2020 Post-Mortem (Part One): Portrait of a Persuadable Latino
Equis has been conducting a post-mortem of the Latino vote in the 2020 election, specifically geared toward (a) documenting where Trump and the GOP made gains with Latino voters (and where they didn’t), and (b) trying to explain that movement.
Today we are releasing Part One of the post-mortem, focused on which Latino voters may have shifted toward the previous president. We lean on the more than 40,000 interviews with Latino voters that Equis conducted in the 2020 cycle, as well as new and ongoing post-election research, precinct results, voter file data, and publicly available datasets. Our analysis also takes into account qualitative evidence from our focus groups and online journals, debriefs with academics and state-based partners, and excellent reporting on Latino voters from the election.
This doesn’t purport to be the one true story of Latino voters in 2020. Many of the findings continue to be suggestive, and it’ll take further research to pare down hypotheses. The idea that we would ever cement a single narrative, anyway, is illusory at best.
Instead, this is our attempt to add some complexity, and data, to the discourse about this ever-dynamic segment of the American electorate.
THE LATINO VOTER CAVEAT (™)
The 2020 elections were a reminder of the diversity — including ideological diversity — of Latino voters. The results of 2020 challenge some facile assumptions about the Latino vote, and speak to the dangers of taking an overly simplistic view of any demographic group in the electorate.
Trump and the GOP actively campaigned for the Latino vote and made gains that cut across geography and place of origin.
In the context of the 2020 election, exploring these gains is, in some ways, an academic exercise. Latinos were a critical part of the Democratic coalition that won the White House and the US Senate. There are several states that Joe Biden and Senate Democrats won with the help of Latino voters, and there are none they lost because of them. (In fact, even if Biden had matched Clinton’s performance in Miami-Dade County and the Rio Grande Valley, he still would’ve lost both Florida and Texas handily; the underperformance in those states was not limited to Latino voters.)
Still, In South Florida, the Trump shift was enough to flip two congressional seats, and hurt other consequential down-ballot races.
And there’s this: we don’t know if the Latino vote results we saw were a one-time occurrence, a replicable phenomenon, or part of a trend.
2020 was a powerful object lesson in the perils of making broad assumptions about Latino voters, or about taking this segment of the electorate for granted.
Smarter analysis of what can happen next requires an accurate diagnosis of what happened last year.
The headline for this phase of our post-mortem:
in 2020, a segment of Latino voters demonstrated that they are “swingier” than commonly assumed
Admittedly, the idea that Latinos should be treated as persuadable voters, not mobilization targets, is a bit of a hobby horse for Equis: we’ve been vocal on that point. But even we were surprised by some of the ways in which the potential volatility of our voters manifest as actual swings and, especially, by which voters appeared to have swung the most.
1. From a Monolith to a Diverse Voting Bloc
The results were a reminder both that Latinos aren’t a monolith, and that we remain a group. Trump gains were indeed more pronounced in Miami and the Rio Grande Valley, two Hispanic electorates that are in many ways different from each other. And yet, those who swung in Florida and Texas, and in other, far-flung places — whether in California, Pennsylvania or Massachusetts — seemed to be linked together across geography and place of origin by their Latino identity.
We can’t explain the national baseline shift toward Trump with idiosyncrasies specific to one region or nationality. Border dynamics don’t explain changes in New Jersey. Fear of socialism among Cuban and Venezuelan voters doesn’t explain movement in Milwaukee.
In other words, there is great diversity within the Hispanic voting bloc. Latinos comprise 1 out of every 8 eligible voters in the US. Any voting bloc that large will have salient internal differences. But Latino voters still have common bonds that manifest in their political choices.
2. Voters on the Margins of the Electorate
Trump’s largest gains happened, we believe, in the last year of his term, and our polling suggests those gains happened among voters usually on the sidelines of politics.
(a) The profile of those who shifted suggests less-formed partisan identities: some of the variables most predictive of moving toward Trump in-cycle were “non-college,” “under 50,” and “foreign-born.”
(b) Latinas remained more Democratic than Hispanic men, but the astronomical levels of anti-Trump sentiment we’d seen in 2019 came back down to Earth.
