Latino influence in elections has increased steadily over two decades. But turnout this year is unpredictable, experts say.
Each election cycle is dubbed “the year”–a time when Latinos will show up at the polls in droves and transform the political landscape.
President Obama’s renewed push last week for immigration reform has brought with it fresh expectations for the Latino vote in November’s midterm elections.
The issue is considered one of symbolic and substantive importance for the community. Four out of five undocumented immigrants are from Mexico or another part of Latin America, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
“Hispanics are not punching at their weight,” said Mark Hugo Lopez, associate director of the Pew Hispanic Center. “Their share of voters doesn’t quite match their share in the general population.”
But if mobilization efforts change that, the group could be a key voice in November. A study from the pro-immigration reform group America’s Voice suggests that Latinos could play a key role in 37 congressional races.
“Going into 2010 and 2012, there is a big question mark on Latino behavior,” he [Antonio Gonzalez, president of the William C. Velasquez Institute] said. “Latinos have suffered so badly from the economic depression. Latinos are very angry about the immigration debate, and we’re getting killed in home foreclosures.”
At 15.8 percent of the population, Latinos constitute the largest minority group in the United States. African-Americans make up 12.3 percent of the U.S. population, according to the Census Bureau. In 2008, turnout for black voters was 65.2 percent and 67.2 percent for white voters. For Latinos, turnout was 49.9 percent, according to Pew.
“The issue is not that Latinos are disinterested in politics,” said David Leal, an associate professor of government who focuses on Latino politics at the University of Texas at Austin. “Instead, Latino turnout reflects the larger underlying factors that structure the vote for everyone.”
Gonzalez said there are two reasons for the upward march: Latinos are the fastest-growing group demographically, and for the past generation, there’s been a strong push to improve participation.
Still, he said, claims that Latinos played a major role in swinging the presidential election for Obama were “over-reported.” Latinos have a solid enough population to swing state and local elections, but “Latinos alone can’t swing presidential elections,” he said.
Obama captured about 67 percent of the Latino vote in 2008, compared with President Bush’s 44 percent in 2004.
Leal said people tend to overestimate the influence of the Latino vote when they focus on population growth.
“While Latinos may be the largest and fastest-growing minority group, the key word in that description is minority,” he said. “The best way to assess their political influence is probably not whether they are regularly deciding presidential elections.”
In 2008, Latinos were more a part of a winning coalition for Obama than they were responsible for swinging it for him, Leal said.
“They may have made the difference in a few closely divided states, but when states are that closely divided, many groups can probably claim credit,” he added.