s campaign in this state was quite mild and he mainly relied on the work of local pro-Democratic voters, who have been working for years to nurture Latino vote.
In the absence of accurate figures concerning the real Latino voter turnout, and in light of the data shown in the table, it might be assumed that roughly 23.6% of the votes casted in Arizona, i.e. almost 802,400 votes, could be Latino votes. Pre-election polls assigned nearly 70% of the Hispanic votes to Biden, if the polls were right, roughly 561,680 Latinos out of 802,400 could have voted for Biden – N.B. this assumption is based just on artificial estimates considering the data available on eligible voters. Thus, 33.6% of all the votes obtained by the Democratic candidate (around 1,671,500), could have been casted by Latinos. On the other side, Trump could have won the remaining 240,720 Latino votes (30% of all the votes casted by Latinos); hence, Latinos would make up only around 14.4% of Trump’s voters (roughly 1,661,500 people).
In light of the “mild” election campaigns on both sides and of Joe Biden’s narrow win (with a margin of “only” 10,000 votes), Arizona’s blue shift can be summarized as a big hit for Biden and a lost opportunity for Trump. It should be noted that in two-candidate elections, every vote counts double (+1 for the candidate that obtains the vote and -1 for the candidate that loses it, Δ=2).
The Sunshine State has a population of 21,299,000 people and 15,342,000 eligible voters. It holds 29 electoral votes, thus it is the biggest prize of the three battleground states. Even voter turnout in the state is quite high; nearly 11 million people cast a ballot i.e. 71.1% of all the eligible voters. Roughly, 20.5% of the votes belong to Latinos. In his home state, Donald Trump (51.1%) won over Joe Biden (47.9%) with a margin of nearly 375,000 votes.
Republican election campaign in Florida started very early; it was specifically tailored to win over Venezuelan and Cuban votes; this strategy seems to have played a key role in Trump’s victory. In this regard, the fact that Trump had managed to secure for himself the endorsement of Puerto Rico’s Governor might have paid off. Trump’s administration had promised $13 billion in assistance to help Puerto Rico rebuild its infrastructure in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. In doing so, Donald Trump has been able to win over 55% of the votes cast by Cubans and 30% of the votes cast by Puerto Ricans. The result obtained by Trump in this state exceeded the expectations, since it seems that he was able to catalyze 48% of the Latino vote, apart from the Cuban vote.
Democrats in Florida instead, on one hand might have underestimated the power of Republican political propaganda, and on the other hand they might have given for granted – here too – the votes of the Latino community. Furthermore, a large share of Latino voters seem to have voted for the candidate that had promised to take care of economic issues first.
The Silver State has a population of 3,034,000 people and 2,071,000 eligible voters; it holds 6 electoral votes. In Nevada too, the presidential race was very close and eventually Joe Biden (50.1%) won by around 33,000 votes over Donald Trump (47.7%).
The election voter turnout was 63.6% (roughly 1,317,156 voters), a remarkable turnout, though lower than the national average (66.4%). Latinos represent around 19.7% of the eligible voters i.e. 260,000 votes in absolute terms.
Considering the narrow margin that separates the two candidates and the weight of the Latino vote, the same consideration about Arizona might be applied to Nevada.
Finally, Pennsylvania and Georgia deserve a separate discussion: even though the share of Latino voters is smaller than in other states (around 5%), it could have slightly changed the result of the election because the outcome was uncertain until the very end.
Texas – traditionally a Republican stronghold – is considered by some, more as a swing state nowadays. Latino voters make up a large part (roughly 30.04%) of the electorate. Here, Latinos might have followed the same trend as in Florida, though the reasons and the dynamic behind the vote were different. Indeed, a large percentage of male Latino voters in the Lone Star State belong to the socio-economic group forming Trump’s electoral base. Namely, those working as border patrol agents, as police officers or those working in the construction industry and in the oil industry. In this regard, it is worth noticing that lately President Trump had stopped calling Mexicans “bad hombres.” Instead, many Hispanics seem to have started to appreciate Trump’s irreverent style and his business acumen.
In short, not all Latinos seem to feel negatively involved in Trump’s rhetorical statements about issues like illegal immigration, and instead many might agree with some of these basic considerations. Finally, it emerges once more that the group is not a monolith and it should not be considered as such.
4. Conclusion: for Latinos, demography is not destiny
Latino electoral behavior reveals the complexity of American politics.
