USA 2020, Latinos at the Ballot Box: Analysis of the Hispanic Voting Behavior

Updated: Jun 14, 2021

by Letizia Gianfranceschi and Giacomo Forges

1. Introduction: the battle for the soul of America

The “battle for the soul of America”[1] 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.[2]

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%).[3]

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.[4] 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.