WASHINGTON -- The biggest political story over the past week didn't involve a bus tour, sordid tweets sent from a congressman's account or even the posturing over whether to raise the nation's debt ceiling.
Instead, it was the no-thrills release of a 16-page report by the Census bureau, which underscored a massive paradigm shift in how politics is conducted.
On May 26, the Census released what an official at the bureau described as "the latest, most up to date data on the Hispanic population in the United States." The numbers, culled from its 2010 survey, tell a remarkable -- albeit anticipated -- story: The Hispanic population is growing at a rate much faster than any other demographic.
"The new census data affirms that one of the great stories of the 21st century is the changing majority of America from a majority white country to a majority minority country," said Simon Rosenberg, president and founder of NDN, a Democratic-leaning think tank that has focused heavily on Hispanic issues. "From a national political standpoint it’s a huge development."
Currently, 50.5 million Hispanics live in the United States (roughly 16 percent of its 308.7 million population), a significant increase from the 35.3 million Hispanics in the country in 2000. The 15.2 million difference accounts for more than half of U.S. population growth during that same time period.
And in some areas of the country, that ratio is even more pronounced.
In the South, for instance, the Hispanic population grew by 57 percent between 2000 and 2010, while overall population growth in the region during that same time period was only 14 percent. In the Midwest, the Hispanic population grew by 49 percent, more than 12 times the population growth of all other groups during that period. Hispanics doubled or more in population size in 912 of the United States' 3,143 counties. Only six of those counties showed negative percent change in the Hispanic population.
Gaming out the political ramifications of such a dramatic demographic shift is not an easy calculus. The Hispanic population is not monolithic; nor does it vote on singular issues, often prioritizing immigration reform below economic matters. What works as an electoral motivator in Florida may fall short in Illinois.
Operatives from both sides of the ledger agree, however, that a both Democrats and Republicans have a generation-defining opportunity at hand. But only one party seems positioned to take advantage. In 2004, 5.1 million Hispanics voted for Democratic candidates, 4.3 million for Republicans. In 2008, the ratio changed, with 7.8 million voting Democratic and 3.6 million voting Republican, according to data compiled by New Policy Institute.
"When you talk about Democratic secret weapon -- it isn't so much a secret because everyone sees it coming -- but this is the year it could come," said Carlos Odio, Deputy Director for the Latino Vote Program during Barack Obama's 2008 campaign. "No one ever expects the flood to happen, but there is so much room for growth. If Democrats and progressives really played this, it could be a huge weapon. The census reinforces that."
Hector Barajas remains acutely aware of the weapon. As a Spanish media spokesman for both George W. Bush's 2004 presidential campaign and John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign as well as communications director for the California Republican Party, he has watched the evolving relationship between the GOP and the Latino population from a front row seat. His post in California has particularly presented challenges, with the bulging Hispanic community forcing statewide candidates into a sharp political pull between demographic realities and conservative political pressures.
Recently, he's been making the rounds to various Republican Party entities, urging them to readjust the rhetoric and appreciate the trends, noting Obama's failure to deliver on key promises to the Hispanic community creates an opening. One part of his pitch includes a slide showing that even if all immigration into the United States came to a halt, the Hispanic population would continue to grow, with births inside the country rising at an even faster rate than net immigration.
"Every 30 seconds a Latino turns the age of 18," he told The Huffington Post. "There are about 11 million Latinos over the age of 18 who are U.S citizens and not yet registered to vote. 2.4 million of them reside in Texas, 2.2 million reside in California. Can you imagine if half of them got registered in Texas, how it would change the politics there?"
White House officials dispute those exact figures (the unregistered in Texas, they say, is about half that) but not Barajas' broader point. Demographic changes have, indeed, altered the electoral map, or at least given the campaign liberty to say that the map is more open than ever before. In recent weeks, a number of stories have referenced the Obama reelection campaign's plans to play in Texas in 2012. His Chicago campaign headquarters has a map of North Carolina, Nevada, Iowa, New Mexico, Ohio, Colorado, Texas, Georgia, Florida and Arizona -- all growing or major Hispanic states -- tacked to the wall.
"Texas is a huge uphill battle," said Odio. "It will take a lot of outside players. I think it is doable. But it might not be a 2012 thing. It might be a 2016 thing … The tide has already shifted, and it's a gradual but accelerating process whose real impact will be seen, as with most things in campaigns, on the margins."
One of those margins is the simple conduct of the campaign itself.
As the Hispanic population grows, it also moves outside city borders. The top five fastest growing counties, in terms of Hispanic population, were Luzerne, Penn. (479 percent change); Henry, Ga. (339 percent change); Kendall, Ill. (338 percent change); Douglas, Ga. (321 percent change); and Shelby, Ala. (297 percent change). States where the Hispanic population doubled in size from 2000 to 2010 include Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and South Dakota, hardly bastions of bi-coastal liberalism.
In practical political terms, such growth indicates that the structure of elections will become fundamentally different. Whereas the suburbs have served as traditional battlegrounds for national or statewide campaigns, over time, the competitiveness of those locales will change. As the minority population grows outside the cities, the pool of physical land over which the two parties will compete may shrink.
Already in Texas, Hispanic population growth has spurred a high-stakes debate over how to restructure redistricting in the state. Republicans, reading the demographic tea leaves, have tried to create a super-majority Hispanic district in the Dallas-Forth Worth area so as to confine the effect of their vote. Hispanic officials, who once salivated at the idea of a firmly held House seat, are now inclined to fight the plan.
"They see the potential to have more of these districts with 30 to 40 Hispanics then to get a supermajority one," said Moses Mercado, a Democratic operative in D.C. who advised John Kerry's presidential campaign. "The growth is unbelievable. Instead of one super district you will have four or five … The [census] numbers were above what everyone was thinking. It is extraordinary, the large growth. And you are already seeing the impact of it."
Recognizing that trend, the Republican Party has begun a broad discussion about how to stem the flooding of Hispanics away from the GOP.
Conservatives in California have used the 2010 gubernatorial defeat as a hook to debate whether the party could win back Hispanic voters by emphasizing cultural issues or if larger, tonal changes were needed as well. In Texas, the redistricting issue has overshadowed the news that local Republican lawmakers are calling for less punitive immigration laws.
Nationally, GOP officials stress that they are re-doubling the effort for Hispanic candidate recruitment. But even then, many voice concerns that if the Republican Party is to ride and not be overwhelmed by the democraphic trends, something more will be needed than superficial overtures.
"Good candidates, whether they are Republicans or Democrats, understand how they have to adapt their strategies and embrace different groups in their areas," said former Republican Congressman Henry Bonilla.
"Smart candidates will still run smart campaigns and embrace all ethnic groups," he added. "Those who don't get it will sing and dance around them, and the ethnic groups will understand they are recipients of just a little pandering."
Take a look at the census data below:
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