Obama's hold on Latino vote not so cut and dry

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Four numbers – 52, 24, 11 and 31* – show how diverse the Hispanic electorate is. While the Hispanic population totals an historic 52 million, less than half (24 million) are eligible to vote (citizens over 18 years old); less than half will vote (11 million) and at least 31 percent will vote Republican as they have for decades. In 2010, all five of the new Hispanic congressional representatives and the one new Hispanic senator were (are) conservative Republicans (including one who is Mormon, from Idaho). 
 
Parse the Hispanic electorate in the various states and their diversity is even clearer. Of the eight states that had a Latino electorate of over ten percent in 2008, only one is solidly Democratic – California. Three are solid Republican: Texas, Utah and Arizona, while Florida and Colorado usually lean Republican. In 2010, New Mexico elected the first LatinA governor ever – Republican Susana Martinez. Nevada leans Democratic, but many Latino voters there are Mormon who may vote for Romney.  Only one battleground state has a large Hispanic electorate and significant electoral votes in play: Florida.
 
Latino leaders such as La Raza’s President Janet Murguia, agree that in 2012, in order to win, Obama must get at least 70% of the Hispanic vote (he got 67% in 2008) or Romney must get more than 35% (McCain got 31%). In Florida in 2008, 57% of Hispanics voted for Obama and 42% for McCain.  Overall, the Hispanic vote has to increase nationally as well. It was only 7.4 percent of the entire vote in 2008  (Blacks voters by comparison made up 12 percent). But the Hispanic vote was split: of the 9.7 million Hispanics who voted in 2008, 3 million voted Republican, 6.7 million voted Democratic. In comparison, over 95 percent of black voters -- 15.3 million -- voted for Obama  –more than double the number of Hispanics.
 
Maybe because political strategists and pundits feel that the Black vote is maxed out and solidly blue, they have turned their focus on the more diverse Hispanic electorate. After all, Michele Obama “fired up” (her words) the Hispanic caucus at the Democratic convention by reminding them that Barack had won or lost some precincts in 2008 by only 5 votes. Every vote in every precinct counts. (That goes for the Republicans as well of course). The goal of Latino advocacy groups since summer was to register a million new voters.  Of course registration groups have to be non-partisan and ethnically neutral; if trends hold, at least 30 percent of the Latino voters they sign up will vote Republican, and many of those they register will not be Hispanic.
 
Voter turnout will be crucial. Historically, Latino registered voters don’t turn out – especially youths. It may be different this time. While activist Latino youth I met at La Raza conferences expressed disappointment with Obama, enthusiastic young “Latinos for Romney” whom I met at the GOP and CPAC conventions, were eager to get their friends and family out to vote; they believed that many would vote Republican “detras de la cortina” (behind the (ballot box) curtain, even when they wouldn’t admit publicly that they were going to do so).  Both conventions featured exciting fresh Latino leaders as keynote speakers who inspired the many Latino (and non-Latino) delegates.
 
One point most Hispanic voters do agree on however, be they Republican or Democratic: comprehensive immigration reform is not their main issue.  While sympathetic to the plight of illegal immigrants, especially minors, Latino citizens constantly identify jobs, educational and business opportunities, health care and home affordability as their top issues.  In addition, skepticism towards Obama’s DREAM act is growing as applicants find the documentation is complicated and deferral on a case-by-case basis is slow, unsure and risky.
 
There is one sure future for Hispanic voters however. As the Hispanic electorate grows in the next 20 years to match their demographic – mostly through native-born college-bound children and more naturalized and multi-generational citizens in every state -- Hispanic diversity will only grow along with it.
 
Sands Orchowski is the Congressional correspondent for the Hispanic Outlook magazine and author of “Immigration and the American Dream: Battling the Political Hype and Hysteria”