How will COVID-19 affect the Hispanic vote come November?
Much has been written about the Hispanic vote in 2020, given projections that it’s expected to include the largest voting minority in November. Hispanics represent more than 13 percent of the electorate, or 32 million, and they may prove to tip the scales in several key states, including Florida, Arizona, California, Texas and New York. By any measure, this makes Hispanics a major electoral force in this year’s presidential contest.
But the COVID-19 pandemic raises new and interesting questions, as well as challenges, for both Democrats and Republicans regarding their ability to garner the Latino vote.
In recent weeks, new data reveal that Hispanics are being disproportionately affected by the virus in terms of both the number of infections and COVID-19-related employment layoffs. California provides perhaps the most illustrative example of the health disparities, given that “Latinos made up 64.9 percent of the COVID-19 deaths among patients ages 18 to 49, and 43.5 percent of that overall population.” There’s a similar situation in New York City, where Hispanics represent an estimated 29 percent of the city’s population but are currently accounting for roughly 34 percent of coronavirus-related deaths.
These disparities are also revealing inequalities with respect to health care coverage, which has a direct correlation to overall health outcomes. According to 2018 Census data, nearly 18 percent of Hispanics lack health care coverage, a rate far higher than non-Hispanic whites at just over 5 percent or African Americans, who are slightly above 9.5 percent.
With regard to unemployment, a recent Pew Research Center survey found that “around half of Hispanics say they or someone in their household has taken a pay cut or lost a job — or both — because of the COVID-19 outbreak, compared with 33 percent of all U.S. adults.” Much of this is likely because many Hispanics work in retail and service industries, and thus have been on the front lines for shutdown layoffs. This devastating trend is sure to be top of mind for Republicans, given that in the year prior to the pandemic, Hispanic unemployment hit historic lows — hovering around 3.9 percent — a trend President Trump was sure to have benefitted from.
As we head into the heart of the campaign season, these concerns likely will translate into Hispanic voting choices. While the majority of registered Latino voters lean Democratic — roughly 62 percent — in many ways, Trump’s ability to lead and help the nation recover in the next few months will determine the degree to which he might appeal to a portion of this demographic.
In 2016, exit polls revealed that Trump garnered an estimated 28 percent of the Hispanic vote. In the months prior to the pandemic, his support was believed to have risen to near 30 percent. Trump’s gains within the Hispanic community likely were correlated with the previous strength of the Hispanic job market and the seeming stability of the overall U.S. economy. Polling data from 2016 revealed that, much like the rest of the country, these factors also will be a priority for Hispanic voters.
But as I’ve written, three other variables will affect the outcome of the Hispanic vote. The first is that Hispanics are not a monolith. They are a diverse group with sometimes distinct policy preferences and voting patterns that must be considered. The largest Latino subgroup is Mexican Americans, who account for a little more than 60 percent of all U.S. Hispanics. They tend to lean toward the Democratic Party, but they also are known to be swing voters prone to regional differences. Puerto Ricans come in second, at an estimated 5.6 million. They also generally lean left. Cuban Americans are the third largest cohort, and historically have supported Republican candidates — a factor that affects the ever-important swing state of Florida.
Second, turnout for Latinos can be an issue. In 2016, Hispanic turnout was roughly 47 percent, compared with 65 percent for whites and a little more than 59 percent for African Americans. The 2018 midterms, however, proved that this group can be motivated to show up; voting surged by more than 13 percent over 2014 midterm figures. With the stakes currently so high, Hispanic turnout in 2020 may prove even stronger than two years ago.
And finally, given social-distancing measures, finding meaningful ways to engage with Hispanic communities will present unique and serious challenges for both parties. Perhaps this will prove to be more of an issue for presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, who thus far has been restricted to Zoom and online outreach. While the same is true for Trump, in the short term he may benefit from his frequent coronavirus-related briefings. For either candidate, targeted Spanish-language ads that address the specific interests and needs of the various groups within the Latino population are sure to be crucial.
Going forward, Democrats and Republicans would be wise to directly acknowledge the Hispanic community’s virus-related disparities in infection rates and unemployment. These must be addressed, along with efforts to restore the overall strength of the U.S. economy. Once the worst of the COVID-19 health threat recedes, Hispanics will be searching for the candidate who can best provide a sense of economic security.
Cristina Lopez-Gottardi is an assistant professor and research director for public and policy programs at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs.
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