The Latinx Culture War is the Untold Story of the 2020 Election

Video still from spanish-language Joe Biden ad, 'Dicen Mucho.' YouTube

This year as turnout increased among all groups, and despite losing the popular vote again, Donald Trump gained over 10 million votes. Media narratives have placed a lot of attention on the Latinx vote since the president seems to have gained substantial support among this cohort. While two-thirds of Latinxs voted for Joe Biden, all agree that Trump won roughly 30% or more, depending on the source. While this may seem like a lot, it’s about the same share won by John McCain in 2008, and that Republican candidates, with the exception of Mitt Romney and Donald Trump (in 2016), have historically received.

Lots of ink has been spent analyzing why Trump received this bump among Latinx voters, but with the exception of a recent analysis by PRRI’s Natalie Jackson and a short piece by yours truly in The Humanist, religion has been a largely ignored characteristic of Latinx voters.

For starters, there are three main religious groups in the Latinx community: a Catholic plurality (about 45%), a Protestant (mostly evangelical) cohort, and a growing group of “nones”—those who claim no religious affiliation. The latter two account for roughly 25% of the Latinx population each. 

The overwhelming majority of Latinx Catholics and nones, both strongly Democratic-leaning groups, voted for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, while Latinx Protestants only preferred the Democratic candidates by a slim margin. When exit polls reported in 2004 that 40% of all Latinx voters supported George W. Bush’s reelection effort, Protestants were the most likely to vote for him, while nones were the least likely.

Yet Catholics tend to set the tone of the overall Latinx vote due to their numbers. For example, the AP Votecast found that 63% of all Latinxs, and 67% of Latinx Catholics, voted for Joe Biden in 2020. Latinx Catholics have generally been more liberal on social issues such as same-sex marriage and on economic issues than their white coreligionists so it makes sense for this group to remain solidly in the Biden column.

Though no data is readily available about Latinx nones, the group’s history suggests that they also voted heavily for Biden. In previous elections, according to both the exit polls and the Cooperative Congressional Election Studies (CCES), Latinx nones vote for the Democratic presidential candidate at a higher rate than Latinx Catholics and than the nones in general. The AP votecast found that 72% of nones voted for Biden, suggesting that the Latinx nones vote for Biden would be at least 70%. The Secular Voices Survey, conducted by my firm Socioanalítica Research, found in September that 74% of nonreligious people of color supported Biden.

Thus, if Trump was able to gain ground among any of these Latinx cohorts it was probably among Protestants. This makes sense since the CCES shows that among Latinxs who didn’t vote in 2016, Protestants are the most ideologically conservative and Republican-leaning of the three religion cohorts. They’re the most socially and economically conservative. 

What’s surprising about the Latinx vote in 2020 isn’t the apparent bump in support for Trump, since the percentage of Republican voters simply matched historical trends. Especially when we consider that this is the first time Republican voters are voting for a Republican incumbent since 2004. Instead, the most surprising aspect of the Latinx vote is how Protestants and Latinx nones continue to diverge, pulling politically in opposite directions. 

As I’ve been chronicling in recent years, Latinx nones have been moving Latinx public opinion in a more progressive direction. This group is much younger; according to PRRI’s 2018 American Values Atlas nearly half are under the age of 30. But the cohort is growing both in size and at odds with their fellow Latinx Protestants, who are their mirror image politically but older. As the Catholic core continues to decrease due to aging and the increase of the nones, we shouldn’t be surprised to see the Latinx vote vary from election to election. And it’s the Latinx culture war waged between the nones and Protestants that will shape how the “Latinx vote” will be perceived in future elections.