The Political Diversity of the Latino Electorate

by Adrian D. Pantoja, Ph.D.

Throughout this presidential election, much has been written about the importance of Latino voters; turnout rates have been projected and political preferences dissected. The tenor of these writings suggest that Latino voters will turn out in record numbers against Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and the Republican Party.

However, it would be presumptuous to conclude that the political views and behaviors of 13 million Latino voters have been thoroughly analyzed. These voters represent over two dozen ancestries and reside in nearly every state in the country. Indeed given the geographic and cultural diversity of this population, scholars have long-debated whether the pan-ethnic labels "Latino" or "Hispanic" are politically or socially meaningful. Of course, there are many ways to divide the Latino electorate to determine their degree of political differences or commonalities. In American politics, the most important divisions are geographic. During a presidential election, differences across states are of particular importance as the outcome of the election is based on which candidate wins the states with the most electoral votes.

About 62 percent of Latinos reside in four states: California (15 million), Texas (10.4 million), Florida (4.7), and New York (3.6 million). These four states also happen to have the largest allocation of the Electoral College votes--a total of 151. A presidential candidate needs 270 electoral votes to win the election. Given the political weight of California, Texas, Florida and New York, it is important to analyze and compare the political views and behaviors of Latinos in these states. The data used for this analysis comes from a survey of 400 registered Latinos in seven states carried out by the National Association of Latino Elected Officials Education Fund and Latino Decisions. I limit the analysis to the four largest states. From the data I find evidence of both political diversity and commonality.

Presidential elections are won and lost at the state level. Given that reality, how are the presidential contenders doing among Latino voters in the powerhouse states?

Figure 1 above shows that the margin of support for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton relative to Donald Trump is substantial. Nonetheless, important differences are observed. For example, there is a 15-point gap in support for Clinton between Californians (78 percent voting for Clinton) and Floridians (63 percent voting for Clinton). One could conclude that the differences are driven by the ancestries of the Latinos residing in those states--left-leaning Mexican Americans in California vs. right-leaning Cuban Americans in Florida.

However, Florida is no longer synonymous with Cuban Americans given that they constitute a mere 30 percent of the Latino electorate in the state. Also, if ancestral differences were determinative, how would one explain the 10-point gap between Californians and Texans, both states with Mexican American majorities. The diversity we are observing underscores the power of geographic differences.

In a separate tracking poll by the National Association of Latino Elected Officials Education Fund and Latino Decisions, I documented the top five policy issues for the broader Latino electorate. The issues, ranked highest to lowest, are: immigration, jobs, wages, combating terrorism, and lowering the costs of health care. However, the data is a national snapshot of the Hispanic electorate. Given the importance of the geographic differences, how does the ranking of top policy issue vary across the four states under investigation?

The results of the current survey (not shown) reveal that the top five policy issues found in the tracking poll also emerge as the top issues across three of the four states. New York is the exception, where affordable housing edges out lowering the costs of health care as the fifth most important issue. With that exception, Latinos across the four states are similar in assigning priority to the issues of immigration, improving wages, job creation, combating terrorism, and lowering health care costs.

Yet, when it comes to ranking the top policy issue (Figure 2) we see important differences. Immigration is the top issue for Latinos in California. Lowering the costs of health care is ranked first by Texas Latinos. In New York, improving wages rises to the top. Florida's Latino voters list combating terrorism as the top issue. In short, the top-five issues for Latinos are the same, while the rank-order of those issues varies across the four states. Once again, this finding underscores the importance of state-level contexts.

Some scholars contend that Latinos are too diverse to be categorized under a single pan-ethnic label. Others argue that despite their diversity, Latinos are more alike than different politically. The data presented here is supportive of both propositions. Overall, Latinos are voting for Hillary Clinton and the top issues underlying their vote are similar across the four states with the highest concentrations of Hispanics. Although Clinton is winning the Latino vote, the degree to which she is winning depends on where those voters live. In a close election, the margin by which a candidate wins the Latino vote could be the difference between victory and defeat. While many argue that immigration is driving the Latino vote in this election, it matters most to Latinos in California. In Texas, New York and Florida, other policies edge out immigration as a top issues for Latinos.

In the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump singled out immigrants and Latinos as significant threats to the nation. Given this rhetoric, the political coalescing of Latinos was expected. Yet, even in this context, important political differences emerge across Latinos living in California, Texas, New York and Florida. In the absence of a politically threatening environment, we anticipate seeing greater political diversity among Latinos. In fact, there may come a time when talk of the Latino or Hispanic vote recedes into history much like that of the Italian or Irish vote.

Adrian D. Pantoja, Ph.D., is senior analyst with Latino Decisions and professor of Politics at Pitzer College.