The Latino population is among the fastest growing in the United States.There were 14.8 million Latinos in the United States in 1980, comprising just 6.5% of the total U.S. population. However, by 2014, with a population of 55.3 million, Latinos made up 17.3% of the population. These demographic shifts have resulted in a growing Latino presence among eligible voters in many parts of the country. According to the Pew Research Center, an historic 25.2 million Latino voters were eligible to vote in the 2014 midterm elections, amounting to, for the first time, 11% of the voting electorate. And this year, a record 27.3 million Latinos are eligible to vote in the 2016 presidential elections.
The increase in the Latino vote is part of a broader march toward a more diverse electorate, and there is no question that recent demographic trends have aided Democrats enormously. In 1980, Ronald Reagan won 56 percent of all white voters and won the election in a 44-state landslide. In 2012, Mitt Romney carried 59 percent of all white voters yet lost decisively. What happened? In 1980, African-Americans, Latinos, Asians and other non-whites comprised 12 percent of voters; in 2012, these groups comprised 28 percent of voters.
Despite the presence of a more diverse electorate, however, the importance of the Latino vote is frequently overstated. While the share of Latino voters has increased, their political clout has not.
There are two primary reasons why this has happened.
First, Latinos are less likely register to vote, and even fewer actually vote, than white or African-American voters. In fact, only 51 percent of all eligible Latino residents were registered to vote in the 2012 general election. At the same time, 85 percent of white voters, 60 percent of Asian voters, and 81 percent of African-American voters were registered. Similar numbers held for the 2014 midterm elections. But it’s not just a voter registration problem – registered Latino voters have a history of showing poorly at the polls. In the 2014 midterm elections, only 27 percent of eligible Latino voters cast ballots, compared to 41 percent of eligible African-American voters, and 46 percent of eligible white voters.
Why is hispanic turnout so low? There’s no simple answer to that question. But two important factors are that much of the Latino populations growth has come from immigrants (many of whom are not U.S. citizens) and those under 18 years of age. In North Carolina, for example, the number of Latinos more than doubled between 2000 and 2014 – to 9% of the state’s population. But the share of Latinos falls to 3.1% among the state’s eligible voters considering that just 25.3% of Latinos in North Carolina are at least 18 years old and a U.S. citizen. In the United States overall, only six out of ten Latino voters (35.6 percent) were born in the United States. While Latinos who are permanent residents – but not citizens – are eligible to vote in some local and state elections, they are prohibited from voting in general elections. So, while the Latino vote is big and growing, it is nowhere near as big as it could be.
The second reason has to do with geography.
Latino voters are overwhelmingly concentrated in noncompetitive states and districts, marginalizing their role in the most important races. According to Pew, more than two-thirds live in just six states: California, Texas, Florida, New York, Arizona and Illinois. Nearly half (46.4%) live in two states – California and Texas – neither of which have been battleground states in recent presidential elections. As a result, nearly half of Latino voters do not get the level of attention from campaigns that Latino voters who live in battleground states receive.
The resulting marginalization is striking. In 2014, Latinos represented less than 5 percent of eligible voters in nine of the 10 most competitive Senate races, and about 4 percent of eligible voters in those races overall. To put this in perspective, as the New York Times noted, it means that “the nation’s 50 million Hispanics have about as much say in [2014’s] crucial Senate races as do Alaska Natives – Native Americans in Alaska – who happen to represent 13 percent of eligible voters in the Senate’s least populous battleground.”
The situation is nearly the same in the House, where Congressional map makers easily draw heavily Latino and heavily Democratic districts. As a result, in 2014, the vast majority (96%) of Hispanic eligible voters lived in districts without a close Congressional race. The competitive districts with the highest share of Hispanic eligible voters were Florida’s 26th District (62%), California’s 26th District (31%) and Arizona’s 2nd District (20%). In each district, the incumbents are Joe Garcia (D), Julia Brownley (D) and Ron Barber (D). In the six most competitive districts, however, Hispanics made up less than 5 percent of eligible voters.
In time, the political underrepresentation of Latinos will end. Those currently too young to vote will gradually come of age, and those who are eligible to vote will become more likely to participate – particularly if issues of primary importance to Latinos (e.g. immigration) continue to get attention on the political stage. And as a direct result, the current political orthodoxy could flip on its head.
Non-competitive states could become competitive battlegrounds. Since 2006, for example, some of the fastest growing states are in the Republican-controlled Southeast: South Carolina (126.2%), Tennessee (113.7%) and Alabama (110.5%). In addition, currently competitive races could start leaning solidly to one side. In Florida, for example, the 2.3 million Latinos eligible to vote now make up 17% of eligible voters in the state. Among the 10 districts with the highest share of Latino eligible voters, eight are controlled by Democrats.
But for now, Latinos will continue to struggle to get their voices heard. While the Latino vote could play a crucial role in 2016, it is nowhere near as important as it could be, and even less important than it will be in the future.
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Photo Credit: Brian Howell on Flickr (via creative commons)
A Note on Terminology: Hispanic or Latino?
There are a lot of misconceptions about how to refer to people of Latin America. Many people – including, in the past, this site – alternately call people of Latin America either “Hispanic” or “Latino.” But that’s wrong. Here are a few important definitions to keep in mind:
- Definition of “Latino.” Latino is defined as any person – regardless of color, shape or background – of Latin American origin or descent (residing in the United States or elsewhere). Latino does not refer to race or color, and should not be confused with “Latin Americans,” which specifically refers to people actually living in Latin America right now.
- Definition of “Hispanic.” The 1970 Census was the first time that a Hispanic identifier was used and data collected with the question. The definition of Hispanic has been modified in each successive census, but generally, the term Hispanic refers to people who share the Spanish language or culture regardless of race. As such, the term Hispanic excludes a big part of the region – namely Brazil, which is Portuguese-speaking. But it also excludes other pockets of South America where the dominant language is English (Guyana), French (French Guyana) and Dutch (Suriname).
So what’s right? If you’re referring to someone who speaks Spanish, the term “Hispanic” is appropriate. But you’d never say a Brazilian – who speaks Portuguese – is Hispanic. So, when talking generally about people of Latin American descent, you can generally use Latino (which can apply to males or females) or Latina (which only applies to females.