Therefore, the difficulty in forecasting Latinos’ political choices seems to debunk the myth based on the maxim, ascribed to A. Comte, according to which “la démographie c’est le destin.” Indeed, nowadays it is well known that the Hispanic community in the U.S. is traversed by a fracture – Latinos would call it la grieta – based on origins, age, gender, social background, language, values and many more characteristics that cannot be summarized in a general definition. As explained by Geraldo Cadava, historian and associated professor of Latino and Latina studies, the 32 million Hispanic voters embody different ideologies; they come from different demographic, social and economic backgrounds. Latinos are white, black, indigenous and mestizo. The group is so heterogeneous that many observers argue that there is no such thing as the “Latino vote.”
However, politicians and the media have long tried to simplify the complexity of the “Latino vote,” boiling its diversity down to two opposed clichés. On one hand, the platitude according to which Latinos are generally closer to leftist ideologies. On the other hand, the idea that Hispanics tend to champion conservative values such as economic liberty, religious freedom, value of the family, work ethic as a mean to achieve success and opposition to abortion. This does not mean that the above-mentioned clichés never correspond to reality. However, it is worth remembering that the Latino vote – be it for the Republican Party or for the Democratic Party – can never be taken for granted.
In his agenda aimed at the Latino community and sponsored with the slogan “Todos con Biden,” the next U.S. President promised to ensure access to high quality, affordable healthcare, invest in education to benefit DREAMers too, reform the immigration system and give Latinos the means to join the middle class.
It is impossible to predict if President-elect Joe Biden and his administration will be able to respond to the requests expressed by all Hispanics, even those who voted for Trump. For sure, if they are able to appreciate the complexity of all the different identities of Latinos and Latinas, they will be on the right track and they will be able to genuinely say: “Somos todos Americanos.”
 “The battle for the soul of America” was the motto chosen by Joe Biden for his election campaign. Anyhow, both the Democratic and the Republican candidate made this a key issue in presidential debates that actually revolved around the future of a nation more polarized than ever.  Following the trend of the American sources, the terms Hispanic and Latino are used interchangeably in this analysis without any political connotation.  U.S. Census Bureau/American FactFinder 2018.  Rosana Hernández-Nieto and Marcus C. Gutiérrez, Francisco Moreno-Fernández (dir.), Hispanic Map of the United States – 2017, (Instituto Cervantes at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences of Harvard University: Observatorio Reports) http://cervantesobservatorio.fas.harvard.edu/sites/default/files/hispanic_map_2017en.pdf.  In 2016, 39.2% of Latinos aged between 18 and 24 were enrolled in college. In 2003, there was a surge of 15.7% in college enrollment among Latinos.  Ed Morales, Latinx: the New Force in American Politics and Culture (London, Brooklyn, N.Y: Verso, 2018).  According to the Migration Policy Institute, between 2012 and 2016, 37% of Mexicans lived in California, 22% in Texas and 6% in Illinois.  In 2019, despite the mass shooting that had happened in August, El Paso ranked sixth in “top 10 safest metro cities” in the U.S, according to SafeWise.  In the Sixties and Seventies, Mexicans living in the United States gathered in a Movimiento. Engaging in activism, they claimed their political rights and civil liberties.
 Gustavo López and Eileen Patten, “Hispanics of Puerto Rican Origins in the United States, 2013,” Pew Research Center, September 15, 2015, https://www.pewresearch.org/hispanic/2015/09/15/hispanics-of-puerto-rican-origin-in-the-united-states-2013/.  “Jones-Shafroth Act (1917),” Immigration History, August 20, 2019, https://immigrationhistory.org/item/jones-shafroth-act/.  In 1898, at the end of the Spanish-American war, Spain ceded Puerto Rico to the United States. In 1952, Congress authorized the people of Puerto Rico to elect their own government and the Country became a U.S. territory with commonwealth status. As it is a commonwealth country of the United States, Puerto Rico’s currency is the US dollar. Puerto Ricans can also join the U.S. army and the American flag waves in front of the Capitol building in San Juan, the national legislative assembly. Puerto Rico is often referred to as “the 51st” U.S. state.  27% of Puerto Ricans live in poverty, higher than the percentage of the general U.S. population (16%) and of the Hispanic population (25%). Gustavo López and Eileen Patten, “Hispanics of Puerto Rican Origins in the United States, 2013,” Pew Research Center, September 15, 2015, https://www.pewresearch.org/hispanic/2015/09/15/hispanics-of-puerto-rican-origin-in-the-united-states-2013/.
