By Jorge Chapa
Latinos are a key feature of the American political landscape. Their population is growing: Latinos now comprise 28 percent of Chicago's population, up from 14 percent in 1980. Illinois' growth also is very rapid. The Latino population statewide has grown from 12 percent to 16 percent in the past 10 years.
This rapid growth has been equally attributed to immigration and the natural increase of births exceeding deaths.
Latinos are a young population compared to other U.S. racial and ethnic groups. And most significant politically, 93 percent of Latinos younger than 18 are U.S. citizens, compared to 62 percent of adults. Thus, simply the passage of time will bring more Latino citizens into the voting booth. Simply by their becoming adults, the number of potential Latino voters has increased by about 3 million nationwide between 2008 and '12. In Chicago, one in five citizens of voting age is Latino.
What is the likely impact of this Latino boom on the 2012 election? On the campaign trail, its importance has already been seen as the presidential candidates and parties work to court the Latino vote. Why is it so coveted?
In 2008, more than two out of three Latinos voted for Barack Obama. Given current demographics and the 2010 reapportionment of electoral votes to states that traditionally vote Republican, if the turnout rates and party preferences are the same this year, Latino voters will be a major cause of an Obama win. In particular, the Latino vote could put Obama over the top in the tossup states of Florida, Georgia and North Carolina. It also makes Colorado too close to call.
But if the inexorable increase in Latino voters helps Democrats, why did Republicans make such impressive gains in the 2010 congressional and state-level elections?
Off-year elections are very different than presidential elections, especially in terms of voter turnout. For white voters, the typical turnout rate for presidential elections is about 25 percent greater than their midterm voter rate. But for minority voters, presidential election turnout usually runs about 35 percent greater than midterm election turnout. Thus, the 2010 electorate was smaller and whiter than in 2008, and this favored the GOP.
The turnout rates of different racial and ethnic groups will be crucial to determining the outcome of the 2012 presidential race. If voters' partisan preferences by race and ethnicity are the same as in 2008, analysis shows that even with turnout rates at the 2010 level, the Latino vote will help Obama win re-election, but by a smaller margin.
Under the 2008 conditions, the Republican vote in 2012 would be much stronger in Colorado, which would give Mitt Romney a likely win there. Georgia would become a statistical tie. And the Latino vote would help Obama win in North Carolina and Florida and, thereby, win re-election.
And certainly 2012 will not be the last election in which this rising ethnic group has a large influence.
The Latino vote is a significant determinant in national electoral outcomes, as well as those in many states and localities. The outcome of the 2012 presidential election very well may be decided by Latino voters.
Candidates who ignore this fact of political and social life do so at their peril.
Jorge Chapa is a professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is an expert on demographics and policy issues related to immigration.
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