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The Importance of the Latino Vote

A few days ago, when Obama & Clinton supporters first turned their attention in earnest to the primary in Puerto Rico ("PR"), several Obama supporters gave short shrift to this primary, even going so far as to suggest that PR's primary results be excluded from calculation of the popular vote leader.  Although they correctly point out that PR does not have a role in U.S. presidential elections, they overlook the DNC's decision, back in the 1970s, to give PR a role in selecting the Democrat's nominee for president as a means of courting Latino votes on the mainland.  (Michael Janeway, PR's Moment in the Sun, NEW YORK TIMES, May 22, 2008).   But in recent years, Democrats have not been uniformly successful in courting that vote, while the margins of victory in presidential elections have become smaller and the Latino population here has continued to grow.  With all this in mind, it is instructive to consider the role Latinos have played in this Democratic primary season and how it compares to their role in the 2004 Presidential and 2006 mid-term elections.

According to studies by the Pew Hispanic Center, prior to 2004, Democrats received no less than 60% of Latino votes in presidential elections. But in 2004, Bush was able to garner between 40% and 44% of the Latino vote.  During the 2006 mid-term elections, the Republicans' share of Latino votes in Congressional and gubernatorial elections declined to 29% to 30%, with an overall boost for Democrats of 11%.  This increase was by no means uniform, as Latinos split their ballots and voted in greater numbers for certain Republican candidates, including Senatorial candidate Kay Bailey Hutchinson of Texas and the Republican candidate for Governor of Nevada, who received 44% and 37% of the Latino votes in their states, respectively.  On the other hand, Latino votes may well have been crucial to the success of Democrats who won 4 of 12 closely contested races in Congressional districts where Latinos were at least 10% of eligible voters -- 1 district in each of the states of  Arizona, California, Colorado and Texas.  

As can be seen from 2004 and 2006 election results, Democrats cannot take for granted that they will receive overwhelming majorities of Latino votes, and the size of these majorities may well impact the outcome this Fall in certain key states.  

Research by both Pew and the William C. Velasquez Institute indicates there has been an uptick in Latino participation in this year's Democratic presidential primaries as compared to 2004.  In the California primary, for example, there was an increase of about 1 million, or 148%, in number of Latino voters who participated.   Latinos represented 29%-30% of Californians who voted in the Democratic primary in 2008 and 13% of those who voted Republican.   Latinos' share of the Democratic primary vote, according to Pew, also increased substantially since 2004 in another 15 states, including Arizona, Nevada, New Jersey and New Mexico.  

Although some of the increased primary participation may be attributable to growth in the percentages of Latinos of (i) the U.S. population (from 14.3% in 2004, to 15.5% this year) and (ii) eligible voters (from 8.2% in 2004 to 8.9% in 2007), these increases do not tell the whole story.  Take California, where Latinos comprised 30% of the Democratic primary voters this year - almost double the 16% they represented in 2004; Texas, where Latino participation rose to 32% this year from 24% in 2004; Florida, where participation rose by 33%, to 12% this year; and Missouri, where Latino participation quadrupled to 4% this year.  I suspect part of the growth is due both to Latinos coming of age to vote for the first time this year and others switching to vote Democratic.  

Another interesting aspect of the increased participation by Latinos in the Democratic primaries is the far greater benefit to Hillary Clinton than Barack Obama. Of the 13 state primaries Pew had adequate sample sizes for analysis, Latinos gave Clinton substantial majorities.  Some of the largest majorities came in Nevada and New Mexico - states which may be key to the "new electoral map" strategy Obama hopes to test in the Fall.  In Nevada, where Latinos comprised 15% of the Democratic primary vote, Clinton received 64% of their votes, and in New Mexico, where they comprised 35%, she received 62%.      

On Super Tuesday, Clinton also won every demographic group among Latino primary voters, including voters age 17-29 (63%), women (67%) and men (58%). She won the majority of the Latino youth vote in Texas as well.  

Another interesting statistic found in the Pew study addresses the "black-brown tension" presumed by "Howard Dean's pollster," Paul Maslin, to exist and to be negatively correlated with votes for Obama.  ["How will Barack Obama get to 270?", May 16, 2008, www.salon.com.]  Pew found, in contrast, that the votes by the 28% of Latinos for whom race was an important factor were evenly split between Clinton and Obama.  

As the number of Latinos, Latino voters and their percentage of total votes continue to increase in many states -- whether traditionally-Democratic, swing states or "new map" states, Democratic candidates need to take this constituency seriously.  If the Presidential election in 2008 should be as close as the '04 and '00 elections, the Latino vote might well mean the difference between winning and losing the popular vote in key states, as it did for Hillary Clinton in Texas and California.

The Pew studies of the 2008 primaries and the 2000, 2004 and 2006 elections can be found at www.pewhispanic.org and the Velasquez study at www.wcvi.org.    

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    I always wondered (5.00 / 1) (#1)
    by flashman on Fri May 30, 2008 at 09:57:42 AM EST
    with all the talk about how African-Americans won't vote for Hillary if she gets the nomination ( I make the statement without qualification; we've all heard the arguments ) if the loss of their votes might be made up by Latino votes.  This is a demographic, the influence of which, we don't hear enough about.