scroll to top arrow or icon

Biden and Trump fight over a changing “Latino Vote”

​An "Aqui Vote Here" sign at the Guerra branch library in San Antonio, Texas, USA.

An "Aqui Vote Here" sign at the Guerra branch library in San Antonio, Texas, USA.

Carlos Kosienski/Sipa USA via Reuters

Just days ago, President Joe Biden announced a sweeping executive measure that would legalize the status of undocumented immigrants who are married to American citizens. The move, which primarily benefits hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Latin America, was the latest salvo in the contest between Biden and Donald Trump to win over Latino voters.

Both sides have been honing their pitches to Latino communities.

Trump, who recently rebranded his outreach as “Latino Americans for Trump,” has begun visiting Democratic strongholds to find “persuadable Black and Latino voters.” Last month he went to the heavily blue South Bronx, where GZERO was on the scene.

The Biden campaign, for its part, has spent tens of millions on ads targeting Latino voters, including some in Spanglish. “For our abuelos,” one says, “insulin that costs treinta y cinco dólares or cientos de dólares, that is la diferencia between Joe Biden y Donald Trump.”

The campaign even has a new ad called “Goalll!” as part of its pitch to Latinos during the month-long Copa América soccer tournament.

The main audience for all of this? More than 36 million registered Latino or Hispanic voters who trace their heritage to the Spanish-speaking countries of Latin America.

At nearly 15% of the electorate, that’s America’s largest group of minority voters, and it’s growing fast. This fall, there will be four million more eligible Latino voters than in 2020. Latinos alone account for half of the total growth in registered voters during this electoral cycle.

They are also more than 20% of the registered voters in battlegrounds like Arizona, Nevada, and Florida, and they could have a big impact even in swing states where their numbers are smaller.

There are more than 600,000 registered Latino voters in Pennsylvania, which Biden won by barely 80,000 votes in 2020. In Wisconsin, which Biden won by a mere 25,000 votes, there are 180,000 registered Latinos.

Hispanic voters have historically leaned left-ish. Between 50-60% of Latinos identify as Democrats while only a quarter say they are Republicans. But they are hardly a one-dimensional group.

Hispanic voters are diverse in many ways, including in their political identities,” says Jens Manuel Krogstad, an expert on Latino communities at the Pew Research Center. “Factors like origin country, immigrant generation, religion, and geography all intersect in complex ways to shape Hispanic political attitudes.”

Miami Cubans, marked by their flight from Fidel Castro’s revolution, are famously much more conservative than, say, Mexican-Americans in California, traditionally a Democratic bastion, or Puerto Ricans just a few hundred miles north, in the Orlando area.

Those differences sometimes play out under one roof.

“We’ve got four Latinos living just in this house,” says Joe Pabón, 47, a Harlem-raised paralegal of mixed Ecuadorian and Puerto Rican descent who lives in Baltimore with his Puerto Rican-Dominican wife and two kids, “and I don’t know that the four of us would even vote the same. So I really couldn’t tell you what, say, a 25-year-old Latino in New Mexico or LA thinks about things.”

But in recent years, Trump and the GOP have made inroads into the Democrats’ azul wall of Latino support. Trump took 29% of the Latino vote in 2016 and 32% in 2020. In the 2022 midterms, 33% of Latinos reported voting Republican.

Experts caution that the rightward lurch didn’t occur in all Latino communities.

“It was not a uniform shift toward Trump,” says Rodrigo Dominguez-Villegas, director of UCLA’s Latino Politics and Policy Institute. “There were particular places in the country where that shift happened more than in others.”

In the 2020 election, for example, the GOP won over South Florida Colombians and Venezuelans by raising the specter of Democratic Party “socialism,” and they gained the support of Mexican-Americans in energy-rich districts of South Texas, who worried that Biden’s environmental agenda would eliminate their oil and gas industry jobs.

