Latino Voters Could Transform American Politics

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By:  Leonard Sparks   Will Skowronski  
News21 UMD Staff
Posted: July 10, 2009; updates added Aug. 8, 2009

Marcelo Gaete/by Leonard Sparks
Marcelo Gaete, vice president of public and governmental affairs for the Spanish-language media company Entravision, says the electoral geography is shifting in the 21st century. Latino voters are credited with helping propel Democrat Barack Obama to victory in states like Indiana and New Mexico. (Photo by News21's Leonard Sparks)


Projected Population Changes for the U.S. by Major Demographic Groups (in thousands)

Percent Change
NonHispanic White
2 %
60 %
162 %
184 %
Source: U.S. Census Burea; compiled by News21's Leonard Sparks.

COLLEGE PARK, Md. - Latinos, one of the nation’s fastest growing demographic groups, are positioned to have a profound and enduring impact on politics, an analysis of newly released voter survey data shows.

The transformation that is remaking communities could also remake the nation’s political map, pushing the electorate to the left on big government issues, such as universal health care, but to the moderate right on social issues, such as abortion and gay marriage.

Most strikingly, Latinos could dramatically shift the balance of power to Democrats -- only about 23 percent said they leaned Republican -- but only if they can overcome political participation rates that are significantly lower than the rest of American voters.

The findings come from an analysis by University of Maryland journalism fellows of the American National Election Studies 2008 Time Series Study, as well as Pew Hispanic Center studies, U.S. Census data, and interviews with political scientists. The Times Series Study contained responses to hundreds of questions by more than 2,000 voting-age citizens before and after the 2008 presidential election.  

The Census showed that about 47 million Latinos lived in the United States during the last election, making up about 15 percent of the total population. By 2050, more than 130 million Latinos will live in the United States, about 30 percent of the population, the Census projects.

And in a country that is aging in general, Latinos stand out for being relatively young overall. 

“Think what that does to the electoral geography,” said Marcelo Gaete, vice president of public and governmental affairs for the Spanish-language media company Entravision. “You have a population that’s growing on one end, and one that is diminishing on the other.”

Latinos' share of votes cast in the 2008 election grew to 7.4 percent, a record high, while the white share declined, according to a Pew Hispanic Center study

As their numbers grow, active Latino voters could substantially alter what policies are discussed and passed in the U.S. House and Senate, state legislatures and local councils. But their ability to transform the country’s political landscape depends on improving voting registration and turnout rates, which trail rates for whites and blacks.

The Latino turnout rate of 49.9 percent during the last election was 16.2 percentage points below the rate for whites and 15.3 percentage points below the rate for blacks. More than 19.5 million Latinos were eligible to vote in 2008, but only a little more than 9.7 million voted.  

Confronting Legal and Social Barriers

Mark Rosenblum /by Leonard Sparks
Marc Rosenblum, a senior policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute, says barriers to voting still need to be overcome. A lot of Latinos immigrants who are eligible to naturalize haven't done so. (Photo by News21's Leonard Sparks)



Projected Population Changes by Percent of the Total for Major Demographic Groups
  2008 2050
NonHispanic White
66 %
46 %
14 %
15 %
5 %
9 %
15 %
30 %
Source: U.S. Census Bureau; compiled by Leonard Sparks. See an additional visualization on Many Eyes.

Closing the gap requires overcoming myriad challenges. They include steering eligible Latinos toward naturalization; overcoming language barriers and relatively high levels of poverty and low levels of education; and getting Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform legislation.

Increasing naturalization is an important goal for organizations that work with immigrants. The effort particularly targets immigrants with legal permanent resident status who are eligible to apply for citizenship, whose benefits include voting rights and the right to hold public office.

“There [are] a lot of Latinos who are eligible immigrants who have not naturalized,” said Marc Rosenblum, a senior policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute. “Mexicans are particularly unlikely to naturalize.”

Nearly 1.05 million people naturalized in 2008, a record, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. The previous record, 1.04 million, occurred in 1996, 10 years after President Reagan signed an immigration reform act that set 2.7 million undocumented immigrants on the path to citizenship.

