The Most Important Number in This Election

Last night Rachel Maddow said that if you can only watch one number in the polling of this election, it should be the national Latino vote. If so, this is really bad news for Donald Trump.

But you may remember something Jan Brewer said recently.

Some Republicans dismissed the notion that Democratic-leaning Hispanics will become a significant enough force to tip the balance to Clinton.

“Nah,” former Arizona governor Jan Brewer said in an interview. “They don’t get out and vote. They don’t vote.”

As much as that outraged a lot of people, she has a point.

Latino turnout has historically lagged most other races and ethnicities — even among those eligible to cast ballots. In 2012, 62 percent of all U.S. citizens voted in the presidential election — but only 48 percent of Hispanic citizens. Meanwhile, higher percentages of white citizens (62 percent) and 66 percent of black citizens participated.

Over the weekend, we continued to hear stories about the large turnout among Latinos in early voting – especially in Nevada and Florida. But I’ve always been suspect of drawing too many conclusions from those numbers. The data is spotty and irregular (i.e., in a lot of states, the number of Latino early voters is tallied by simply counting those who have “Spanish surnames”) and it could be that regular voters are simply voting early – which wouldn’t present a dramatic change in the eventual outcome.

That is why this number from Florida might be the most important of this election:

“Low propensity voters” describes those who haven’t voted regularly in previous elections. In an interview with Chris Hayes, Matt Barreto of Latino Decisions, shared a data point from Dan Smith at the University of Florida indicating that “30% of the Latinos who have voted in Florida were either new registrants or had no previous vote history.” Those are the numbers that led Noah Rothman at Commentary to write, “The GOP’s Latino Apocalypse.”

That is, in short, the sum of all Republican fears. The GOP had long known that the nation’s Hispanic voters did not participate in elections at rates commensurate with their registration levels, but it would be a nightmare for the Republican Party if they ever did.

One of the ways this could up-end what we’ve come to expect in this election is that pollsters construct their samples based on their own assumptions of what the electorate will look like. They often do this by looking at historic turnout from various groups in presidential elections. If the data from Schale and Smith holds true and extends beyond Florida, it could indicate that state polling where there are large concentrations of Latino voters have seriously underestimated turnout. Certainly it would show up not only in Nevada, but also in Arizona – and could potentially even make Texas close. Here are a couple of tweets that provide some anecdotal evidence that this may be happening.

Over the course of this election we’ve talked a lot about angry white males and college educated whites. Those are all significant portions of the electorate. But until the last few days, there hasn’t been nearly enough attention paid to how Latinos will affect this election – especially given the fact that they have been the target of so much abuse from one of the candidates.

While every part of the Democratic coalition is significant, if Latino turnout increases significantly in 2016, it could mean the difference between a close election and a landslide.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.