And perhaps this undeniably catchy Cuban timba-style anthem also helped: “¡Yo voy a votar, por Donald Trump! (No matter what your politics are, it hits.)

But there was also a “reversion to the mean,” says Dominguez-Villegas. Republican-leaning Latinos or independents appalled by Trump’s openly anti-immigrant rhetoric in 2016 were more receptive to his economic, deregulatory, and anti-lockdown messages four years later.

The picture has gotten even dimmer for Democrats since then.

Recent polls show as many as 46% of Latinos now support Trump. If that holds on Election Day, it would set a new record of Latino support for a GOP presidential candidate. Until now, none has gotten more than George W. Bush, who campaigned on comprehensive immigration reform, spoke passable Spanish, and was reelected with 40% of the Latino vote in 2004.

Part of the reason Trump is doing better among Latinos? Es la economía, estúpido.The top issues for Latinos right now are, overwhelmingly, economic: inflation, jobs, and housing costs, with health care and gun violence rounding out the top five.

While large numbers of Latinos still see Democrats as stronger on many of these issues, the broader sense of economic malaise has taken a toll on Biden’s support in Latino communities. Two-thirds of Hispanics think the economy is going badly, according to a recent CBS poll. That’s two points higher than the national average.

But there’s something else at work too, according to Dominguez-Villegas.

“Although a lot of Latinos fled places that were dictatorships, there is still a sense that strong leadership is good and that Trump had things under control and that Biden has not,” he says.

That sense is one reason Mauricio Hernández, 30, a Colombian-American entrepreneur who runs an aircraft repair business in Miami, supports Trump.

Under the last president, he says, “I remember gas being cheaper, companies prospering more.” And while he thinks both candidates are flawed, Trump seems to take a “harder stance” on key issues like national security and, of course, immigration.

Ah, immigration. Over the past half-century, the majority of US immigrants, both legal and undocumented, have come from Latin America. As a result, immigration policy touches Latinos more directly and more broadly than other groups.

Latino views on immigration are nuanced, but recent polls of the Latino community broadly show hardening opinions. A narrow majority of Latinos now say they would support Trump’s proposal to deport all undocumented immigrants.

“I’m an immigrant, but I came here from the Dominican Republic through the front door,” said Ana Peréz, a woman who spoke to us at Trump’s Bronx rally last month. “Sorry if I don’t think we should let just anyone sneak in to take jobs, to commit crimes. As a woman, I’d like to feel safe walking down the street at night again.”

Latinos in swing states, meanwhile, now view Democrats as worse on immigration than Republicans, according to Equis, a prominent Latino-focused pollster.

But part of the reason for that, the study showed, was the feeling that Democrats “fail to deliver” on immigration policy promises.

A separate study of swing-state Latino voters conducted by UnidosUS, a major Latino advocacy organization, showed strong support both for creating a path to citizenship for long-term undocumented immigrants, while also supporting stronger border measures and cracking down on human trafficking.

“Latino voters want immigration policies that are firm, fair, and free of cruelty,” says Janet Murguía, president and CEO of UnidosUS.

That may be why Biden chose to legalize the status of undocumented spouses last week. The Equis poll showed that this policy, in particular, had a huge net upside for Biden among Latino swing voters.

Biden’s move also helped to repair some of the rift with immigration advocacy organizations that were infuriated by Biden’s decision earlier this month to limit asylum applications at the Southern border.

He will need their support to get out a Latino vote that has historically shown low turnout, in part because Hispanic voters are younger than those of other ethnic groups.

Biden’s narrow victories in Nevada and Arizona in 2020, for example, depended a lot on grassroots organizers who favor less restrictive border policies.

If he is going to carry those states again in 2024, he will need them on his side.

“Those are the boots on the ground,” says Dominguez-Villegas, “and if you don't have them, it's going to be really difficult to win.”

This piece contains additional reporting by GZERO’s Riley Callanan.


Subscribe to GZERO's daily newsletter