More than half the immigrants who naturalized in 2008, almost 535,000, were born in the Carribean, Central America, Mexico and South America. In 2007, those regions accounted for about 281,000 naturalizations.

The record increase is being attributed to a rush to beat an increase in the application fee that took effect in July 2007. The fee increase, from $400 to $675, represents a big challenge, Gaete said.

“If you look at the poverty rates for Hispanics, and you look at the cost of applying for citizenship, it can be cost-prohibitive,” Gaete said.

Poverty also decreases the likelihood that citizens will vote. The poverty rate for Latinos approaches the rate for blacks, according to Census Bureau data. For 2007, 20.7 percent of Latinos and 24.7 percent of blacks lived in poverty, compared to 10.2 percent of whites.

“It’s very hard to become civically and politically engaged when you’re trying to make a living to survive and pay your rent,” said Esther Olavarría, deputy assistant secretary for policy for the Department of Homeland Security. “There’s very little time left, and the time that you do have you end up probably enrolling in English classes to improve your skills to get better jobs.”

Education levels are also a gauge of voting, with more education corresponding to higher voting rates. Latinos have high numbers of people without a high school diploma, 39.4 percent in 2007 compared to 19.9 percent of blacks and 13 percent of whites. “Latino youth have troubling high dropout rates,” Olavarría said. “The numbers of Latinos in college are low compared to the percentage of the population.”

Prospects for the Parties

Those who do vote, and voters-to-be, could drive the agendas of both major political parties as they adjust their policies to the growing strength of Latino voters.

Despite being deeply religious and conservative on some social issues, most Latinos favor government leadership in issues synonymous with the Democratic Party, according to data from last year’s American National Election Study.

An overwhelming 84 percent said they favored strong government over free markets in solving complex problems. And about 64 percent of Hispanics  favored universal health care, a rate comparable to African Americans and 19 percentage points higher than whites.

In terms of party identification, about 61 percent identified with or leaned toward the Democratic Party, compared to about 23 percent for Republicans. Democrat Barack Obama drew about 67 percent of Latino votes last year, according to exit polling.

Latino voters are credited with helping propel Obama to victory in states like Indiana and New Mexico. Both are among nine states that flipped to the Democratic column in last year’s presidential election, just four years after supporting Republican George W. Bush.

Obama's success erased gains made by George W. Bush. The former president drew 35 percent of the Latino vote in 2000 and 44 percent in 2004, according to the Voter News Service, the first Republican president to exceed 30 percent since Ronald Reagan in 1984.

In his brief tenure, Obama has named Latinos to two cabinet positions; nominated Sonia Sotomayor, of Puerto Rican descent, to replace David Souter on the Supreme Court; and declared immigration reform a priority. Republican hopes for stronger Latino support could require the party to soften its opposition to strong government and social programs, and distance itself from the strident tone of the anti-immigrant right.

“If the tone doesn’t change and it doesn’t change in terms of policy, I can’t see Latinos rushing to the Republican party,” Gaete said. “There are some voices in the Republican party who know what the future of the electoral universe looks like.”

Danny Vargas, chairman of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly, acknowleded in a June op-ed in Politico that “mistakes have been made in recent years” and that Republicans “have a lot of work to do to earn back the interest and the trust of Hispanic voters.”

“The core values of Republicanism still resonate among most Hispanics — things like family, faith, freedom and opportunity,” Vargas wrote. “Millions of common-sense, hardworking, patriotic Hispanics across the country are waiting to hear from the Republican Party. The time has come to speak to them.”

But Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist, believes Latino support for Democrats is likely to prove lasting. Without some level of shift toward the ideological left, Republicans are “just whistling past the graveyard,” he said.

Republicans “have to figure out who they are and what they believe in and who they’re willing to part with in order to expand their party base,” he said.

Change at the Grassroots

Margarita Solorzano’s work is built on a belief in the importance of voting for Latinos.

Three years after leaving Riverside, Calif., for Springdale, Ark., the Mexico native co-founded the Hispanic Womens Organization of Arkansas. The organization has registered 1,000 voters since 2004 and began hosting naturalization ceremonies in 2007.

“We are helping people that have been citizens for 10 years and never registered,” Solorzano said. “We have to educate them on how democracy works in the United States … and how important the vote is for the community.”

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