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Are Latinos Deserting the Democratic Party? Evidence from the Exit Polls


— One key question in American politics is the trajectory of Latino voters. Donald Trump performed better in 2020 with Latino voters than he did in 2016, particularly in places like South Texas and South Florida.

— However, an analysis of the longer-term trend in Latino presidential voting shows that this growing voting bloc is not necessarily trending one way or the other.

— Presidential incumbency appears to have a stronger influence on Latino voters than on other demographic groups.

Trends in the Latino vote

Recent election results have led some political strategists and pundits to suggest that the partisan allegiances of Latino voters in the U.S. may be shifting in the direction of the Republican Party. Exit poll results from the 2020 presidential election showed Donald Trump modestly increasing his share of the Latino vote even as his share of the national popular vote declined between 2016 and 2020. At the same time, results from some heavily Latino areas in South Florida and along the Texas-Mexico border showed a dramatic swing toward the GOP. More recently, one exit poll showed the Republican candidate winning a majority of the Latino vote in the 2021 Virginia gubernatorial election, although a second exit poll showed the Democratic candidate winning a clear majority of the Latino vote.

Solid support among Latino voters has long been seen as crucial to Democratic chances of winning elections in states like Florida, Texas, and Arizona and important in many other states in which the Latino share of the electorate is growing rapidly. However, some Republican strategists now see the Latino vote as up for grabs based on the conservative views of some Latino voters on cultural and other issues. Any long-term shift in the partisan loyalties of Latino voters would be a cause for deep concern among Democratic Party leaders and strategists.

In this article, I use data from national exit polls to examine trends in Latino support for Democratic presidential candidates between 1984 and 2020. I find no evidence of a shift toward either party in these data. What I do find is a high degree of variability in the Democratic margin among Latino voters across these 10 elections. While there is no clear trend favoring either party, one clear pattern emerges — Latino support for Democratic presidential candidates appears to be strongly influenced by incumbency.

The evidence

Figure 1 displays the Democratic margin among Latino voters in the last 10 presidential elections. The Latino share of the electorate has grown substantially over this time period, going from just 3% of the electorate based on the 1984 exit poll to 13% in the 2020 exit poll. The data in this figure show considerable variability in the size of the Democratic margin among Latino voters since 1984, with no clear trend. While Democratic presidential candidates have won the Latino vote in every one of these elections, their margin has ranged from only 9 points for John Kerry over George W. Bush in 2004 to 51 points for Bill Clinton over Bob Dole in 1996. Joe Biden’s 33-point margin over Donald Trump in 2020 falls in the middle range for these 10 elections. In fact, it was only slightly below the average Democratic margin of 35 points in the previous 9 elections.

Figure 1: Democratic margin among Latino voters in presidential elections, 1984-2020

Source: National exit poll data compiled by Roper Center for Public Opinion Research

The main conclusion to be drawn from the data in Figure 1 is that the Democratic share of the Latino vote has varied widely in recent elections. That has also been true in Florida, a state in which the Democratic share of the Latino vote fell drastically in 2020, probably costing Joe Biden the state’s 29 electoral votes. According to the 2020 Florida exit poll, Biden won only 53% of the Latino vote in Florida, down from 62% in 2016 and 60% in 2012. But that 53% share of the Latino vote was far from the worst showing by a Democratic presidential candidate in recent elections. According to exit polls, John Kerry won only 44% of the Latino vote in Florida in 2004, and Al Gore won only 48% in 2000. Even in 2008, when he carried the Sunshine State, Barack Obama won only 57% of the Latino vote according to the Florida exit poll.

Declining support among Latino voters was a key factor in Joe Biden’s disappointing showing in Miami-Dade County — Florida’s most populous county. Biden won only 53% of the vote in Miami-Dade County compared with the 63% share won by Hillary Clinton in 2016 and the 62% share won by Barack Obama in 2012. That decline in the Democratic share of the vote in Miami-Dade County was a major factor in Biden’s defeat in Florida. However, a look at past election results shows that Biden’s performance in Miami-Dade County was not unusual. Both John Kerry in 2004 and Al Gore in 2000 won only 53% of the vote in Miami-Dade County.

A similar pattern is evident in some counties in South Texas along the Mexican border. The Democratic vote share in Hidalgo County, the most populous of these border counties, fell from 70% in 2012 and 68% in 2016 to 58% in 2020. However, Biden’s 58% vote share in 2020 was slightly better than John Kerry’s 55% vote share against George W. Bush in 2004.

Figure 2: Average Democratic margin among Latino, Black and white voters by presidential incumbency status

Source: National exit poll data compiled by Roper Center for Public Opinion Research

One thing that Joe Biden in 2020 had in common with John Kerry in 2004 is that both were challenging incumbent Republican presidents. A closer examination of the data in Figure 1 shows that over the past 10 presidential elections, Democratic incumbents have won a substantially larger share of the vote among Latinos than non-incumbent Democrats have. Figure 2 displays the average margins of Democratic presidential candidates by incumbency status among white, Black, and Latino voters based on data from national exit polls. The 20-point difference in Democratic margin among Latino voters is considerably larger than the 6-point difference in margin among white voters or the 3-point difference in margin among Black voters between elections with a Republican incumbent and elections with a Democratic incumbent.

In order to determine whether the differences between elections with Democratic and Republican incumbents were meaningful, I conducted three regression analyses using the Democratic margin among Latino, Black, and white voters as the dependent variable. The independent variable in each regression analysis was the party of the incumbent president coded as -1 for elections with a Republican president, 0 for open seat elections, and +1 for elections with a Democratic president. The results are displayed in Table 1.

Table 1: Results of regression analyses of Democratic margin among Latino, Black, and white voters, 1984-2020

Source: National exit poll data compiled by Roper Center for Public Opinion Research

The findings in Table 1 provide clear evidence for the effect of incumbency status on the Democratic share of the Latino vote. Despite the fact that only 10 elections were included in the analysis, the estimated coefficient for the incumbency variable is statistically significant at the .025 level based on a one-tailed t-test. In contrast, the effects of incumbency status are much smaller and not close to statistically significant for either Black or white voters.


Evidence from national and state exit polls shows that Latino support for Democratic presidential candidates has been quite variable in recent elections. Democratic margins have generally been much larger in elections with Democratic incumbents than in elections with Republican incumbents like 2020. This pattern of support among Latino voters also helps to explain variability in Democratic margins in Miami-Dade County in recent elections. From this perspective, the falloff in Democratic support in the 2020 presidential election may reflect the greater responsiveness of Latino voters than other types of voters to the effect of presidential incumbency rather than any long-term shift in the underlying partisan loyalties of these voters. It is not clear why Latino voters seem to be more responsive to the effects of presidential incumbency, but if this pattern holds again in 2024 and Joe Biden is running for a second term, we could see a rebound in Democratic support among Latino voters, although Biden’s approval rating in recent months has been fairly weak with Latinos.

Going forward, Democrats may or may not have longer-term problems with Latino voters; however, it’s worth noting that the overall pattern of Latino presidential voting is more variable over time than the most recent couple of elections might indicate.

Alan I. Abramowitz is the Alben W. Barkley Professor of Political Science at Emory University and a senior columnist with Sabato’s Crystal Ball. His latest book, The Great Alignment: Race, Party Transformation, and the Rise of Donald Trump, was released in 2018 by Yale University Press.