Latino Catholicism: Transformation in America’s Largest Church, by Timothy Matovina explores the ever-increasing contribution Latinos make to American religious and social life, offering a look at the important ways the U.S. Catholic Church, its evolving Latino majority, and American culture are mutually transforming one another. Today he writes for Election 101 on the growing electoral significance of Latinos, and offers his take on the potential impact for the 2012 election.
Bold proclamations about Latino voters determining presidential elections have become a regular feature of political commentary. When George W. Bush won a higher percentage of Hispanic votes than any previous Republican presidential candidate in his 2004 reelection, political consultant Dick Morris asserted that “the biggest reason for Bush’s victory was that he finally cracked the Democratic stranglehold on the Hispanic vote.” Four years later, Martin Kettle, associate editor of the British newspaper The Guardian, dubbed Latinos “the big racial game-changer” in Barack Obama’s election after Obama received two thirds of Latino votes cast, 25 percentage points more than John Kerry received four years earlier. Ruy Teixeira of the Center for American Progress Action Fund titled a recent blog post “Why Obama’s Re-Election Hinges on the Hispanic Vote.”
In fact the electoral significance of Latinos is growing steadily, but not as exponentially as such commentaries suggest. Though the growth of Latinos into the nation’s largest minority group has been widely reported, for the 2008 general elections eligible African American voters still outnumbered Latinos by five million. Many Latinos are not eligible to vote because they are not citizens or are younger than the legal voting age. Approximately half a million Latinos reach the legal voting age annually, but these increases add up to only two million new eligible voters since the last presidential election. Moreover, the majority of Latino voters reside in California, New York, and Texas, states in which the results of presidential elections are relatively predictable. The victorious candidate’s margin of victory in these states ranged from 9 to 27 percentage points in the two most recent presidential elections, with Republican candidates winning Texas and their Democratic counterparts winning California and New York. These comfortable margins mitigate claims of a critical Latino swing vote in presidential elections, and potentially reduce Latinos’ incentive to vote in states that pollsters declare are predetermined in advance. Comparatively low Latino voter turnout – in the 2008 general elections less than half of eligible Latino voters cast ballots, while nearly two-thirds of black and white eligible voters did – no doubt results in part from this disincentive to electoral participation.
The four swing states where Latino votes have the greatest influence are Florida, New Mexico, Nevada, and Colorado, all of which Bush won in 2004 and Obama won in 2008. Of course, in close races the importance of every grouping of voters is magnified. There is not sufficient evidence in such instances to deem Latinos the decisive factor. Indeed, asking if Latino voters were decisive in a given election result is not the sole or even the most important question to pose. Rather, greater attention should be given to Latinos’ relation to wider voting patterns and their participation in strategic coalitions that affect electoral outcomes. From this perspective, the facts that Obama was the first Democratic presidential candidate to win a clear majority of Latino votes in Florida and that from 2004 to 2008 New Mexico, Colorado, and Nevada were the three states with the largest increases in the Latino percentage of the voters who cast ballots reveal the growing significance of Latino voters as one key constituency in presidential elections.
Exit polls for the 2004 and 2008 elections revealed that a clear majority of Latino voters said jobs and the economy were the issues that mattered most in their choice for the presidential election. While the numerous working-class Latinos do not tend to have the same lens on the economy as more affluent voters – to use the language of the 2008 presidential campaigns, Latinos’ focus is more on jobs and Main Street than on investments and Wall Street – the strong focus on economic issues reflected a widespread concern within the broader electorate. Concern about jobs, as well as education and health care, remain important for many Latinos. But recent polls suggest that an increasing number of Latinos avow immigration will be one of the top three – or even the most – crucial issue swaying their presidential votes in 2012. The record number of deportations during Obama’s presidency has upset many Latinos, but many perceive the anti-immigrant rhetoric of leading Republican candidates as even more disconcerting. To the extent the immigration issue becomes more causative of Latino voting in the forthcoming election, the Latino impact will hinge not on whether most Latinos vote again for Obama, but whether they vote at all.
Timothy Matovina is professor of theology and the William and Anna Jean Cushwa Director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame.