By Alexander Bolton - 06/22/12 10:00 AM EDT
Hispanic populations are soaring in toss-up states that will decide the presidential election.
Shifting demographics in states not usually associated with Hispanic voters have changed the traditional political calculus heading into Election Day.
Immigration, an emotionally charged issue for many Hispanics, is likely to stay on the front burner in the weeks ahead as the Supreme Court is expected to rule soon on the controversial Arizona law requiring law enforcement officers to check the immigration status of people they stop.
Hispanic populations have grown by an average of 77 percent in nine presidential battlegrounds since 2000, according to census data.
States traditionally seen as dominated by white working-class voters have seen Hispanic populations explode in recent years.
Pennsylvania’s Hispanic population grew 83 percent between 2000 and 2010; Iowa’s increased by 83.7 percent; Virginia’s increased 92 percent; North Carolina’s increased by 111 percent; Ohio’s increased by 63 percent; New Hampshire’s increased by 79 percent; and Iowa’s grew by 84 percent, according to U.S. Census data.
As a percentage of the total population, these Hispanic voting blocs are not proportionally equal to Nevada or Florida, but they are fast becoming more significant.
Clarissa Martinez-De-Castro, director of civic engagement and immigration at the National Council of La Raza, noted that Hispanic voter participation exceeded the margin of Obama’s victory in Indiana and North Carolina, two traditional Republican strongholds, in 2008.
In Pennsylvania, Hispanics make up nearly 6 percent of the total population, while in Virginia they account for nearly 8 percent; in North Carolina it’s 8.4 percent; in Iowa, 5 percent; in Ohio, 3.1 percent; and in New Hampshire, nearly 3 percent.
“It will have a significant impact in a very close election,” said Manuel Pastor, professor of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California.
Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), the Senate Republican’s leading liaison to the Hispanic community, told reporters Thursday that Hispanics in these states would be crucial to Republicans’ fortunes.
“What I think we should focus on is the growing number of Hispanic voters in key states like Florida, Virginia, Iowa, North Carolina and others that are much more open-minded, that do not have a longstanding — via geographic — allegiance to one political party or ideology,” he said at a breakfast sponsored by The Christian Science Monitor.
Some analysts think Rubio is a strong contender to become Romney’s running mate because he could attract Hispanic voters, though experts on Hispanic political activity are skeptical.
They say many Hispanic voters have been turned off by the harsh anti-immigration rhetoric of the Republican Party and note that Hispanic candidates in Nevada and New Mexico failed to win a majority of Latino voters in 2010.
“Nothing is a slam-dunk,” Martinez-De-Castro said of Rubio’s ability to move Hispanic voters if he appears on the GOP ticket.
Rubio acknowledged on Thursday that Democrats would win a significant majority of Hispanic voters this fall, regardless of new immigration proposals pushed by Romney or himself.
“There is a historical reality that Democrats are in the short term going to do much better among Hispanics,” he said.
A June Latino Decisions/Univision poll gave Obama a 43-point lead over Romney among Hispanic voters. Other polls have shown similarly wide margins.
Swing states with large Hispanic populations have also seen swift growth between 2000 and 2010, according to the U.S. Census.
Nevada’s Hispanic community grew 82 percent, to 26 percent of the state’s population. Its support was a big factor in Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) gritty 2010 reelection.
In Colorado, the Hispanic population grew by 41.2 percent to make up 20.7 percent of the total population. Florida’s expanded by 57.4 percent to make up 22.5 percent of the entire state.
A survey of U.S. Census data by National Council of La Raza found that the number of registered Hispanic voters in swing states skyrocketed as well.
The number of registered Hispanic voters in Pennsylvania swelled from 95,000 in 2004 to 189,000 in 2008. In North Carolina, it rose from 44,000 in 2004 to 83,000 in 2008. In Florida, it grew from 924,000 in 2004 to 1.38 million in 2008.
The larger Hispanic populations in Florida, Colorado, Nevada and even Virginia could factor in Romney’s decision to focus on Midwestern states such Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan, which have proportionally smaller Hispanic blocs.
Pastor said increases in Hispanic populations do not always correlate with a proportional rise in the number of registered voters. Population increases include illegal immigrants, who are not allowed to vote, and younger people, who have less consistent voting records.
The changing demographics could influence control of the Senate in 2013. Four of the presidential swing states — Nevada, Ohio, Virginia and Florida — are Senate battlegrounds.
Romney made a pitch to Hispanic voters Thursday with an address to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.
Romney told the audience that Obama has been taking their support for granted.
He softened his stance on immigration by pledging to give green cards to immigrants who earn advanced degrees at U.S. universities and a path to legal status for those who serve in the military.
But he declined to say whether he would uphold the executive order President Obama announced last week halting the deportation of immigrants who came to the country at a young age if they met certain conditions.
Obama is scheduled to speak to the Hispanic leadership group Friday.