The growing power of the Latino vote

Already, there have been countless analyses of why the Democrats did so well in this election, and countless claims that this or that group or factor was “decisive.” In any election, plenty of plausible arguments can be made to that end. In fact, there are always many factors that are “decisive,” in the sense that, without this or that particular factor/part of the coalition, a candidate or party wouldn’t be able to cobble together enough votes to win.

But no matter how you look at the 2012 election, there is no question that Latinos helped to decisively determine its outcome. Where the Latino vote is concerned, Barack Obama crushed Mitt Romney. CNN’s exit poll shows Obama winning 71% of that vote, and the polling organization Latino Decisions measured even bigger gains for Obama, showing that Obama beat Romney by a whopping 75% to 23% among Latinos. In the electoral college, the Latino vote was crucial to Obama, particularly in the battleground states of Colorado and Nevada, which Obama won, and Florida (which, as of this writing, is undecided).

These results are part of a long, and from the Republican point of view, worrisome trend. According to official exit polls, Republican presidential candidates won 44% of the Latino vote in 2004, 31% in 2008, and 27% in 2012. Moreover, Latinos are continuing to grow as a share of the electorate: they were 8% of voters in 2004, 9% in 2008, and 10% in 2012.

There is no question that the Latino vote has not been heading in a good direction, so far as the G.O.P. is concerned. I’ve been skeptical about the kind of demographics-is-destiny argument made famous by Ruy Teixeira and John Judis, which holds that population trends so strongly favor Democrats that the Dems will inevitably rise to power. For one thing, the meaning of race can change over time; the Irish became white, and so might Latinos or Asians. For another, as the country changes, so do our political parties, and I’ve long assumed that as the country becomes less white, the Republicans will find ways to peel off chunks of important nonwhite voters like Latinos.

But so far, this hasn’t been happening. It’s not merely that the G.O.P. has become the anti-immigrant party; the G.O.P.’s economic message does not appeal to Latinos either. Polls of Latino voters show that the economy is their top concern, with immigration a distant second. Latinos tend to find Democratic policies far more appealing; by wide margins, they like Obamacare and disagree with a Republican-style, slash-spending-only approach to the deficit.

Beyond that, there is good reason to believe that Latino voters’ alienation from the G.O.P. goes deeper than their dislike of the G.O.P.’s positions on immigration and the economy. Republican policies such as Arizona’s infamous show-me-your-papers law and the ban, also courtesy of Arizona, on Mexican-American studies classes have a very obvious, and very nasty, racist intent and impact. In addition, the racist treatment Republicans meted out to historic Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor will not soon be forgotten by Latinos. Latinos have also seen the nonstop parade of racism Republicans have directed against Barack Obama over the past four years, and surely they know that the white Republicans who judge Obama by his skin color are likely to feel similarly about Latinos. Republican racism may be a key reason why Latinos report they were quite enthusiastic about voting this time around, even more so than in 2008.

Finally, on top of the nastily racist policies and actions of the Republicans, there’s also the fact that the G.O.P. doesn’t even bother trying to court the Latino vote any more. At least Karl Rove was smart enough to understand the importance of the Latino vote, and he and George W. Bush did try to win Latinos over. Bush’s Spanish may not have been much better than his English, but he saw the way anti-Latino politics had destroyed the Republican party in California for the foreseeable future, and he didn’t want to follow suit. The fact the Republicans aren’t even trying to court the Latino vote these days speaks volumes. Latinos, like most humans, know when they’re not wanted. And since the Republicans don’t show any signs — yet — of wanting to invite anyone except white people, and preferably white people who older, male, married, and Christian at that, to their Grand Old Party, Latinos are likely to continue to flock to the Democrats en masse. For as long as that continues to happen, the Republicans will need all the luck they can get if they wish to become America’s majority party.

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee