While President Obama and his team take a victory lap amidst the continuing budget negotiations, the real winner of the 2012 campaign may be the Hispanic community. The rising Hispanic vote is a major shift that will change the landscape of American politics, and its tectonic impact, especially on presidential elections, could affect policy decisions (on immigration, taxes, and social spending) for generations to come.
At 10% of the national vote on November 6, Hispanics set an all-time turnout record. With their rapidly growing numbers, partisan flexibility, and, most importantly, their location in vital swing states, Hispanics’ strong influence on the Electoral College can only grow. With Republicans now realizing their mistakes in losing this key ethnic group, both parties will likely be courting them full-time in 2016. They have truly “arrived” politically.
Hispanics now make up 16% of the nation’s population (up from 12% in 2000), three points higher than African-Americans according to 2010 Census figures. With continuing immigration from Latin America and a very high birthrate, Hispanics are now the nation’s largest non-white minority and sure to keep growing — they accounted for over half of the national population growth in the last decade.
Who makes up the Hispanic community, and where do they live? How do they vote?
The answer to the first question is complicated: Hispanics are quite diverse in backgrounds. In the latest Census, Mexican-Americans were the largest Hispanic sub-group at 63% of all American Hispanics, followed by Puerto Ricans (9%) and Cubans (4%). Another quarter of Hispanics are divided between Dominicans (3%), immigrants and their children from the various Central America countries (especially El Salvador and Guatemala) (8%), and Hispanics with roots in South America (6%). The remaining 7% come from Spain and assorted “other” Latin cultures.
The Hispanic community’s greatest asset is the proverbial great thing about real estate: location, location, location. The two most populous states, California and Texas, are each roughly 40% Hispanic. More significantly, the ten states with the most Hispanic residents in the 2010 Census data — New Mexico (46%), California (38%), Texas (38%), Arizona (30%), Nevada (27%), Florida (23%), Colorado (21%), New York (18%), New Jersey (18%), and Illinois (16%) — have 216 electoral votes. That’s 80% of the 270 needed to win a majority in the Electoral College. (These states split five for Gore and five for Bush in 2000, and Bush won six of them in 2004, but Obama won all but Texas and Arizona in his two successful campaigns).
That is a formula for growing clout. So even though Hispanics cast “only” 10% of the national vote in 2012, their location amplified their national influence through the workings of the Electoral College.
Prior to the 1960s, Hispanics were largely divided between two regional minorities: Puerto Ricans in Greater New York and Mexican-Americans in the Southwest. All that began to change in the 1960s.
The Castro revolution in 1959 sent over one million middle- and upper-class Cuban refugees to the East Coast. They were fierce anti-communists and mostly voted Republican. Then, the 1965 Immigration Act increased the amount of legal immigration and removed the “quota” system that had previously limited immigration from the Third World. At the same time, the population of Latin America was exploding, so millions of undocumented immigrants joined the stream of legal immigrants.
The results were astounding: in 1960, the last Census before immigration reform, there were roughly 5 million Hispanics in America, or 3% of the total population. In 2010, there were over 50 million Hispanics. Whole regions were transformed: the West had the lowest percentage of non-Hispanic whites in 1960. After five decades of burgeoning immigration, the West is now the most diverse region.