Image: New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez
Jane Phillips  /  The New Mexican via AP file
Rising Republican star New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, elected last November, will speak at a Colorado GOP dinner Friday night.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 3/24/2011 3:48:47 PM ET 2011-03-24T19:48:47

The potential clout of Latino voters has become as familiar a story line as the gender gap. But what might make 2012 different is the edge Latinos could give President Barack Obama and the Democrats in battleground states which aren’t thought of as immigration portals or left-leaning strongholds.

The 2010 Census revealed that in the past decade the adult Latino population has nearly doubled in Nevada, Virginia, and North Carolina. Also, it's increased by 60 percent or more in two Midwestern battleground states, Indiana and Ohio.

Obama won all five of those states in 2008 — two of them by very narrow margins — and they are likely to be decisive in next year’s balloting.

“What the Census figures suggest is that the road to White House in 2012 may well go through the Hispanic community” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, an advocacy group that favors allowing illegal immigrants to work toward U.S. citizenship.

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This data largely confirms what 2008 Census surveys and exit polls have already told us about the growing importance and lopsided Democratic leaning of Latino voters.

In Nevada, for example, Latinos were about 11 percent of registered voters in 2008, according to the Census’s Current Population Survey. About 90 percent of those registered actually voted, and according to exit polls, 76 percent of them cast ballots for Obama.

Likewise in Colorado, where Latinos comprised 9 percent of registered voters, with 87 percent of those individuals voting on Election Day. Obama won about three out of five Colorado Latino voters.

Nevada and Colorado were among the nine states that went for George W. Bush in 2004 but for Obama in 2008.

Latinos boosted Obama's margin in 2008
National exit poll surveys in 2008 indicated that Obama won about two out of three Latino voters.

Based on 2008 exit poll data, if Latino voters were subtracted from the total, Obama would have lost two of the states that he won: New Mexico and Indiana. Even without those two states, he would still have won far more than the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House, but those voters helped create a larger margin.

Video: Census reveals fastest growing states (on this page)

While Latino voters are increasingly powerful, it’s important to not exaggerate their effect and to look carefully at the numbers.

For example, one reason the Latino population surge (which shows up in the 2010 Census data) won’t result in a commensurate increase in Latino voters is that the Census count includes non-citizens, both legal and illegal, who reside in the United States.

And looking only at population growth tends to overstate the electoral advantage for Democrats since millions of Latino voters are concentrated in four states that are solidly Democratic and will almost certainly go for Obama in next year’s elections: New York, New Jersey, California, and Illinois.

All four have been safely Democratic in presidential elections since 1992 (despite an inexplicable eleventh-hour campaign trip to California by Bush in 2000) and they seem certain to remain so.

The Latino electoral clout is limited by the large registration gap: in Arizona, for example, there was a 22 percentage point gap between Latino voter registration and non-Latino white voter registration in 2008. 

“Even if there were no population growth, if you just did Latino voter registration drives, you could continue to dramatically grow the electorate,” said University of Washington political scientist Matt Barreto, who specializes in political participation by ethnic minorities.

Focus on Arizona
He said “in a handful of states such as Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Virginia, Latinos could play a crucial role in the outcome of the presidential vote in 2012. In particular, Arizona could become much more competitive in 2012, and depending on who the GOP nominee for U.S. Senate is, Latino voters could be very important to the outcome.”

“If someone like (Maricopa County Sheriff Joe) Arpaio decides to run for the Senate and wins the nomination, then you’re going to have a really brutal battle over immigration and that will dramatically mobilize and increase Latin voter registration. Arpaio may end up winning but it could propel Obama to beat the Republican nominee in the Arizona.”

Arpaio has won notoriety for his hardnosed anti-illegal immigration stance.

Rep. Jeff Flake, who co-sponsored the immigration reform bill offered by Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Sen. John McCain, R- Ariz., in 2005, has already jumped in the Senate race in Arizona. If Flake is the GOP nominee “and immigration is not a big wedge issue in Arizona in 2012, then you may not get that really enthusiastic mobilized Latino community,” said Barreto.

In Indiana and Ohio, the actual number of Latino voters is quite small, but the total margin of victory in 2012 will likely be small as well. Mobilizing even the small number of Latino voters in those two states might be an essential part of a winning strategy for Obama.

Will Obama lead?
Yet to be seen: whether Obama decides to make a push for a bill that would enable millions of illegal immigrants to become citizens, or short of that, a possible revival of the Dream Act (defeated in 2007 and again last December), which would have allowed young people brought to the United States by illegal immigrant parents to qualify for citizenship.

The failure of the Dream Act was a bitter setback for Democrats pushing for immigration reform.

An impreMedia/Latino Decisions poll in February found that Obama’s approval rating among Latino voters stood at a healthy 70 percent (about 25 points better than his job approval rating among the general population, as measured by national surveys). But only 43 percent of Latinos said they were sure they will vote for him next year.

But if not him, then who?

It seems improbable Republicans will nominate a candidate who would win the hearts and minds of Latino voters.

“While Obama has not delivered on any comprehensive immigration reform, and Latino voters have expressed dissatisfaction, there is nowhere for them to turn because on the Republican side of the aisle you have a very strong anti-immigrant rhetoric that is completely turning off Latino voters,” Barreto said.

Republicans in 2012 may be trying to thread the needle — pushing for measures such as voter identification laws to prevent illegal immigrants from voting and defending the Arizona law which allows police to ask people for proof of legal residency or citizenship — and yet not alienating so many Latino voters that they put at risk the electoral votes of Arizona, Colorado, Virginia, and other states.

Republicans can point hopefully to the election last November of two Latino GOP candidates with prospects of national prominence, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Gov. Susana Martinez of New Mexico.

The view from Colorado GOP
Veteran Republican strategist Dick Wadhams, the chairman of the Colorado Republican Party, who is stepping down this weekend, said, “In the last election cycle we spent a lot of time trying to recruit strong Hispanic Republican candidates. We ended up fielding seven Hispanic Republican candidates in legislative races ... We ended up winning one, electing our first Hispanic Republican to our state legislature in about 15 years, Robert Ramirez, in a very competitive seat in Jefferson County, one of our big suburban counties. He’s already kind of a star in our legislature.”

Wadhams said the future of his party in Colorado “rests with our longstanding challenge to win unaffiliated women in the suburbs, they swing elections back and forth, and now with the increasing influence of Hispanic voters who, I think, are up for grabs. I do not think that Hispanic voters are automatically Democrats. We have a shot at winning a substantial percentage of Hispanic voters and we’re going to have to if we’re going to survive as a party in the state — and nationally for that matter.”

This Saturday Colorado Republicans elect a new state chairman to replace Wadhams. The election will be preceded by a big Republican dinner Friday night.

“To show how seriously I take this Hispanic challenge, I invited New Mexico Gov. Susan Martinez to be our speaker Friday night precisely because she is the first Latina governor to be elected in American history," Wadhams said. "I want that to be the message of the dinner Friday night: that she represents what the future of our party has got to be a part of.”

Although Wadhams said he hasn’t decided which GOP presidential contender to support, “whoever we nominate is going to have to be able to run a campaign that can appeal to Latino votes. That will be very important to carrying Colorado.”

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