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Donald Trump might refer to the Latino community as “The Hispanics," but the more than 57 million people and 27 million eligible voters are hardly a monolith.
So if we really want to understand “The Latinos” or the Latino vote, let’s look at three states - Florida, Arizona, and North Carolina. They're swing states where their different Latino populations will play a pivotal role on Election Night.
Florida —the growing "pan-Latino" mosaic
The Sunshine state has been home to the largest Cuban population outside of Cuba for over 50 years. Though Cubans continue to be the largest of the Latino groups by a bit, this is changing. In the last fourteen years the Puerto Rican population has doubled and at the same time the Central and South American population has swelled as well.
Today, while one-of-three Latino eligible voters in Florida are Cuban, over a quarter are Puerto Rican, ten percent are Mexican, and the rest come from different parts of the Caribbean, Central and South America.
No other state displays such a diversity in the Latino population by country of origin. But perhaps the most striking difference within the Hispanic population is the partisan one.
For historical reasons linked to the Cuban Revolution, Cuban Americans, especially older ones that fled the island are staunch Republicans. In the 2012 presidential election close to two-thirds of Cuban-Americans voters in Florida supported Republican Mitt Romney. All other Latino groups preferred President Obama by 70 percent or more. But things are changing.
While Florida has been a Latino GOP stronghold for decades, the party's dominance has given way to a competitive battleground for Hispanic votes in the last 10 years.
The erosion of the GOP’s hold among Florida Latinos is a result of non-Cuban Hispanic growth affiliating with the Democratic Party as well as younger Cubans — farther removed from the Cuban Revolution — moving toward the Democratic Party. In 2002 only 22 percent of Cubans affiliated with the Democratic Party; today that figure has doubled.
A lot can happen in a decade: In 2006 the number of Latino registered Republicans was higher than for Democrats. Today, there are over 200,000 more Latino registered Democrats than Republicans in Florida.
In the 2016 presidential contest it is certain that the 18 percent of eligible Latino voters in Florida will be decisive. But far less certain is what that partisan breakdown will look like.
Arizona—old and new coming together for a common fight
Arizona has one of the historically oldest Latino populations. My own family dates back to the late early 1700s in the Arizona-Sonora border region. But in addition to a long-established Hispanic population there is also a new Latino population made up of recent immigrants.
Latinos in Arizona may be separated by multiple generations but one overwhelming common denominator is Mexican ancestry. Close to 90 percent of Arizona’s Hispanic voter population is made up of persons of Mexican descent. The next largest Latino group making up 2.5 percent is Puerto Rican; the rest is a smidgen of other Latin American nationalities.
Beyond Mexican heritage Arizona's Latinos, who make up 22 percent of the electorate, have another very powerful link: They've come under the political crossfires in the last several years.
In 2010 Arizona passed S.B. 1070, a harsh anti-immigrant bill supported by the GOP. This bill was a watershed moment for the state's Hispanics. Since the controversial law's passage Latinos have ramped up their political participation as well as moved away from the Republican Party.
Up until 2010 Hispanics tended to support the Democratic Party but not by overwhelming margins. Latinos in Arizona mirrored non-Latinos in the state in supporting a more conservative and frontier Libertarian brand of politics. For example, in the 2008 presidential election Barack Obama received 58 percent of the Latino vote.
But a marked partisan shift seems to have occurred after the implementation of S.B. 1070. In 2012 the share of the Latino vote for President Obama increased to 79 percent in 2012, an increase of over 20 percent from 2008.
The partisan shift and increased mobilization of Arizona's Latinos has only been accentuated by Donald Trump’s candidacy, which got underway with his harsh rhetoric about Mexican immigrants. For many Hispanics in the state, his comments hit very close to home.
Whereas once thought of as impossible, Arizona is now a swing state. The common linkages that have bound Arizona Latinos together have brought about the state's new swing status and may just usher in a Democratic win for Hillary Clinton.
North Carolina—don’t underestimate the new kids on the block
The Latino population in North Carolina is one of the newest. Latinos in North Carolina and other Southern states were virtually nonexistent until the 1990s but grew rapidly in the early 2000s. Today Hispanics in North Carolina make up nine percent of the state. However the Latino eligible voter population is small (3 percent) as a result of the percentage of Hispanic immigrants who don't have citizenship.
So why do Latinos in North Carolina matter?
The latest polls have put Clinton ahead but the race is still considered very competitive and both candidates are battling for the state's voters.
The growth of the Latino population by 117 percent from 2000 to 2010 has started to give the Democratic party a small but critically important edge. The Latino eligible voter population is relatively diverse — half is of Mexican descent, a quarter is Puerto Rican, Cubans are five percent and the rest is a combination of other Latin American ancestries.
But while diverse, the population has indicated a preference for the Democratic Party, with 72 percent voting for President Obama in 2012.
Because of the closeness of the electoral contest Latinos in North Carolina could determine whether the state swings blue or red. While small, the strong Democratic leanings of the Latino voters are integral to the Clinton coalition. When races are won and lost by a small margin, counting on the support of a voting block of 3 percent of the vote is monumental.