Signs of Real Political Muscle
Recently released data by the U.S. Census Bureau showing that 11.2 million Hispanics turned out at the polls in 2012 set off a fresh round of debates about the potency of the Latino vote. While that figure is below what many expected, the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) thought there would 11.8 million, one thing is clear: Latino voters played a defining role in the election and generated a game-changing moment in the debate for immigration reform, creating an opportunity for the bipartisan bill making headway in the Senate. The fact that the turnout number was lower than anticipated and still had that decisive effect should be a wake-up call for politicians about the need to build a meaningful relationship with this electorate. In addition to the already rich pool of Latino citizens not yet registered, between now and 2028, nearly 900,000 Latino citizens will turn 18 every year. Candidates do matter, positions are important, and meaningful outreach is essential.
Latino voter turnout in 2012 is but one measurement in the growth and development of Latino voting power just as height is only one measurement in human development. Despite the turnout number for Latinos being lower than hoped for, the report does show that Hispanic voters are building political muscle in important, measurable ways:
Latinos continue to add voters to the electorate. The Latino share of the national electorate grew by one full percentage point between 2008 and 2012 and four percentage points since 1996. Meanwhile, the share of the electorate that is White, non-Hispanic, shrunk by 2.6 percentage points between 2008 and 2012 and over 8 percentage points since 1996.
Latino voters performed well in 2008 in battleground states, where performance lagged for other voters. Census figures demonstrate above-average Hispanic turnout in battleground states such as Nevada and Colorado, where more than one-half of voters showed up at the polls (52.2 percent and 52.1 percent, respectively), a similar share in both states in 2008. Meanwhile, White, non-Hispanic, voters lagged, turnout dropping respectively from 62.5 percent and 71.5 percent in 2008 to 60.3 percent and 75.2 percent in 2012.
Latino voters outperformed White voters in Florida, a major battleground state. Latinos and Blacks waited hours in line to vote on election day in Florida and surpassed the turnout rate of Whites (62.2 percent vs. 61.2 percent, respectively). Hispanic voters also outperformed White voters in Michigan and Tennessee, while being slightly outperformed in Virginia where the turnout gap was narrow (66.8 percent vs. 67.5 percent).
The larger electorate and improved battleground state turnout are important measurements in the health and development of Latino voting power. Several other numbers are worth considering in any assessment of Latino voting power:
- 71 percent vs. 27 percent. The staggering Latino presidential preference gap in 2012 has gained the attention of political strategists and mainstream political pundits. Future presidential aspirants are likely to be much more conscientious about the level of support their candidate draws from Latino voters. The uptick in polling Latinos is a clear demonstration that Hispanics are viewed as a more potent voting class than ever before, meaning that these voters are less likely to be underestimated in the future.
- Eleven. The number of new Latino members added to Congress. New Hispanic political leaders are emerging within both political parties and lifting up the profile and image of Hispanic leaders as well as bringing the views and concerns of Hispanic voters to various political and policy tables. More public discussion about the issues and concerns that matter to Latinos can create more interest in political discourse, providing better opportunities to increase civic participation.
- Four. Record number of interviews presidential candidates provided to Spanish-language news media outlets, including one bilingual presidential debate. Presidential candidates using Spanish-language media to connect with more Latino voters is valuable and effective.
- Hundreds. Hundreds of national and local Hispanic-led organizations administered some type of nonpartisan voter registration and Get-Out-the-Vote effort. While hardly reaching scalable impact in 2012, these efforts helped to build new infrastructure and technical expertise in civic engagement programming among Latino-serving organizations. The breadth and depth of Latino-focused strategies and tactics from field canvassing to digital/online efforts served as a laboratory that, with continued development and nurturing, can make greater strides in future election cycles.
- 13-5. Vote for comprehensive immigration reform legislation in the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee just six months after the 2012 election and six years after a similar effort died on the Senate floor. There is no better way for voters and nonvoters alike to see that casting ballots matter than to show them that voting can translate into policy and social change.
The good news helped seed the ground for the work ahead. The voter registration and turnout gap in states such as Arizona, Illinois, and Texas continue to be staggering; however, it is important to remember where they started. For example, in 2012 the turnout rate in Texas was an abysmal 38 percent for Latinos. However, between 2008 and 2012 the Texas electorate grew by 208,000 voters, and 92 percent of that growth can be attributed to Latinos, who gained two percentage points as a share of the state's electorate.
Clearly more work must be done to translate the Latino electorate's potential into reality. Voter registration is essential but continues to lag behind electoral campaign expenditures. Around 11.1 million eligible Hispanics remain unregistered. Voter turnout rates among registered Hispanics are good, but there is room for improvement, as more than 2.5 million registered Latino voters didn't show up at the polls last year. Closing these gaps will take time and money. Better polling would also help; Latino turnout probably would have been much higher had the election been held at a time when unemployment and foreclosure rates were lower. That said, it is indisputable that the Latino electorate is larger and more powerful than at any point in history and is poised to exercise its power more than ever before. What politicians do today and the tone of their comments, particularly on immigration reform, will leave an indelible mark in the minds of Latino voters and the young people who will join the electorate in the years to come. This is a fact that should not be forgotten as political parties think about how to meaningfully engage this electorate, whose support they will need to win an election and get to the White House in more and more states.
This was first posted to the NCLR Blog.