First published in Canvas: 5th November 2012

Much has been written about ongoing demographic shifts in the United States, and the socio-economic consequences of continued and increasing immigration. The most common indicators suggest that before 2050, the U.S minority population will exceed 50%, leaving white Americans as the minority. In that time, the Latino and Asian populations are expected to triple. By 2050, almost 40% of children under the age of five are expected to be from a Hispanic background. [1] All are agreed this shift will have lasting consequences for American culture and politics. In particular, the noted Conservative political scientist and commentator Samuel Huntington warned in 2004 that immigration from Latino countries posed “the single most immediate and most serious challenge to America’s traditional identity”. [2]

If recent reports from the Pew Hispanic Centre prove accurate, the effects of this demographic shift will be felt far sooner than 2050, or even 2016. In the 2012 Presidential election, a record 24 million Latinos will be eligible to vote (11% of all voters eligible).  Many of them are based in vital swing states such as Colorado, Nevada and Florida, where between 13% and 16% of the voting population are Hispanics. Looking at past trends, these demographics strongly favour the Democratic Party over the Republican Party, meaning that as the minority population increases, the voting share of the Republican Party shrinks. In Nevada, up to 78% of Latinos preferred Obama to Romney; in Colorado, up to 74% and in Florida, even with its Conservative Cuban population, up to 61%.

The battlegrounds for Hispanic votes are already well established. In every presidential contest since 1992, Republicans have won around a quarter of the Latino vote, and Democrats have won at least half. The remaining quarter generally consists of independents. In practical terms, the Romney campaign has targeted around 40% of the Latino vote as a marker of a successful campaign, but his support is currently lagging in the 20s. The Republican nomination process did much to alienate the Latino base, given the parties pre-occupation with trying to appease the strident anti-immigration wing of its party. Herman Cain’s asides about erecting electrical fences on the Mexican border, and Michele Bachmann’s signing of a ‘double fence pledge’ will not be forgotten in a hurry. [3]

In spite of these positive figures, Latino voting numbers are notoriously difficult to estimate, due to the relative reticence of Latinos to cast ballots in significant numbers. In 2008, only half of eligible Latino voters cast ballots compared to 65% of blacks and 66% of whites. [4] Latinos are also highly divided by complicated generational differences. Foreign born Latinos, for example are most concerned by economic growth, while those from the second generation are more concerned by unemployment. Third generation Latinos are more concerned about healthcare issues. [5] Overall, Latino voters are more likely to be conservative on issues of abortion and homosexuality, though attitudes are slowly changing. [6]

Acknowledging the central role the Latino population may play in his re-election, President Obama has made several policy overtures to Spanish speaking constituencies. Chief among these was the passage of the Action for Childhood Arrivals (DREAM) policy in June 2012. Though watered down from its original form, the new policy created an affirmative application process for undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States before the age of 16, and below the age of 30 to apply for protection from deportation, and immigration authorisation to obtain employment. [7] Despite this success, Obama admitted that one of the biggest regrets of his first term was his failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform, and reiterated his support for a plan that would allow a path to legal residency for 11 million illegal immigrants if they clear background checks, learn English and pay taxes and fees. [8]

The hope that Obama may implement further reforms in a second term has spurred Latino electoral engagement. Though enthusiasm levels are yet to reach the same levels as the 2008 Presidential election, recent ImpreMedia-Latino Decisions polls indicate high levels of Latino engagement in line with increases seen in the 2010 midterm elections. More than three quarters indicated that they had discussed political issues with family members, and that 45% had tried to influence how others votes. Crucially, 84% of those polled stated that they intended to vote. [9]

With all indications so far pointing towards a high Latino voter turnout, what does this mean on the ground? Recent polling data has indicated that a high Latino turnout could deliver a shock result in Arizona, with 80% of Latinos stating that they plan to vote for Obama, compared to 14% for Romney.  Just like the 2010 senatorial election, when an underestimation of the Latino vote mistakenly called the election for Sharon Angle over Harry Reid, the 2012 election could offer more than its fair share of surprises, and with a close vote likely, could tip the balance. [10]

Article by Chris Olewicz.

References and Further Reading:












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