Immigration and the Latino vote: A golden opportunity for Democrats in 2022

A woman wearing a protective face mask looks on during a Latino voter registration event in Lilburn, Georgia, U.S. December 7, 2020. REUTERS/Dustin Chambers

With the 2022 mid-term elections on the horizon there has been a lot of discussion regarding the Latino vote, largely due to the improvement former President Trump had among Latinos in 2020. Many political pundits, including progressive and Democratic leaning organizations, are concerned that the improvement Trump and the GOP had with Latino voters in 2020 could be indicative of a weak spot in the coalition of voters from diverse communities that they need to prevent major losses in 2022.

In this post I attempt to provide some perspective to this discussion by comparing Latino voting behavior data between 2016 and 2020 in an effort to help explain why Latino support for former President Trump improved in 2020. Although this is not longitudinal data, having similar sampling designs and questions over both election periods is as close to an apples to apples comparison as possible.

This analysis points out how important a drop in the salience of immigration policy was in 2020. As I demonstrate in the following blog post, without the highly racialized anti-immigrant rhetoric from Donald Trump, Latino’s attention moved away from immigration to COVID-19 and other issues, which had a strong effect on Latino vote choice. I conclude by noting that recent polling of Latinos suggests that immigration could provide Democrats with an important opportunity to mobilize Latino voters. However, this will be dependent on Democrats leaning in on this issue and making the distinction between their agenda on immigration and that of the GOP much clearer to the Latino electorate.

There is some debate about why Trump improved his vote share of the Latino electorate in 2020, but there is consensus that he did in fact improve. As reflected in the figure below, there is a 9 percentage drop in the Latino Democratic vote share when compared to 2016 numbers according to the 2020 Election Eve Survey.  Doing some simple demographic analysis across both years of data provides some insights on which sub-groups of the diverse Latino electorate moved the most in their vote choice.

Contrary to the suggestion that Trump’s improved performance was due primarily to a rise among Latino men, there was a much more pronounced shift in Latinas’/Latino women voting preference. While Trump improved his share of Latino men by 4%, he improved by 13% among Latinas.  This drop in gender support may be at least partially due to Hilary Clinton not being on the ticket, as Clinton would have been the first female president if elected in2016. Trump improved his vote share among all three major national origin groups of Latinos: +7% among Mexican-origin, +9% among Puerto Rican Latinos, and +5% among Cuban American voters.

I argue that a missing component of the discussion so far has been the role of issue salience in 2020. More specifically, the significant drop in the salience of immigration policy. As I have discussed here earlier, the Coronavirus pandemic and the cost of health care were  dominant in 2020, with social justice and discrimination also among the top issues to Latino voters. Surprisingly, immigration/deportations were not among the leaders in issue salience in 2020, coming in after discrimination/racial justice and policy brutality and criminal justice reform.

To isolate how drastic the decrease in immigration salience was in 2020 relative to 2016, the figure below shows the percentage of Latino voters who identified immigration reform and deportation as one of their top two issues across both surveys. While nearly 40% of Latino voters had immigration as one of their top two issues in 2016, that dropped to only 16% in 2020. The decrease in immigration salience was even more dramatic for foreign-born Latino voters (-30%), which was twice as large as the decrease in immigration salience among US-born Latino voters. This is quite a dramatic shift and in my view helps explain the larger shift in support for Trump among Latinos.

The decreased salience of immigration policy to Latinos in 2020 is also likely correlated with two other significant shifts in Latino political behavior between 2016 and 2020. First, as reflected in the figure below, Latino voters’ perception of President Trump shifted significantly from 2016 to 2020. Most notably, perceptions among Latinos that President Trump was “hostile” to Latinos dropped from 55% in 2016 to 29% in 2020. Given that Trump’s 2016 campaign has been described as the most racialized election of Latino voters by several leading experts on Latino politics, this shift is undoubtedly due to the movement away from hostile language about Latino, and predominately Mexican immigrants in 2020.

Second, when asked what their primary motivation was to vote, there has been a rise in the percentage of Latino voters who were motivated to vote based on partisan motivation (holds for both parties) with the partisan frame reaching its highest level in 2020. This is occurring while the percentage of Latinos who indicate they are motivated to vote primarily by their desire to support the Latino community has decreased, a sentiment my team and others have used as a proxy for Latino ethnic identity. This is an important trend to acknowledge, as a movement toward partisan attachments as a main motivating force away from ethnic attachments is likely to lead to greater support for Republican candidates among Latinos if these trends continue through 2022 and beyond.

Immigration Provides Window of Opportunity for Both Democrats and Republicans 

Although immigration clearly played a less pivotal role in Latino voting behavior in 2020 than it did in 2016, that does not mean that it will not re-emerge as the dominant issue for many Latinos in 2022. In fact, immigration has become a major focus of the Biden administration due to the significant rise in migrants as the new President took office. Recent polling of Latino voters by the Immigration Hub found that Latino voters in key battleground states and districts found that immigration again ranks as a top priority among Latino voters, coming in second to addressing the coronavirus pandemic and ahead of several other issues (27% v. 36%).

The poll also found that the overwhelming majority of Latino voters support the immigration agenda of the Biden administration, including having Vice President Harris focus on the underlying or root causes of migration. However, a large percentage of Latinos are not clear on where either Biden and Democrats or Republicans stand on immigration. If both parties could work together to pass comprehensive immigration reform they both stand to gain credit among Latinos. However, the Immigration Hub poll made clear that Latinos are equally split in who they will blame if immigration reform does not happen, with 30% blaming Biden/Democrats, 31% blaming Republicans and 40% blaming both parties equally.

Whether the Latino vote in 2022 is similar to 2020 in my view will depend on what happens with immigration. There is a golden opportunity for Democrats to capitalize on the support they have among Latino voters (according to the Immigration Hub Poll) to go at immigration alone if the GOP is obstructive to progress.  Latinos have been waiting patiently to see significant federal action on immigration over the last several presidential elections. Now is the time for both parties to make it happen.

Gabriel R. Sanchez, Ph.D., is a Professor of Political Science and Founding Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Chair in Health Policy at the University of New Mexico, and Director of the UNM Center for Social Policy