Understanding How El Paso, Texas Voted in the 2020 Presidential Election

By Emma Vetter, Sarah McCarthy, Ernesto Castañeda, and Carina Cione

President Obama speaking about immigration policy on May 10, 2011. Photo by Castañeda.

Texas is a well-known Republican stronghold and has been for decades. The state of Texas has voted Republican in every presidential election since 1976 (Wilson 2020). Republicans have controlled the Statehouse for the past 18 years, and it has not elected a Democrat for 26 years (Rayasam 2020; Wilson 2020). However, with a growing minority population who tend to vote Democrat rather than Republican and Texas Democrats fundraising at historic highs, pollsters predicted that Texas could be a closer race in the 2020 presidential election than in years past (Gramlich 2020; Rayasam 2020; Wilson 2020). With 38 electoral votes, second-most after California, pollsters believed a blue victory in Texas would sway the election firmly in Joe Biden’s favor (Wilson 2020).

In hindsight, this was not the case as Donald Trump won the state with 52.2% of the vote (The Associated Press 2020). To many Democrats’ surprise, while Joe Biden won by 17 percentage points in counties near the Texas-Mexico border, this was only half of Hillary Clinton’s 33-point lead in the same counties (Samuels et al. 2020). This indicates that more people voted for Donald Trump in 2020 than in 2016 in these traditionally Democrat counties. One of these counties, El Paso, boasted that more El Pasoans voted in the 2020 presidential election than in any other election in the past 20 years (Villagran 2020). According to the El Paso Times, “more than 256,000, or 53% of registered voters cast a ballot in the 2020 election,” and a majority of these votes, 222,149, were cast via early voting (Villagran 2020). More specifically, in El Paso County, 66.4% of voters cast a ballot for Joe Biden while 32.0% voted for Donald Trump (El Paso Times 2020). For comparison, in 2016, 72.7% of El Pasoans voted for Hillary Clinton, and 27.3% voted for Donald Trump (The New York Times 2016).

According to data we collected surveying 1,152 Latinos in 2011 and 2012, 50.9% of Hispanic citizens living in El Paso voted in the 2008 presidential election. While this is slightly less than the 53% of those who voted in the 2020 election, sociologists note that people who participate in surveys, such as ours, are also more likely to vote and engage in civic activities (Keeter et al. 2017). Thus, surveys consistently overestimate political activity. Keeter et al. (2017) additionally suggest that no one political party is more likely to respond to surveys. This indicates that while our respondents may be more likely to vote than the general population, their political affiliations are still largely representative of El Paso County.

While our survey did not specify political affiliation, several demographic questions that may help to determine political leanings, such as educational attainment, immigration generation, and religion, were included. According to Pew Research, 41% of voters who identify as Democrats or with Democratic leanings are more likely to have a college degree versus 30% of Republican voters (Gramlich 2020). In our data, 33.6% of participants had a college degree or higher. After examining the relationship between voting and educational attainment, 53.4% of participants with a college degree or more said they voted in the last presidential election (p<0.001). This percentage decreases with the level of educational attainment: only 34.8% of those with a high school education voted in the last election, in addition to 31.8% of those with less than a high school education (p<0.001). Therefore, our data supports the notion that people with higher educational attainment are more likely to vote (Abraham, Helms, and Presser 2009). These voters are also more likely to vote Democrat than Republican, supporting the idea that a majority of El Pasoans voted for Joe Biden.

Border Patrol and El Paso Police officers on bikes. El Paso employs thousands of Latino federal workers for local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies. Many vote Republican. Photo by Castañeda 2011.

Immigrant generation, or the number of generations one is removed from the family member who immigrated to the U.S., is another demographic variable that may influence political leanings. Immigrant generation, particularly for Latinos and Asian Americans, plays a role in the likeness of supporting the Democratic Party, with first, second, and third generations more likely to vote for the Democratic presidential candidate than native-born voters whose family was born in the U.S. (Hawley 2019). Though this effect does lessen with each subsequent generation, Latinos are still more likely to support Democratic candidates across generations (Hawley 2019). When looking at immigrant generation and voting patterns, Latinos of higher immigrant generations were more likely to vote. For example, 51.8% of third-generation and higher immigrants reported voting in the last election, but voting rates steadily decreased down to only 32.5% of first-generation Latino immigrants (p<0.001). It is possible that the longer one lives in the U.S., the more likely they are to become citizens and participate in civic activities.

Furthermore, Hispanic Catholics are more likely to identify with the Democratic party rather than the Republican party (Gramlich 2020). According to our survey, 72.3% of Hispanics in El Paso were Catholic, 4.9% were Protestant, and 10.1% did not practice a religion. Pew Research Center also identified that Hispanic voters are more likely to vote for Democratic than Republican candidates (Gramlich 2020). Given that our database is entirely Hispanic, this would indicate that our participants were more likely to vote Democrat than Republican. Looking at the relationships between religion and voting patterns in our dataset, only 44.1% of Hispanic Catholics voted in the last presidential election (p<0.001), meaning that Democrats in the region were likely underrepresented in the voting booths.

Given the combination of a Hispanic population that is well-educated, predominantly Catholic, and with immigrant roots, it makes sociological sense that 66.4% of El Paso County residents voted Democrat rather than Republican in the 2020 election. Knowing that mail-in ballots largely favored Joe Biden (Pew Research 2020) and that approximately 86.7% of El Pasoans voted via mail-in ballots further strengthens this conclusion. Additionally, because of the deep conservative roots in the state of Texas, this may help explain why the percentage of votes for Joe Biden was not as high as in previous years. While people are more likely to vote a certain way because of demographic markers, this does not entirely determine political leanings, especially in a historically red state. While Texas may have more Democratic leanings than at first glance, in 2020, it voted red enough for a Republican victory.

Emma Vetter, Sarah Schech-McCarthy, and Carina Cione are researchers at the Immigration Lab and M.A. candidates in the Sociology Research & Practice program at American University in Washington, D.C.

Ernesto Castañeda, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Sociology at American University in Washington, D.C. Author of “Building Walls: Excluding Latin People in the United States,” fellow at the Center for Health Risk and Society and Founding Director of the Immigration Lab.

ernesto@american.edu Twitter @ec2183

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Villagran, Lauren. 2020. “Election Day: El Paso Voters Withstand Pandemic Threat as Thousands Forge Record Turnout.” El Paso Times. Retrieved November 12, 2020 (https://www.elpasotimes.com/story/news/politics/elections/2020/11/03/election-day-2020-el-paso-covid-economy-tops-voters-minds/6125266002/).

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Published under Creative Commons CC-BY-ND. You are free to republish this article in official media sites both online and in print as long as you do not edit the piece and ensure that you attribute the authors.

Ernesto Castañeda is the author of “A Place to Call Home” and “Building Walls.”

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