Hispanics are playing an increasingly impactful role in national politics, and how they turn out next November stands to be a key factor in which party emerges in control of the White House and Congress the following January.
Hispanics are the largest minority group in the U.S., comprising about 17 percent of the U.S. population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And that number is only expected to grow: By 2060, the bureau projects Hispanics will make up 29 percent of the population in what by then will be a majority-minority nation.
“Every 30 seconds, a Latino citizen turns 18 and becomes eligible to vote,” Gabriel Sanchez, a political science professor at the University of New Mexico, said at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute’s annual policy conference in Washington on Tuesday. “That’s 66,000 each month. That’s a powerful number.”
At the same time, Hispanics’ demographic heft is offset by their historically bad turnout on Election Day.
In presidential years since 2000, Hispanics have barely edged Asians – who make up just 5 percent of the U.S. population – in a race to the bottom for voter turnout, with just 48 percent of eligible voters showing up at the polls on Election Day in 2012, according to the Pew Research Center. Meanwhile, 67 percent of blacks and 64 percent of whites came out to cast a vote.
It’s even worse in off years, when voter participation drops overall. Eligible Hispanics have voted in the smallest percentages or were essentially tied with Asians for the lowest turnout in every midterm election since 1986.
Part of the problem, Sanchez said, is the relative youth of the Hispanic population, which has a median age of just 28 years old, according to the 2013 American Community Survey.
“The group of 18- to 29-year-olds is the population least likely to vote,” he said. “That population is the most cynical about their vote actually mattering.”
The good news for Hispanics and the candidates who rely on them as a voting bloc is that there is significant room to grow, based on the number of eligible voters who have yet to register, let alone turn up on Election Day.
In several key states that control not only large numbers of electoral votes but have also emerged as swing states or future swing states, Hispanic voters are uniquely positioned to determine the outcome of national races.
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In Texas, which has the second-largest Hispanic population in the U.S. after California, 2.2 million Hispanics are registered to vote, while 2.6 million are eligible but aren’t registered, according to data from the opinion research group Latino Decisions.
In 2012, Mitt Romney’s winning margin over Obama in the state was 1.3 million votes. Hypothetically, if the election was held today with the same results – except that those 2.6 million unregistered Hispanics turned out and voted by a 7-3 margin in favor of Obama over Romney, as Hispanics did nationally in 2012 – Obama still wouldn’t win the popular vote in Texas. But he would have lost by about a single percentage point, compared with his actual 16-point loss in the state.
The situation is similar in Arizona, Colorado and Florida, all key swing or potential swing states, where 40 percent of eligible Hispanic voters aren’t registered.
“The 2016 election is going to be a test of the character of the Latino community,” political prognosticator Charlie Cook said at Tuesday’s forum, referring particularly to negative comments about immigrants from Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. “When someone engages in demagoguery at your expense, do you pull back or do you double your efforts?”
For Cook, the demographics mean the 2016 presidential race is the Democrats’ to win.
“You can’t lose African-Americans by 87 points, Hispanics by 44 points, Asians by 47 and minorities overall by huge margins and have a realistic expectation of winning anymore,” Cook said. “Mitt Romney got 59 percent of the white vote. Nobody’s ever gotten 59 percent of the white vote and lost, but Mitt Romney lost by 4 points.”