The voting behavior of U.S. Hispanics in the most recent presidential election has prompted a tremendous amount of discussion in the popular media and punditry world. The conventional wisdom in these discussions is that Hispanics broadly speaking are a reliably Democratic voting bloc, albeit less so than African Americans. The fact that President Trump increased his support among the Hispanic population compared to 2016 (according to a number of exit polls and election returns) was greeted with shock by many on cable television and in print journalism.
Of particular interest were the seemingly novel voting choices made by Hispanics who live along the Mexico-Texas border in the Rio Grande Valley. This area of the country, which is quite rural in many places, has been reliably Democratic in the past, up and down the ballot; the increased support of President Trump among its population demanded an explanation. What was left unaddressed in much of the coverage devoted to uncovering the reasons behind this shift was the important differences that exist in the political leanings of rural and urban/suburban Hispanics.
The growing rural/urban political divide has been documented by scholars of political behavior since the mid-to-late 2000s (see McKee 2008 among others). These scholars find that rural Americans are increasingly voting for and identifying with the Republican Party, while urban and recently suburban Americans are leaning strongly toward the Democratic Party. The question is, then, does this trend apply to all those Americans living in rural places? My tentative answer is yes…partly.
So, what do we know about rural Hispanic political behavior in general, and in this most recent election in particular?
First, there is evidence that this population is less likely to identify with the Democratic Party and therefore less likely to vote for its candidates. According to the 2020 American Election Eve Poll (a survey conducted cooperatively by Latino Decisions, Asian American Decisions, and the African American Research Collaborative) rural Hispanic respondents nationally were less likely to report they supported Joe Biden (67%), than both suburban (72%) and urban (69%) Hispanic respondents.
Does this tempered support of Joe Biden translate into increased support for Donald Trump? Not necessarily. The same poll found that only 27% of rural Hispanic respondents indicated they would vote for Donald Trump, compared with 28% of urban and 25% of suburban Hispanic respondents. The 6% of rural Hispanic respondents (a larger percentage than in the rural/suburban groups) that chose neither party’s candidate is telling; it reflects a broader phenomenon existing in this population.
The figure above based on the Cooperative Congressional Election Study of 2018 clearly demonstrates that rural Hispanics are more likely to identify as either Republicans or independents (16.36% Republican, 28.04 independent, for a total of 44.4%) than as Democrats (37.38%). This is not the case among urban and suburban Hispanics; they clearly prefer the Democratic Party (46.95%) over the Republican Party and claiming any partisan independence (a combined total of 41.36%). Also interesting is the significant proportion of rural Hispanics who claim not to be sure. All told, this paints a picture of rural Hispanics that reveals their status as a potential swing population in elections.
Second, there is also evidence that in the recent presidential election this swing population in fact did a bit of swinging. Of the 38 majority-Hispanic rural counties (both noncore and micropolitan counties as defined by the federal Office of Management and Budget), President Trump won 28 and President-elect Biden won 10. Moreover, in these counties, the change in support for President Trump from 2016 to 2020 correlates significantly with the proportion of the Hispanic population; in other words, in majority-Hispanic rural counites with larger Hispanic populations, President Trump did better (see the figure below).
While it is true that you cannot read into aggregate election results individual voting behavior (that is an ecological fallacy, and I would never do that!), there seems to be some significant movement toward President Trump in the aggregate voting totals in these majority-Hispanic rural counties. In only two of them, both in southwestern Kansas, did President Trump lose support in the overall voting totals. Who exactly is doing the swinging/moving is less than clear.
You can see the rest of the counties by scrolling to page two in the top right corner of the table.
Third, the assertion heard in media circles about the importance of economic considerations in the voting decisions of Hispanics—specifically, that they vote based on pocketbook issues and President-elect Biden’s comment that his administration would regulate hydraulic fracturing hurt him—does have some support in the data. In Figure 3 below, I have plotted the change in President Trump’s support in majority-Hispanic rural counties by the number of oil and gas industry jobs present.
The relationship is not quite straightforward—there is a lot of noise in the data—but there is something to the argument that President Trump’s aggregate support was influenced in some ways by a county’s reliance on the oil and gas industry.
Fourth and finally, broadly speaking the political category Hispanic/Latino is not always that helpful in explaining individual or group voting behavior. As I have found in my own research (and I am by far not the only scholar who has found something similar), there are vast differences among rural Hispanics based on their national origin. But this the fact remains: rural Hispanics are clearly distinct in their political behavior, and any comprehensive narrative of the 2020 presidential election must take their uniqueness into account.
Daniel “Ben” Bailey, PhD, is assistant professor of political science at Presbyterian College in Clinton, South Carolina.