(c) Self-described conservatives, especially those who identify as independents, found a way “home” to the GOP, despite previously holding back from Trump or Republicans. And it wasn’t passive support: they became more motivated to vote by the end of the cycle — especially the Latina conservatives.
While commonly the term “conservative” is used interchangeably with “Republican,” ideology and partisanship didn’t always go hand-in-hand. Black conservatives, especially, have historically affiliated with the Democratic Party at higher rates than ideology alone would predict (for reasons well documented in the book Steadfast Democrats). Latinos, historically fall somewhere between non-Hispanic White or Black voters on this front.
Notable, then, that the Latino conservatives who most dramatically sorted into the Republican column, at least in the context of Donald Trump, appear to be those who identify as independents.
(d) It was less-frequent Hispanic voters — those usually treated as targets for registration and turnout — who showed the most persuadability.
Conventional wisdom holds that if everyone votes, Democrats benefit. There’s been some effort to rein in that blanket assumption. But it has persisted, especially, in the treatment of Latino voters by Democratic campaigns and funders. Latino voters with spotty records of voting are targeted for voter registration and late GOTV, often skipping over the in-between step of engagement and education (otherwise known as persuasion).
The 2020 results challenged the assumption that non-voting Latinos are automatically more Democratic-voting than their regular-voting peers. While our polling in 2019 showed no significant difference in Trump views between “likely” and “less likely” voters, the lower frequency cohort moved meaningfully toward the incumbent by the end of the campaign (even while remaining significantly anti-Trump on the whole). This movement on the margins matters a great deal in a high turnout election when “new” voters are a significant proportion of the electorate.
3. Not Turnout or Persuasion — Both
Some analysis makes the mistake of treating the Hispanic electorate as static from election to election, when in fact it is incredibly dynamic and fast-changing. This is a story of both turnout and persuasion, and how those concepts crash together.
The Trump coalition of Hispanic voters, still dwarfed in size by the Democratic coalition, grew on the margins thanks to a combination of defections and new voters — with likely a greater number of the latter.
Almost everywhere, the surge of first-time voters casting their ballots for Trump seems a unique feature of 2020. Still, the narrower margin for Biden wasn’t entirely a matter of turnout. There was vote-switching from Clinton. In places, this switching was minimized, on net, by vote-switching in the opposite direction (from Trump ’16 to Biden ‘20). The mix of factors differs in nature by location and subgroup.
In Miami, among Cubans, there are clear signs of pure vote-switching, where Trump ’20 gained many more Clinton ’16 voters than Biden picked up Trump ’16 voters. But even in Miami-Dade there are signs that increased turnout, combined with some Clinton defections, made possible the even greater Biden underperformance among whom we call the LatAms: Hispanic voters in Florida who are neither Cuban or Puerto Rican (Colombians, Mexicans, Nicaraguans, Venezuelans, and Dominicans, among others).
In South Texas, Trump benefited from a surge in new votes — and some of those new voters were people that predictive models assumed to be, at minimum, Democratic-leaning. A case, potentially, of both mobilization and persuasion working in tandem.
In Nevada, our post-election survey showed that Trump benefited from Clinton16 -> Trump20 voters, but in even greater measure from new Latino voters who hadn’t voted in 2016 despite having been eligible then.
Importantly, these new Trump voters in Nevada (both those who hadn’t voted for Trump, or voted at all, in 2016) are less polarized, in terms of ideology or partisanship, than your usual Republican voters.
In general, we know enough to say that the “new” Trump voters look like true swing voters. (Listening to them in focus groups reinforces the point powerfully).
Neither party should assume that a Hispanic voter who cast a ballot for Trump in 2020 is locked in as a Republican going forward. Nor can we assume this shift was exclusive to Trump and will revert back on its own.
And if there’s a lesson for the future, it is to watch the margins and those voters who often remain invisible: the ones who stayed home and the many others aging into the electorate. After all, no two electorates are the same.
For this it is also worth studying locales where Trump’s gains were minimal, such as Maricopa County. In Phoenix, a surge in Trump votes was met with a surge in Biden votes, a nod to the role of organizing and campaigns in shaping who votes in addition to how they vote.
