Latinos in America: Decisive Demographic or Paper Tiger?
By Michael Perez
It is late 1960. American families across the country sit in front of their television sets and witness a political aberration. A youthful Jackie Kennedy, robed in conservative dress, speaks to the nation in support of her husband, then Senator John F. Kennedy. With a calm demeanor and a soothing voice, Mrs. Kennedy utters a historic phrase that remains entrenched in the annals of our political history: “Voten ustedes por el partido Democratica el dia 8 de noviembre…Viva Kennedy”. (Vote for the Democratic Party on November 8th). With those words, the Latino demographic was thrust into the national spotlight, acknowledged as an important voting demographic. Kennedy won the 1960 election by a narrow margin, and many historians claim that the Latino vote, in states like Texas, put him over the electoral threshold. Still, there are questions about how much Hispanics will impact American politics in the future. Is the Hispanic community a decisive demographic, or simply the ‘paper tiger’ of our electoral system?
According to the 2010 Census Bureau, Latinos are now the largest minority group in the United States. From 2000 to 2010, Latinos accounted for 56 percent of the nation’s overall population growth. Consequently, there are now 51.9 million Hispanics living in the United States. In comparison, Whites’ overall percentage of the population decreased during the previous decade, from 69 to 64 percent. Researchers at the Pew Hispanic Center predict that the number of Latinos will continue to rise, exacerbating current population disparities. Foundational evidence for these predictions is already being realized. The New York Times recently reported that for the first time in our nation’s history, minorities combined account for more births in the U.S. than Whites.
The expansion of the Hispanic community over the past 10 years is concentrated predominantly in Texas, Florida, South Carolina, Arizona, California, New Jersey, New York, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada. As a result, Texas, Florida, South Carolina and Arizona all gained additional representation in Congress, with Texas receiving four more congressional seats. These shifts will be vitally important in deciding which political party holds the majority in the House of Representatives.
Aside from the Hispanic community’s effect on congressional distribution, large population increases in traditional swing states provide Latinos with an unprecedented amount of voting power. Maximizing this political capacity has been stymied primarily by sub-par voter registration and low voter turnout. Despite over 50 million Latinos residing in the United States, the Pew Hispanic Center finds that only 23.7 million of them are actually eligible to vote, making Latinos roughly 11 percent of the national electorate. In 2008, nearly 50 percent of eligible Latino voters caste their ballots in the presidential election, a percentage that lagged behind 65 percent of eligible Blacks and 66 percent of registered Whites. Still, despite the disparaging statistics and entrenched pattern of nonparticipation, Hispanics that participate in the voting process have affected the outcome of several key elections.
In 2004, more than 9 million Hispanics voted in the presidential contest between President George W. Bush and Democratic challenger Senator John Kerry (D-MA). Victories for Mr. Kerry in Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico would have propelled him to the presidency, but a slim gap of just 137,000 votes among those three states kept him from the White House. Latinos represented a substantial fraction of those votes, but 44 percent of Latinos nationwide backed Mr. Bush. It is the largest percentage of the Latino electorate that any Republican presidential candidate has ever attained. Political pundits blame this historic level of approval on Mr. Kerry’s inability to connect with Latino voters. One telling statistic, noted in journalist Jorge Ramos’ book “The Latino Wave”, shows that Mr. Kerry gave only twenty-five Spanish language interviews during the campaign. In contrast, Mr. Bush’s 2000 campaign saw the former President sit for roughly 100 interviews. Bush continued that trend in 2004. These public appearances provided him with opportunities to advocate for policies such as comprehensive immigration reform, an issue that continues to be important to Latino voters. Though support for immigration reform never materialized into actual law, Mr. Bush did, however, appoint Latinos to prominent positions, such as Alberto Gonzales, who served as the first Hispanic United States Attorney General.
Barack Obama’s historic 2008 election also serves as an illustration of the Hispanic community’s influence. Mr. Obama received 68% of the Latino vote, while Senator John McCain (R-AZ) received a mere 28 percent. Latinos played a significant role in three states that switched parties after backing Mr. Bush in 2004. According to CNN polling data, the margin of victory for Barack Obama in New Mexico was approximately 120,000 votes. Hispanic support in that state provided the President with 186,000 votes. In Nevada, where roughly 89,000 Latinos cast their vote for Mr. Obama, his margin of victory was 119,896 votes. One of the closest races in 2008 took place in Indiana, a state that had not selected a Democratic presidential candidate since 1964. That state was decided by a mere 26,000 votes. 77 percent of Latinos voted for Mr. Obama in Indiana, a percentage that translated into 76,000 votes. Similar to Mr. Bush, Mr. Obama’s favor within the Latino community was tied to his advocacy for immigration reform. Throughout the campaign, he pledged to put forth a comprehensive immigration bill during his first year in office. This unprecedented guarantee struck a chord with many Hispanic voters. The president has still not put forth an immigration bill, but Latinos can point to decisions by the administration that demonstrates the presence of Hispanic political influence. In 2009, Sonia Sotomayor, a Latina of Puerto Rican decent, was appointed to the United States Supreme Court, the first ever person of Hispanic descent to be appointed to the high court. Secondly, and far more recent, Mr. Obama issued an executive order, temporarily suspending the deportation of undocumented immigrants who would otherwise be granted a pathway to citizenship under the DREAM Act. This directive will affect roughly 1.4 million immigrants, many of which live in key battleground states. The reprieve is temporary, but it exemplifies how an overwhelming amount of Latino voters can affect presidential policy.
