What Are We Celebrating?
A Somewhat Subdued Review
of the 2012 Latino Vote
By Rodolfo O. de la Garza (December 19, 2012)
The election is over. Thanks to us, the Good Guys won!
The trumpets couldn't have been louder! There was cheering in barrios from Washington Heights to San Antonio and East LA. The media introduced a bevy of Latino heralds who seemed to personify the validity of the Mayan calendar's apocalyptic forecast: the world we had known is about to end and will be replaced by a new reality, one in which Latinos will be among the rulers!
The 2012 election did yield results that bode well for Latinos, but they warrant a subdued response rather than the chest-thumping we continue to witness. On the positive side, Latinos were more important in 2012 than they have been in any election in recent history, as my analyses of the impact of the Latino vote on presidential elections from 1988 to through 2008 illustrate. Thanks to the efforts of 2008, which suggested Latinos were finally becoming noteworthy contributors to election outcomes, it seemed realistic to expect they could play a decisive role in 2012.
Even though the data on which an analysis of the impact Latinos in 2012 are not yet available, we know that both parties voiced greater awareness of Latinos than ever before. Democratic and Republican campaign strategists continuously talked about the need to win the Latino vote. While this is an indicator of increased Latino influence, we must also acknowledge that, as was evident in the Republican campaign's failure to address issues such as immigration, that rhetoric about the need to reach out Latinos is not necessarily implemented. The Democrats, on the other hand, did reach out, as the numerous visits to areas with large Latino populations by President Obama, Vice-President Joe Biden and high level surrogates and the attention they gave to immigration issues indicate.
Democratic outreach and Republican inattention and rejection notwithstanding, it seems clear that the Latino vote was less influential than it could and should have been. Matt Barreto, the director of the reliable LatinoDecisions polls, posits that Latinos swung Colorado, Florida, Nevada and New Mexico to the Democrats. Given that they account for approximately 40% of the New Mexican electorate, Latinos are always influential there. It seems reasonable, therefore, to acknowledge their influence in New Mexico but not include it as an indicator of increased importance.
Latinos were key to Democrats winning Florida. Although the state's results were essentially irrelevant to Obama's victory, thanks to Latinos they added 29 votes to the Democratic total in the Electoral College. Additionally, their vote contributed to the Obama agenda by supporting the re-election of a Democratic Senator and replacing an incumbent Latino Republican congressman by a Democratic challenger.
Overall, Latinos may have actually swung the results in Nevada and Colorado ,as Barreto argues. At a minimum, they were a significant component of winning coalitions in these states. As official results become available, we will be able to determine their actual impact. For now, we can conclude that, New Mexico aside, Latinos influenced electoral results in three states and helped shape the Democrats' national platform. Together, these are noteworthy accomplishments.
Is this reason for euphoric celebration? It seems more appropriate to temper our reaction and note problematic issues that continue to reduce Latino influence. Most significantly, Latino voting rates continue to lag white and Black rates by approximately 10-15%. This gap dampens the impact that the continuously growing population promises and must be overcome to enable Latinos to become legitimate political influentials.
Additionally, it is important to understand that, although continued immigration may lead to long term increases in Latino influence, for the next decade and perhaps longer, it works against Latino policy interests. This is because so many immigrants are concentrated in Red (Republican dominated) states that they increase the electoral college votes of these states. In 2012, for example, Latino immigrants were perhaps the major reason that Arizona, Utah, Georgia, South Carolina and Texas in combination received nine new congressional seats and saw their electoral votes go up by nine. In other words, the nine votes Latinos might have swung to Democrats in Colorado are neutralized by the nine Red electoral college votes they fueled.
In sum, it seems correct to argue that Latino support was essential to Obama winning the popular vote and, despite benefits that accrued to Red states, there is no doubt that Latino votes increased his Electoral College majority through their impact on electoral results in New Mexico, Florida and perhaps in Nevada and Colorado as well. Latinos, thus, had a greater impact in 2012 than in any previous presidential election. Continued population growth will provide opportunities to increase this influence. To a substantial degree, the extent to which this is accomplished will depend on the behavior of Latino elites, many of whom are today's loudest over-claiming cheerleaders.
Rodolfo O. de la Garza is the Eaton Professor of Administrative Law and Municipal Science at Columbia University. He served as Vice President of the American Political Science Association and received the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Committee on the Status of Latinos in the Profession of the American Political Science Association in 1993. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He has edited, co-edited, and co-authored numerous books including The Future of the Voting Rights Act; Muted Voices: Latinos and the 2000 Election; Sending Money Home: Hispanic remittances and Community Development; Latinos and U.S. Foreign Policy: Lobbying for the Homeland?; Bridging the Border: Transforming Mexico-U.S. Relations; At the Crossroads: Mexican and U.S. Immigration Policy; Awash in the Mainstream: Latinos and the 1996 Elections; Latino Voices: Mexican, Puerto Rican and Cuban Perspectives on American Politics; Barrio Ballots: Latinos and the 1990 Elections; and The Chicano Political Experience. He has also published in leading professional journals such as the American Journal of Political Science, Latin American Research Review, Social Science Quarterly, and International Migration Review. Currently, he is directing studies on immigrant incorporation, Latinos and U.S. foreign policy, and Latino voting patterns. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org