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US election: why Latino and Hispanic voters are shifting to Trump after a long history of supporting the Democrats

Several recent polls suggest that the Hispanic and Latino vote is shifting towards Donald Trump as the election moves closer.

In a YouGov poll from May 8, 43% of Americans said they would vote for President Joe Biden and 43% would vote for Trump if the election was held now. The election for the next president of the US is currently extremely close, with other polls predicting similar tight results.

Given the close race, the Latino vote (people whose heritage is from Latin America) and the Hispanic vote (people whose heritage is from Spanish-speaking countries) could be extremely important, particularly in states which regularly swing between the Democrats and Republicans in presidential elections.

A look at the relationship between ethnicity and vote intentions in the YouGov survey shows that around 38% of white people say they will vote for Biden and 49% for Trump. In the case of Hispanics, the figures are 45% for Biden and 39% for Trump.

However any move towards Trump among these groups is particularly interesting because they are increasing in numbers in the US over time, and because Hispanics have historically lent towards the Democrats.

According to the Pew Research Centre, there were 62.5 million Latinos living in the US in 2021, about 19% of the total population. The Hispanic population in the US grew from 35 million in 2000, to 42 million in 2021.

Hispanic voting patterns in US elections:

A chart showing Hispanic voting patterns in US elections.
Author, Author provided (no reuse)

The chart above shows the relationship between Hispanic ethnicity and voting in the 14 US presidential elections since 1968, using data from the American National Election Survey. It should be noted that this survey focuses on Hispanics and does not include a Latino category in the analysis. Throughout this period of more than 50 years, Hispanic voters have consistently preferred the Democrats to the Republicans, although this has varied across individual states.

The only exception to this was in the 1968 election, when Republican Richard Nixon drew more Hispanic votes than Democrat vice president Hubert Humphrey. This has been linked to the turmoil in US politics caused by the outgoing Democrat president Lyndon Johnson’s handling of the Vietnam war.

Nixon also had a strategy to target Hispanic voters, and included some significant Latinos, such as Ramona Banuelos, who became US treasurer, in his campaign. However, as the chart shows, many Hispanics did not vote in that election.

The chart also shows that the gap between support for Biden and Trump started to narrow after the latter’s 2016 victory. In 2020 44% of the Hispanic vote went to Biden and only 16% to Trump, a gap of 28 points. According to voting intentions in the 2024 YouGov survey that gap is now six points.

What explains this change? It looks like there is an anti-incumbent bias in American politics which is linked to the turmoil caused by the pandemic, the cost of living crisis and the culture wars. This has been going on for some time and it damaged Donald Trump in the 2020 election and it is now affecting Joe Biden’s support among ethnic minority voters.

The changes in the Hispanic vote may also arise from their attitudes to the candidate’s performance and the issues. One way of looking at this is to examine voter’s perceptions of Trump’s performance in his job in 2020 compared with Biden’s performance in 2024.

According to the 2020 election study, 52% of white people approved of Trump’s job performance and 48% disapproved. In the case of Hispanic people, the ratings were very different, with 28% approving and 72% disapproving. The approval gap (approving minus disapproving) was plus 4% for whites and minus 44% for Hispanics.

Four years later the YouGov survey shows that the approval gap for Biden in the case of whites was minus 28% and for Latinos minus 20%. Biden replacing Trump has changed attitudes in both ethnic groups but the differences in the approval gaps have narrowed, with Hispanics being closer to whites than they were four years ago.

State of the economy

Turning to evaluations of presidential performance on specific issues, the state of the economy is the most important issue in the current campaign. In 2020 61% of white people approved of Trump’s handling of the economy, while 35% disapproved, an approval gap of plus 26%. This was very different from Hispanic people who had an approval gap of minus 18%.

Again, by 2024 this had radically changed with Hispanics becoming closer to whites in their ratings of Biden’s handling of the economy. The approval gap was minus 23% for whites and minus 14% for Hispanics. Ratings for Biden among white people have fallen dramatically, but they have also fallen among Hispanics, but by a smaller margin.

Alongside the economy, immigration is one of the most important issues in the election. In 2020 the election study shows that on this issue the approval gap of Trump for whites was plus 6% compared with minus 55% for Hispanics. In the 2024 survey the gap was minus 39% for whites and minus 36% for Hispanics. In the 2020 campaign the latter were very different from the former, but four years later they are almost converging on the same negative judgement of presidential performance.

While Hispanics make up only 19% of the US population compared with 71% whites, these changes could still produce a significant boost for Trump in the polls. But recent polling showed Trump ahead of Biden by a small margin which subsequently disappeared. This continues to fluctuate but the differences between them are not statistically significant.

A clue to why this keeps changing can be found in public attitudes to the blizzard of legal problems currently facing the former president. A YouGov survey reveals that 42% of whites and 45% of Hispanics think Trump should be convicted in the “hush money” case involving alleged fraud in handling campaign funds currently underway in New York.

Equally, 47% of whites and 46% of Hispanics think that he should go to jail for contempt of court if he continues to attack witnesses, the judge, and his opponents during the trial. More generally, 53% of whites and 59% of Hispanics think that Trump is neither honest nor trustworthy. The implication is that continuing legal problems, met with denials that many Americans think are false, is holding him back in the current race to the White House.

There is however another looming problem for Biden arising from the war in Gaza evident in the YouGov survey. Nearly twice as many of his supporters sympathise with the Palestinians (26%) rather than the Israelis (14%), and many of them are young voters.

If Israel continues its attacks on Rafah in defiance of Biden calls not to launch an offensive there, there is a danger he will look weak and indecisive in the eyes of his supporters. This is a real threat to his re-election chances.

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