4. Setting Up the “Why”
While the “why” of this shift requires more investigation, part of the story appears to be that the barrier keeping some conservative Latinos from voting for Trump went down during COVID, with a change in focus from his anti-Latino or anti-immigrant positions to other concerns, including the economy.
We can’t ask what moved conservative Latinos toward Trump without first asking what held them back from Trump or other Republicans in the past.
This is where “Latino identity” emerges as central. While there is more to Latino identity than immigration, there is enough data pointing there as a starting point for discussion. Not “immigration” as a set of policies but as a potent wedge issue that differentiates between the parties and primes group identity and the norms that go along with it.
While immigration was a focal point of the 2016 election, it had moved off the headlines in late 2020, replaced by the pandemic. Immigration was a driver of Clinton’s Hispanic vote in 2016, our analysis of ANES data suggests. Preliminarily, it appears immigration wasn’t salient to the vote choice of Hispanics in 2020 — while support for Trump’s handling of the economy was.
We can look at the impact of this changed issue environment in complex ways, but a simple model gets the point across: Trump’s approval ratings on various issue areas throughout the cycle suggested that if the election were a referendum on immigration, Trump would do very poorly with Latino voters. But if the election were a referendum on the economy, Trump would do far better.
Evidence from various sources — including a comparison of the American Election Eve and Pew polls from both elections — suggests that, indeed, Latino voters saw the 2020 election as a referendum on the economy, not immigration, in a way that they hadn’t in 2016.
Versions of this theory on issue prioritization have been covered elsewhere. Some examples include a paper by Angela X. Ocampo, Sergio I. Garcia-Rios and Angela E. Gutierrez; a post by The Economist’s G. Elliot Morris; and an interview with pollster and academic Gabriel Sanchez.
(In advance of this post-mortem, we have written elsewhere about the fallacy that Democrats could do better with Hispanic voters by dropping the issue of immigration.)
What is unique in 2020 about the economy is, of course, COVID. Latino communities were hit hard by the pandemic, in terms of both health and employment. What our initial research suggests is that among some subset of Latino voters, the terrible COVID economy was more reason to support Trump (or not to support Biden). Why? Because voters who managed to hold on to their jobs or find new ones in the midst of widespread unemployment around them didn’t want to tempt fate; they were deeply anxious that the jobs they’d held on to in 2020, against the odds, would be imperiled if Biden were to win and implement a complete shutdown. This was paired with the very persistent view of Trump as a businessman who, all real-world evidence to the contrary, would be a good steward of the economy.
This is Part One of our post-mortem.
The next phase of the work is about testing additional theories of the case from 2020 — to go deeper into the WHY. Can we rule out some hypotheses, and find evidence for others? Can we start to identify which factors may have played a bigger role — so that those interested in deeper Latino engagement know where to focus their programs going forward?
Testing these theories requires both new voter file analysis that provides better answers about who voted and how they voted, and new research that goes back to the very voters we are most interested in.
Equis is undergoing additional post-mortem polling and focus groups in key states and nationally. We also expect to share findings from a deeper data analysis in partnership with Catalist, a study of media consumption habits on YouTube (a recurring player in 2020 narratives) with PredictWise and Harmony Labs, and the start of forward-looking polling on 2021/2022 races beginning in summer.
ABOUT THE DATA
The 2019–2020 research cited in the report was conducted by Equis Research (Carlos Odio, Rachel Stein, Krystal Ortiz, Melissa Morales) in partnership with GBAO (Michelle Mayorga), the team at BSP Research (Matt Barreto, Sylvia Manzano, Gabe Sanchez), EMC Research (Jane Rayburn), GSG (Marissa Padilla), Myers Research (Andrew Myers & Lauren Spangler), and TargetSmart (Ben Lazarus).
Equis and partners conducted 40,880 total interviews with registered Latino voters in 12 states from July 2019 to October 2020 . Not all observations were applicable for use in every analysis.
All polls were multi-modal (live interview calls via both landlines and cellphones, and online surveys via multiple recruitment methods). Calls were made by bilingual callers who offered a choice of interview language.
Additional insights were pulled from focus groups, online journaling exercises, ethnographies and vote simulations.
Equis Research operates a subscription model to provide high-quality polling of Latino voters to advocacy, civic engagement and electoral organizations.
That’s all for now.