Could North Carolina’s booming Hispanic population go red like in Texas, Florida?

By David Larson

Raleigh, NC – North Carolina’s Hispanic population continues to grow — from 5% of the state’s population in the 2000 census, to 8% in the 2010 census, to 11% in the 2020 census. This is still a lower percentage than America at large, which is 19% Hispanic, but the steady growth brings questions about how the increased Hispanic presence will impact the state’s politics. And despite being seen as a reliable voting-bloc for Democrats in the past, there are signs Hispanic Americans are becoming a new swing demographic.

photo by Adam Winger

Signs of this shift were evident in the last presidential election. In a June, 1, 2022, analysis by Wall Street Journal of 2020 election results, Aaron Zitner, a WSJ editor and reporter, broke down a massive shift in Hispanic alignment across the country. He said that 3,730 predominantly Hispanic census tracts moved towards the Republicans compared with the previous election, while only 352 moved towards the Democrats. 

“If this shift is durable, it marks a big change for the two political parties,” said Zitner. “If Latino voters are shifting away from the Democratic Party and becoming more of a swing group, that means that one of the pillars of the Democratic coalition is getting shaky. Republicans, on the other hand, have become the party of America’s white working class. But they want to be the party of the working class across all racial groups. This movement among Latino voters, if it continues, suggests that this is in fact happening, and the Republicans can become the party of America’s future by building, across different races, a party of the working class.”

In Florida, Trump won nearly 70% of Cuban voters in the Miami area, cutting Biden’s margins to just 7% in Miami-Dade County, an area where Clinton won by 30% in 2016. Trump also made major gains with Venezuelans, Colombians, and Puerto Ricans throughout the state. 

Democrats have long held that Hispanic voters whose heritage traces to socialist or communist nations — especially Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua — are simply exceptions to the general rule that Hispanics vote Democrat. These groups, it is argued, only vote Republican as a reaction to the politics they fled. This anti-socialism certainly contributed to the strong showing for Republicans among Florida Hispanics. 

But, with Venezuelans now by far the fastest-growing segment of the Hispanic population, shrugging off the anti-socialist vote among Hispanics could be a problem for Democrats. Between 2010 and 2019, according to Pew Research, the Venezuelan population has increased 126%, now numbering 540,000. Half of these have settled in Florida, and the fact that they voted 2-1 for Trump helped secure the state.

North Carolina also has a booming Venezuelan population, including Republican Hispanic Coalition vice chair Jonathan Uzcategui.

“The Venezuelan community in North Carolina is growing,” Uzcategui told Carolina Journal. “They are focused to move to the bigger cities, like Charlotte and Raleigh. Wake and Mecklenburg counties are the ones I see most Venezuelans moving to. And that’s a good thing, because these people are going to bring a different perspective to Central Americans [and other Hispanics already living in these cities].”

But the increase in Hispanic Republicans is not just coming from Venezuelans or Cubans. It has also spread to Mexican-Americans, who make up 62% of the Hispanic population. 

In Texas, the Rio Grande Valley’s 93%-Hispanic Zapata County went Republican for the first time in a century, favoring Trump in 2020 despite delivering an easy 33-point win for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Neighboring Starr County, which is 98% Hispanic, went from a 60-point victory for Clinton to only a 5-point victory for Biden in 2020. This shift has seemed to hold two years later as the area’s 86% Hispanic U.S. congressional district was won by Mexican-born Republican Maya Flores on June 14 in a special election. 

Shifts like in Texas and Florida were not uniform among all Hispanic voters though. According to FiveThirtyEight’s analysis, Hispanics in cities remained firmly with Democrats. It was among Hispanics in rural areas and those without college degrees that Republicans made their gains. 

So, a look at the demographic characteristics of North Carolina’s Hispanic population could give some hint as to whether there are similar opportunities that Republicans will look to capitalize on. 

According to data from the American Immigration Council, 28% of North Carolina’s immigrants arrived from Mexico. This is by far the largest group of immigrants in the state. People from India are next with 9%, followed by Hondurans with 4%. 

But the latest U.S. Census data showed that 60% of the state’s Hispanic population are not immigrants. They are more often second- and third-generation Americans. Fifty-four percent are of Mexican heritage — lower than the national makeup of Hispanics, which is 62% Mexican — 19% are Central American, 11% are Puerto Rican, and the rest are from other nationalities.

And they live in both urban and rural communities throughout the state. The largest concentrated numbers live in the urban centers of Mecklenburg (170k), Wake (128k), Forsyth (55k), Durham (50k), Guilford (52k), Cumberland (39k), Buncombe (22k), New Hanover (17k) and Orange (16k). Taken together, Hispanics living in these counties come in at just around half of the 1.1 million in the state. But not all parts of these counties are urban and the four counties with the highest percentage of Hispanic residents are rural eastern counties — Duplin (22%), Sampson (21%), Lee (21), Johnston (16%). So, the urban and rural split is fairly even in the state. 

In terms of education levels, 17% of the state’s Hispanic population over 25 years old has at least a bachelor’s degree. This is less than half of the national average, which according to Pew Research is 38%.

In party affiliation, there are more Hispanics that are registered as independents (89,958) in North Carolina than there are Democrats (85,538) or Republicans (43,126). The Democrat numbers are double Republican numbers, but independents in general have been trending Republican in polls. Independents also chose Republican over Democrat ballots 62% to 37% in recent primaries.

High numbers in rural areas, an influx of conservative-leaning Venezuelans to the urban areas, lower-than-average college education, and a plurality being registered independent are all strong signs that the state’s Hispanics may be open to Republican outreach efforts. And Uzcategui said these efforts are bearing fruit.

Uzcategui is involved in outreach across the state at gas stations and grocery stores in Hispanic neighborhoods, as well as other events aimed at introducing the Hispanic population to conservative ideas and the Republican Party. He said the biggest issues he’s hearing about are inflation, gas prices, and indoctrination by the public schools, and they are getting very little pushback as they connect with Hispanics on these issues. 

“As it is right now, everywhere we go, it’s not looking good for the Democratic Party,” Uzcategui said. “I think the Hispanic community in North Carolina is going to do what you saw happen in Texas, what you saw happen in Florida, what you saw happen across the country.”

Uzcategui said what is really causing the shift is that Democrat policies are starting to hit them in the wallet. In addition, a lot of Hispanics are telling him they see the Democrats as the party against religion and religious values, which he said are very important to Hispanic voters.

“They’re starting to see who is who,” he said. “These people [Democrats] are not for religious beliefs, and especially with Roe v. Wade. That kind of topped it off. Now people in the Hispanic community are starting to understand, these people are just for abortion on demand. And we’re not for that type of thing.”