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A Closer Look at Hispanic Voting Trends

On most sociological characteristics, Hispanics tend to be somewhere in between blacks and whites. On average, Hispanics have slightly higher incomes, a lower out-of-wedlock birthrate, a lower unemployment rate, and a lower crime rate than blacks, but are much poorer than whites and Asians. The poverty rates for black and Hispanic families are essentially even at roughly 25%. Blacks have slightly higher levels of education: 16 percent of blacks have college degrees, compared to 14 percent of Hispanics, while another 60 percent of blacks have a minimum of 12 years of education, compared to 49 percent for Hispanics.

For two decades after the Immigration Act, Hispanic turnout didn’t come close to their population strength due to low citizenship rates and a younger population. In 1988, Hispanics voted at roughly one-quarter of their potential strength. But a few years later, that began to change, and in a big way. In 1994, California Republican Gov. Pete Wilson found himself trailing badly in the polls due to severe economic problems. He decided to use immigration as a "wedge issue" by promoting Proposition 187, which would have cut off public services to the American-born children of illegal immigrants.

This tactic worked in the short run, as Wilson was easily re-elected. But it backfired quickly because it threatened the one thing Hispanic families consider most precious: their children. California Hispanics registered Democrat in droves after Proposition 187, as did their relatives in other states.

The upsurge in Hispanic registration and voting began in 1996 and continues today. More than 2 million Hispanics in California -- and more than 7 million nationally -- have registered for the first time, almost all as Democrats. Network exit polls and the Census Bureau both reported that the Hispanic share of the electorate more than tripled from 3 percent to 10 percent in the last two decades. And once Hispanic citizens register to vote, their turnout at the polls is just about at the national average.

It must be emphasized that unlike blacks, Hispanics are not an ethnic or political monolith. The general patterns are: 1) Puerto Ricans live in the Northeast and vote almost exclusively for Democrats (Rudy Giuliani was a prominent exception); 2) Cubans are mostly upper middle class, well-educated, and usually vote Republican (e.g., President Reagan won 92% in the Cuban precincts of Greater Miami in 1984); 3) the largest Hispanic sub-groups -- Mexicans and Central/South Americans -- are targeted by both parties but have voted Democrat for president ranging from a high of 90-95% for FDR, JFK, and LBJ to a low of 60% when Presidents Reagan and George W. Bush were re-elected.

History shows that when Republican presidents -- Nixon, Reagan, and the George W. Bush -- make an effort to court Hispanics (usually by supporting immigration reform), they can win up to 40% of their votes, thus greatly neutralizing this Democratic bloc vote. But when they allow harsh immigration policies on the GOP platform, they lose Hispanic votes by the millions. President Bush in 2004 endorsed a form of amnesty for undocumented immigrants and won about 40% of the Hispanic vote. Mitt Romney said that he wanted illegal aliens to “self-deport” and saw a record-breaking 10 million Hispanics vote against him.

The future of Hispanic politics -- and increasingly, the fate of the Republican Party -- lies in the children of immigrants from Mexico and Central America.

What should scare Republicans is that Obama in 2012 won almost half (48%) of the normally Republican Cuban vote in Florida.