 Pew Research Center analysis of the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.  Luis Noe-Bustamante, Antonio Flores and Sono Shah, “Facts on Hispanics of Cuban origin in the United States, 2017,” Pew Research Center, September 16, 2019, https://www.pewresearch.org/hispanic/fact-sheet/u-s-hispanics-facts-on-cuban-origin-latinos/.
 Luis Noe-Bustamante, Abby Budiman and Mark Hugo Lopez, “Where Latinos have the most eligible voters in the 2020 election,” Pew Research Center, January 31, 2020, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/01/31/where-latinos-have-the-most-eligible-voters-in-the-2020-election/.  Anthony Cilluffo and Richard Fry, “An early look at the 2020 electorate,” Pew Research Center, January 30, 2019, https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/essay/an-early-look-at-the-2020-electorate/.  Morales, Latinx: The New Force in American Politics and Culture.  Latinos are less likely to get registered and vote, generally Hispanic voter turnout at presidential elections is between 13% and 18% lower than the national average voter turnout.  Pew Research Center, “Dissecting the 2008 Electorate: Most Diverse in U.S. History”, Pew Research Center, April 30, 2009, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/10/16/latino-voters-have-growing-confidence-in-biden-on-key-issues-while-confidence-in-trump-remains-low/.  Jens M. Krogstad and Mark H. Lopez, “Latino voters have growing confidence in Biden on key issues, while confidence in Trump remains low”, Pew Research Center, October 16, 2020, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/10/16/latino-voters-have-growing-confidence-in-biden-on-key-issues-while-confidence-in-trump-remains-low/.  Claudia Deane and John Gramlich, “2020 election reveals two broad voting coalitions fundamentally at odds”, Pew Research Center, November 6, 2020, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/11/06/2020-election-reveals-two-broad-voting-coalitions-fundamentally-at-odds/.
 Battleground states are states where none of the parties has received a consistent historic support to ensure the victory of one of the candidates.  Maine and Nebraska are an exception both use a different method.
 Pew Research Center, “Mapping the 2020 Latino electorate,” January 31, 2020, https://www.pewresearch.org/hispanic/interactives/mapping-the-latino-electorate/.  Will Gonzales, “The ‘Latino vote’ confused both parties this year. How politicians can do better. | Opinion,” Phladelphia Inquirer, November 5, 2020, https://www.inquirer.com/news/latino-vote-republicans-democrats-pennsylvania-20201105.html.  As noted earlier, in the absence of accurate figures concerning the real Latino voter turnout, the scenario presented took into consideration the percentages concerning eligible voters. Therefore, these data should be only applied for the purposes of this paper.  The electoral weight of other candidates was considered negligible for the purpose of this analysis.  Shift from red state (Republican) to blue state (Democrat). Since 1952, Republicans have always won presidential elections in Arizona, except for Bill Clinton in 1996 and of course Joe Biden in 2020.  Except when voters rarely decide to vote differently.
 Donald J. Mihalek, “President Trump moved from New York to Florida, here's how presidential home security works: Analysis,” ABC News, November 7, 2019, https://abcnews.go.com/US/president-trump-moved-york-florida-presidential-home-security/story?id=66826563.  Gonzales, “The ‘Latino vote’ confused both parties this year. How politicians can do better. | Opinion.”
 “Latino men are a bright spot in Donald Trump’s faltering campaign,” Economist, October 27, 2020, https://www.economist.com/united-states/2020/10/27/latino-men-are-a-bright-spot-in-donald-trumps-faltering-campaign.
 Demography is a destiny.  Nicole Chavez, “'There's No Such Thing as the Latino Vote.' 2020 Results Reveal a Complex Electorate,” CNN, November 9, 2020, https://edition.cnn.com/2020/11/09/politics/latino-voters-florida-texas-arizona/index.html.  “Joe Biden's Agenda and the Latino Community: Todos Con Joe Biden,” Joe Biden for President: Official Campaign Website, August 7, 2020, https://joebiden.com/todos-con-biden-policy/.  Joanna Walters, “What is Daca and who are the Dreamers?” Guardian, September 14, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/sep/04/donald-trump-what-is-daca-dreamers.
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