In 2010, Latinos used their political influence to impact both Congressional and state elections. In Nevada, Senator Harry Reid won by only five percentage points over Republican challenger Sharron Angle. Going into election night, Mr. Reid, a George Washington Law School alumnus, was trailing in the polls. Nevertheless, Mr. Reid was able to overcome the election night deficit, largely in part to his ability to mobilize 69 percent of the Latino vote. Reid’s high approval with Latinos was attributed to his support for the DREAM Act, a bill that 89 percent of Hispanic Nevadans favor.
In addition to Senator Reid’s close victory, Latino voters in 2010 were able to help elect three Hispanics to prominent political offices. In New Mexico, Republican Susana Martinez became the first Latina Governor elected in the state, while Brian Sandoval achieved the same thing in Nevada, defeating opponent Rory Reid by a margin of 53 percent to 41 percent. The state of Florida observed a historic election as well, when Republican Marco Rubio, a Cuban American from Miami, received 55 percent of the Latino vote to win the U.S. Senate seat. Interestingly, only the election Mr. Rubio marked a partial return to the voting trends of 2004, when many Latinos crossed party lines and voted for President Bush. Ms. Martinez and Mr. Sandoval did not fair well with Latinos, garnering 40 percent and 33 percent, respectively. In those elections, Latinos did not blindly follow candidates based on common cultural background. Instead, support from the Latino community was based on policy. Ms. Martinez and Mr. Sandoval both favor tough immigration laws comparable to the measures taken in Arizona. This conservative stance surely did not help either of them in courting Latinos. With evidence bolstering the argument that Hispanics vote based on policy as oppose to culture, how will Latinos affect the 2012 presidential campaign?
The Pew Hispanic Center recently reported that Latino voters prefer Mr. Obama to former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney by a margin of 69 percent to 21 percent. Hispanics in swing states are bombarded with phone calls, television ads and emails, soliciting monetary donations and assistance with voter registration. In Florida, a key swing state offering 29 electoral votes, the amount of registered Latinos has increased from 10.7 percent of the electorate in 2006, to 13.5 percent in 2012. Obama carried Florida in 2008 by about 204,000 votes, but both Republicans and Democrats have observed sharp rises in voter registration over the past few months. As a microcosm of the nation, Hispanics in Florida are not monolithic, and may differ in their political affiliations. Often times, opposing beliefs, which are a consequence of cultural variances, result in different views on the economy, women’s rights, gay marriage and immigration. In Florida, conservative Cuban Americans are more prone to voting Republican, while more liberal Puerto Ricans and Dominicans tend to favor the Democratic Party. Similar voting trends are seen in states like Colorado, New Mexico and Virginia. These states are still very much in play, as revealed by the enormous amount of political capital each candidate expends in those parts of the country. Nationally, Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney have spent eight times the amount of money on Spanish Language advertisements than did Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama in 2008. Both presidential candidates have also made primetime television appearances on Univision, a premiere Spanish language channel. These efforts demonstrate the candidates are focusing a substantial amount of their resources toward courting the Latino vote.
Though candidates continue to appropriate campaign dollars in hopes of garnering Latino support, there are some external forces that may diminish the Hispanic community’s political clout. Since 2011, roughly twenty-five laws across several states have substantially modified voter eligibility. Some of these laws have been struck down in both state and federal courts as forms of voter suppression, but several laws will remain in effect for the 2012 presidential election. Thirteen states currently have new voting laws that could directly affect Latino voters (Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, West Virginia, Virginia and Wisconsin). These laws range from shorter voter registration periods and photo ID requirements, to restrictions on early and absentee ballots. Organizations like the Advancement Project, estimate that nearly ten million Hispanic voters could be negatively affected by these new restrictions. Furthermore, new immigration laws, high crime, lack of access to disability services, rising unemployment and family responsibilities will continue to serve as obstructions to Hispanic participation in the political process.
Reminders of increasing Latino political clout are visible. This year Julian Castro, the Mayor of San Antonio, became the first Hispanic to deliver the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. Mr. Rubio was heavily considered as a possible running mate for Mr. Romney. Ms. Martinez took center stage at the Republican National Convention, moving the crowd with her anecdotes on life as a Hispanic woman. There are two Latino senators, twenty-four Hispanics in the House of Representatives and one Supreme Court Justice of Hispanic descent. Latinos may still be a minority within the electorate, but the political establishments on both sides of the isle can no longer ignore their existence. Mainstream politicians across the country are eagerly trying to engage the Hispanic community, from former Governor Jeb Bush (R-FL) chairing events for the Hispanic Leadership Network, to former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R) creating the “Americano”, a conservative, bilingual commentary website. The days of placating Hispanics through superficial “taco politics” are behind us, and increasingly, there are examples of political pressure from the Latino community exceeding the bounds of the campaign season and influencing the decisions of our elected officials. The Hispanic movement is still in its gestation phase, but the increase in population provides Latinos with an amazing chance to define their future. The opportunity is ours for the taking. Whether Latinos decide to fully embrace it, only time will tell.