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There will be a record number of Hispanic voters in 2020, and that could have a major impact on Trump's political fate

Key Points
  • Hispanic voters are projected to be the largest minority group in the electorate for the first time on record in 2020, according to a report by the Pew Research Center.
  • Researchers say the historic shift "likely has political implications," as nonwhite voters are more likely to vote for Democratic candidates.
  • However, while Democrats have traditionally enjoyed the majority of Hispanic voting share, results in several states show that the picture is more complicated.
A woman hoods a sign expressing Latino support for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump in 2016.
David McNew | AFP | Getty Images

Hispanic voters are projected to be the largest minority group in the electorate for the first time on record in 2020, according to a recent report by the Pew Research Center.

The Hispanic population is expected to account for 13 percent of all eligible voters — a slightly larger share than African-Americans, and 9 percentage points greater than Asian-Americans.

Pew researchers said the historic shift, which is partially linked to an uptick in immigration and naturalization patterns, "likely has political implications," as nonwhite voters are more likely to vote for Democratic candidates.

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"Almost certainly, this is good news for Democratic candidates," said Alan Abramowitz, an Emory University political science professor who studies public opinion and election voting behavior. "I don't see Trump saying or doing anything that's going to improve his showing among Hispanic voters. He seems to be trying to alienate them."

President Donald Trump has been criticized for making inflammatory comments about Hispanics. When he launched his campaign in 2015, he referred to some Mexicans as rapists. As president, he has imposed a family separation policy for migrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border, attempted to end an Obama-era program protecting immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children, and in a demand for a border wall intended to keep out migrants from Mexico and Central America, he prompted the longest partial government shutdown.

Yet, polls show that Hispanics are not monolithic in their political beliefs.

Pew found, in a separate report, that slightly more than two-thirds of Hispanics believe that the Trump administration's policies have been harmful to them. But a more recent NPR/Marist poll revealed Trump's approval rating among Hispanics soared from 31 percent in December to 50 percent.

It was an improvement the president himself noticed and touted.

Broader polling data show that Trump's standing among Hispanics has remained steady since the 2016 election — 32 percent in a February Economist/YouGov survey, 30 percent in a February poll from Morning Consult/POLITICO, and 28 percent in a late January Reuters/Ipsos poll.

In 2016, Hispanics favored Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton by 66 percent to 28 percent, according to data from Pew. That margin was smaller than the 71 to 27 percent split former President Barack Obama won by in 2012. It was also smaller than the 72 to 21 percent margin former President Bill Clinton won by in 1996.

Exit polls from the 2018 midterm elections showed that an estimated 29 percent of Hispanics backed the Republican candidate in congressional races nationwide. Among other minority groups, African-Americans (9 percent) and Asian-Americans (23 percent) voted for Republicans by a lower share.

While Democrats have traditionally enjoyed the majority of Hispanic voting share, results in several states show that the picture is more complicated, said Mark Lopez, a demography researcher at Pew who specializes in U.S. Hispanics.

"In some states, like Florida, the Hispanic population have sometimes voted majority with a Republican presidential candidate. And the composition — Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Nicaraguans — is a mixture that is different than other parts of the country," he said.

In Florida, Cubans were about twice as likely (54 percent) as non-Cuban Hispanics (26 percent) to vote for Trump in 2016, according to National Election Pool exit poll data. Lopez said Cuban and evangelical Hispanics are more likely to vote for the Republican Party for their strong views against abortion. However, Mexicans, Salvadorans and Puerto Ricans, who tend to vote for Democratic candidates, make up a far greater share of the country's Hispanic demographic.

Hispanics also make up a notable share of eligible voters in competitive states, including Nevada, Texas and Arizona — all with Hispanic populations greater than 19 percent. As in Florida, polling data show that Hispanic populations within this subgroup of states are more likely to vote for Democrats by a smaller margin than those in New York or California.

Where Hispanic sentiment is more split, Republican strategists have been working especially hard to galvanize voters. However, some are not convinced that their efforts will be enough to offset the impact of the growing population anytime soon.

"When you look at the party branding, you assume that Hispanics align most with Republicans for rule of law, working hard, earning keeps, family values, pro-life, but they still align more with Democrats," said Mike Noble, an Arizona-based GOP pollster.

"Hispanics in Arizona are probably not going to be Trump's core base of support," Noble continued. He cited the president's lackluster job-approval numbers among Hispanics within the state — 39 percent, according to Noble's firm, OH Predictive Insights — and his rhetoric about immigration.

Voter turnout will play an important role in determining whether demographic changes will affect the 2020 elections. While there may be a greater number of eligible Hispanic voters in 2020, the group is historically less likely to cast ballots than are other minority groups. In 2016, Hispanic turnout was the lowest among all racial demographics, 48 percent, compared with white Americans, whose turnout rate was the greatest — 65 percent.

"This is not just a blip that [indicates] we need to adjust our thinking for one cycle," said Matt Barreto, a Latino political opinion researcher. "There's a new reality that there's a very large and growing Latino population that can change outcomes."

— Graphics by CNBC's John Schoen