Latino voters could make the difference Tuesday in a tight presidential race—especially in battleground states such as Colorado, Florida and Nevada, where the Latino population has grown exponentially. Latinos are now 16 percent of the U.S. population and account for a record 11 percent of the nation’s eligible electorate. This year, 23.7 million Latinos are eligible to vote—four million more than in the 2008 presidential election.
But despite the growing number of Latinos eligible to vote, approximately 10 million did so in 2008. Will 2012 break the pattern of voter participation being lower than that of other population groups? What will motivate Latino voters to go to the polls, and what issues will influence how they cast their ballots?
Immigration: A Key Issue for Many Latino Voters
Issues that are critical in the Latino community—such as the economy, employment, education, and health care—are the same issues that matter to the rest of the nation. However, immigration reform is also a top concern and was the subject of heated exchanges throughout the campaigns including in the vice presidential and presidential debates. Many Latinos have acutely felt the consequences of a failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform, and the Obama administration has deported an estimated 400,000 undocumented immigrants each year since 2008, more than any previous administration.
Obama’s executive order of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), issued in June, was greeted with much enthusiasm across the immigrant community even though it is only a two-year, temporary policy. While it is expected to potentially benefit 1.4 million undocumented young people hoping to avoid deportation, DACA does not guarantee a path to citizenship and applicants must meet stringent conditions to qualify. While the measure promises to provide some temporary relief, many DREAMERS are refraining from filing their paperwork. And the anxiety is only growing—Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has promised to not renew Obama’s DACA and instead replace it with his own measure. Few additional details have been provided. If Romney wins the election, some DREAMERS are weary that any personal information the government obtains through the Deferred Action application process could be used against them at a later date.
For many Latinos, restrictive state-level policies have further heightened the imperative for national comprehensive reform. Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Utah and Indiana have passed legislation modeled on Arizona’s SB 1070, the controversial 2010 law designed to crack down on undocumented immigrants that was partially overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in June. Alabama and Arizona have passed the harshest restrictions against the undocumented population. In August, Alabama’s appeals court kept the most controversial portions of HB 56, a law allowing local and state police to verify a person’s immigration status while enforcing other laws. In late October, the same appeals court rejected a new hearing on the state’s discriminatory law.
State immigration laws have come at a cost—tourism has declined, business with other states has been interrupted and national groups have cancelled conventions and other gatherings to protest the laws. Samuel Addy, an economist at the University of Alabama, estimates that the state’s economy could lose $40 million if only 10,000 undocumented immigrants stopped working. The recent laws will also affect tax revenue collection: the undocumented population is estimated to pay $130 million annually in state and local taxes, including income taxes, property taxes and sales taxes.
Which Candidate is Poised to Win the Latino Vote?
Once thought to be a potential Republican constituency, Latinos generally vote for the Democratic party, and this election cycle is no exception. An October survey conducted by the Pew Hispanic Center revealed that 69 percent of registered Latino voters support Obama, compared to the 21 percent who favor Romney. Obama’s current lead over Romney among Latino voters has barely shifted throughout the 2012 campaign, and is larger than in the 2008 election when Obama received 67 percent of the Hispanic vote, compared to 31 percent for Republican John McCain.
The combined 44 electoral votes of three swing states—Florida, Colorado and Nevada—could determine who wins the White House and will be heavily influenced by Latino voters. Florida’s electoral politics are shifting as Puerto Ricans voting for Democratic candidates have begun to neutralize the Cuban Republican vote. About 300,000 Puerto Ricans have arrived in central Florida in the past decade, a region populated by many swing-voters.
The Latino population, which has always been a strong presence in Florida, is steadily on the rise in Colorado and Nevada as well. The latest figures by Public Policy Poll (PPP) in Nevada indicate a close race—Obama is in the lead with 51 percent to Romney’s 47 percent, with a 3.9 percent margin of error. Obama won Nevada convincingly in 2008, with a 12.5 percent lead over then-Republican challenger John McCain—55.2 percent to 42.7 percent in the final results. The race is also virtually tied in Colorado. The most recent polls slightly favor Romney, with 50 percent support over Obama’s 47 percent in a survey of likely voters. However, Latinos in Colorado represent 13 percent of the state’s electorate and favor Obama 2 to 1, while nationwide it’s 3 to 1.
It remains to be seen whether Latino voters will show up to the polls in record numbers on Tuesday. But if Latinos make their presence felt at the polls, politicians will likely be forced to change their rhetoric in future elections as well as their policies once in office. But speaking Spanish alone won’t be enough to court the Latino vote. As the Latino population in the U.S. grows, the Republican party will have to find a way to better appeal to Latino voters, and the Democratic party will have to deliver on its promises for immigration reform. What’s going to motivate more Latino voters in the coming years is a long-term solution for immigration, rising employment rates, rising home ownership rates, small business lending programs, and more Latino leaders in the national and local levels of government.