Democrats' Hispanic Problem

Posted: Apr 29, 2011 12:00 AM
Among the challenges facing the Democrats in the 2012 election is the prospect that President Barack Obama will not be able to re-energize his base -- which included record numbers of Hispanic voters in 2008. Hispanics gave Obama 67 percent of their votes, but just as importantly, Hispanic turnout was higher than usual. More than 10 million Hispanics cast 9 percent of the total vote, the largest ever.

But many Hispanics have soured on Obama -- and not just because he failed to deliver on his promise of comprehensive immigration reform. Like most other Americans, Hispanics care most about the economy. High unemployment, which is at 11 percent among Hispanics, rising gas prices and a depressed housing market hurt President Obama's chances to repeat his 2008 performance among Hispanic voters.

A new analysis of 2010 voting patterns by the Pew Hispanic Center shows that voter turnout among Latinos plummeted. Fewer than 1 in 3 eligible to vote actually turned out on Election Day -- a much lower proportion than the nearly half of white and the 44 percent of black eligible voters who cast ballots. And among those who did show up, nearly 40 percent voted for Republican candidates, according to exit polls -- no doubt aided by the fact that the GOP ran Hispanic candidates at the top of the ticket in three states.

Demographics explain part of the problem with low Hispanic turnout. Even though the number of Hispanics has been increasing at record rates recently -- rising from 35 million in 2000 to more than 50 million in 2010 -- one-third of Hispanics are too young to vote, and another 22 percent are old enough but not yet citizens. The Hispanic population includes the lowest proportion of people eligible to vote of any major group -- just 42 percent, compared with 78 percent of whites, 67 percent of blacks and 53 percent of Asians.

But apathy clearly played a role, as well. The question is, Why? Like many low-income whites and blacks, some Hispanics may feel that participating in elections doesn't have much impact on their lives. But the 2010 elections signal deeper problems for the Democrats.

Hispanics never have been as reliably Democratic as black voters. In several recent elections, more than a third of Hispanics have voted for Republican candidates at the state and national levels, and 40 percent voted for President George W. Bush in 2004. Those GOP Hispanic voters tend to be more affluent and thus more consistent voters, as well.

Among Hispanic Republicans, many are small-business owners who don't want to see their taxes rise. Others are naturalized citizens who've made it up the economic ladder by working two or three jobs. They aren't interested in big government. A far smaller proportion of Hispanics than other Americans work in the government sector -- fewer than 10 percent, compared with 15 percent of whites and more than 20 percent of blacks.

In several key battleground states, Hispanics make up more than 10 percent of eligible voters -- 13.5 percent in Nevada, 12.6 percent in Colorado, 38.4 percent in New Mexico and 14.5 percent in Florida. And in other states that are either reliably Democratic or reliably Republican, the percentage of Hispanic voters is growing rapidly, too. Some 25 percent of eligible voters in Texas are Latinos, as are 24 percent of California voters and 18 percent of those in Arizona.

But Democrats should take little solace in these numbers. Hispanics have been an afterthought for most Democratic politicians -- and certainly have been so for President Obama since he won the election. Hispanics may not flock to Republicans next year, but the problem for the Democrats is that Hispanics won't show up at all. And without Hispanics, neither President Obama nor congressional Democrats can hope to win. Ironically, Latinos may hold the key to the GOP's future electoral success even though the majority of them still don't vote Republican.