Expert Commentary

Election Beat 2020: Focus on America’s two largest recent immigrant groups

"In 2020, Hispanics and Asian Americans -- the nation’s two largest recent immigrant groups -- deserve close attention," writes Harvard professor Thomas E. Patterson

2020 Election
Photo by Luke Lung on Unsplash

In 2016, journalists were caught short by the resentments that led rural voters to overwhelming support Donald Trump. As CNN’s Brian Stelter said after the election, “This was a rural roar, and journalists on the coasts had a hard time hearing it.” Their hearing improved in the 2018 midterms when they identified suburban white women as a key voting bloc. The shift of these voters toward Democratic congressional candidates contributed to a landslide victory. Democrats outpolled Republicans in House races by nearly 9 million votes — the largest margin by either party in nearly a half century.

In 2020, Hispanics and Asian Americans — the nation’s two largest recent immigrant groups — deserve close attention. Since the immigration laws were changed in 1965 to eliminate the decades-old barrier to their entry, Hispanics and Asian Americans have increased nearly five-fold in number. Hispanics have grown from 4% of the population to 18% while Asian Americans have increased from 1% to 6%. Together, they constitute 1 in every 4 Americans.

Nevertheless, their impact on elections has been dampened by their low turnout rate. In the 2016 presidential elections, vote-eligible Hispanics voted at a 48% rate. It was only marginally higher, 49%, among vote-eligible Asian Americans. Turnout for both groups was far below the 65% turnout rate among non-Hispanic white Americans.

A lower-than-average turnout rate has always characterized newly eligible voters. The southern and eastern Europeans who came to America at the turn of the 20th century were slow to exercise their right to vote. Women obtained the right to vote in 1919 but it was not until 1980 that their voter turnout rate reached parity with that of men.

Turnout among Hispanics and Asian Americans could be accelerating. By comparison with their turnout in the 2014 midterm, turnout among Hispanics in 2018 jumped by 13 percentage points, as did that of Asian Americans, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Except for voters under the age of 30, they had the largest increase in turnout of any major demographic group.

If there’s a comparable increase in 2020, it bodes ill for the Republican Party. Its standing among Hispanics and Asian Americans has plummeted in recent years and could endanger it for years to come.

As I document in my recent book Is the Republican Party Destroying Itself?, Asian Americans are now one of the Democratic Party’s most loyal groups, despite having a profile traditionally associated with the GOP. They have the nation’s highest average family income and are twice as likely as other Americans to own a small business. As late as the 1992 presidential campaign, they voted 2 to 1 Republican. In 2018, they voted 3 to 1 Democratic.

Hispanics have backed the Democratic Party for decades but have embraced it more fully since the 1990s. The list of  Republican missteps with the Hispanic community is long, including California Republican Gov. Pete Wilson’s effort in the 1990s to deny public school and other services to undocumented immigrants; the enactment of “English-only” laws by Republican state legislatures; a 2005 Republican House bill that called for rounding up and deporting all unauthorized immigrants; Arizona Republicans’ enactment of a 2010 law requiring police to check the legal status of anyone they stopped; the repeated refusal of Republican lawmakers to grant legal status to “Dreamers”; and Donald Trump’s depiction of undocumented Mexican immigrants as “criminals, drug dealers, rapists.” A 2019 poll found that 51% of Latinos in the U.S. believe that “Trump and the GOP are hostile toward the Latino community,” with an additional 29% believing that “Trump and the GOP don’t really care about them.”

Although journalists have identified Hispanics as a key voting group in 2020, they have largely overlooked Asian Americans and have afforded both groups less coverage than white suburban women. The focus on white suburban women is understandable, given their impact on the 2018 midterms. But there’s a risk that journalists in 2020 will underplay the importance of Hispanic and Asian American voters, as they did with rural voters in 2016.

The story of these voters is not an easy story to tell. Many of them reside in non-battleground states like California, which dilutes their impact. Obstacles to voting posed by COVID-19 are likely to disproportionately affect them. Past predictions of a substantial increase in their turnout level have often been wrong. On the other hand, polls indicate that Hispanics and Asian Americans attach a high level of importance to the outcome of this year’s election. They are also key constituencies in battleground states like Florida and Arizona. As well, they are a larger part of the population in key northern battleground states than might be thought. They constitute, for example, 8% of the eligible electorate in both Pennsylvania and Michigan.

If the 2020 presidential election is close, the votes of Hispanics and Asian Americans could tip the balance in more than a half-dozen states — enough to determine the electoral vote winner. Their story needs to be told with greater frequency.

Thomas E. Patterson is Bradlee Professor of Government & the Press at Harvard’s Kennedy School and author of the recently published Is the Republican Party Destroying Itself? Journalist’s Resource plans to post a new installment of his Election Beat 2020 series every week leading up to the 2020 U.S. election. Patterson can be contacted at 

Further reading:

Carl Hum, “The Invisible Vote: Survey of 1,300 Asian American Voters,” Asian Americans Advancing Justice, Oct. 17, 2014.

Jens Manuel Krogstad, Ana Gonzalez-Barrer and Christine Tamir, “Latino Democratic Voters Place High Importance on 2020 Presidential Election,” Pew Research Center, Jan. 17, 2020.

Sara O’Brien, “How the media missed President Trump, and what comes next for journalism,” Poynter Institute, Nov. 10, 2016.

Thomas E. Patterson, Is the Republican Party Destroying Itself  KDP Publishing, 2020.

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