Hispanics are one of the most sought-after voting groups in the 2008 election — not so much because of their absolute numerical strength (they comprise about 15 percent of the total U.S. population but only 9 percent of the eligible electorate), but because of their strategic placement on the Electoral College map.
At least four states with a sizeable number of Hispanics — Florida, Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada — are battlegrounds in the presidential campaign.
Over the past four presidential election cycles, Latino support for Democratic presidential candidates has ranged from 58 percent in 2004 to 72 percent in 1996. Support for Republican presidential candidates has ranged from 21 percent in 1996 to 40 percent in 2004.
Beyond this particular election, one of the key long-term political goals of the Bush administration during the past eight years has been to make the Republican Party competitive among Hispanics — a group that is already the nation's largest minority and that, by 2050, will comprise 29 percent of the nation's population, according to Pew Hispanic Center projections.
Although George W. Bush captured a record-setting 40 percent of the Latino vote in 2004, Republican candidates in the 2006 congressional campaign received only 30 percent. (Note: There is continuing uncertainty over whether Bush received 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004 or 44 percent, as the nationwide National Election Pool exit poll by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International indicated).
In short, Latinos are a fast-growing community that is strategically situated in presidential elections and that has a recent history of moving its support across party lines.
Importantly, they are engaged in the 2008 campaign. According to a nationwide survey of Latinos by the Pew Hispanic Center, some 78 percent of Latino registered voters said they are following the election very closely or somewhat closely this year, up from the 72 percent who said the same thing at the same stage of the 2004 campaign (see sidebar for survey details).
About the 2008 National Survey of Latinos: Hispanic Voter Attitudes
Latino registered voters are as likely as other registered voters to say that they intend to vote in the November presidential election. Among Latino registered voters, 94 percent said they plan to vote in this year's presidential election, compared with 95 percent of all registered voters who said the same thing in a recent survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.
These poll findings, which followed a spirited Barack Obama-Hillary Clinton nomination fight that led to increases in the Latino share of the vote in many Democratic primaries, suggest that the Hispanic community is politically energized for the November election.
Shifting to the Democratic Party
Latino voters have moved sharply into the Democratic camp in the past two years, reversing a pro-GOP tide that had been evident among Latinos earlier in the decade.
Some 65 percent of Latino registered voters said they identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party, compared with just 26 percent who identify with or lean toward the Republican Party.
This 39 percentage point Democratic Party identification edge is larger than it has been at any time this decade; as recently as 2006, the partisan gap was just 21 percentage points (see Figure 1).
The movement to the Democrats appears driven in part by an overall dissatisfaction with the state of the country — 70 percent of Latino registered voters said the country is going in the wrong direction — and also with a growing view among Latino voters that the Democratic Party is better attuned to the concerns of their community. More than half of Latino registered voters (55 percent) said this, while just 6 percent said the Republican Party is more concerned about Latinos.
Considering those who identify with a specific political party, and excluding party leaners, over half of all Latino registered voters identified themselves as Democrats (51 percent). Just 16 percent of registered voters identified themselves as Republicans, and 23 percent identified as independents.
Democratic Party nominee Barack Obama was rated favorably by 76 percent of Latino registered voters, making him much more popular among that voting group than Republican nominee John McCain (44 percent favorable) and President Bush (27 percent favorable).
The Democratic nominee's strong showing in this survey represents a sharp reversal in his fortunes from the primaries, when Obama lost the Latino vote to Clinton by a nearly two-to-one ratio, giving rise to speculation in some quarters that Hispanics were disinclined to vote for a black candidate.
Hispanic Voter Participation Trends
Because Latinos are more likely than other Americans to either be under the age of 18, noncitizens, or both, their share of the eligible electorate (8.9 percent in 2007) lags behind their share of the total U.S. population (15.5 percent in 2007).
In addition, the turnout rate of Hispanic eligible voters in U.S. general elections historically has been lower than the turnout rates of black and white eligible voters. Since 1974, in presidential and midterm elections, the Latino eligible voter turnout rate has trailed white eligible voters by 13 to 20 percentage points (see Figure 2).
In 2004, the last presidential election year, 47 percent of Latino eligible voters reported having voted. In contrast, 60 percent of black eligible voters and 67 percent of white eligible voters reported voting in the 2004 presidential election.
In 2000, a presidential election year without a presidential incumbent, the voter turnout rate among Latino eligible voters was 45 percent. Among white eligible voters, it was 62 percent, and among black eligible voters, it was 57 percent.
Similarly, voter registration trends among Latinos have lagged behind those of non-Latinos.
In 2004, 58 percent of Latinos who were U.S. citizens reported they were registered to vote, compared with a voter registration rate of 75 percent for whites and 69 percent for blacks (see Figure 3).
In 2006, a midterm election year, 54 percent of Latinos were registered to vote, compared to 71 percent for whites and 61 percent for blacks.
Participation in This Year's Election Cycle
Latino participation appears to be on track to surpass participation in 2004. While no overall national voter turnout rate estimates are available for the 2008 primaries, findings from state exit polls taken during the Democratic primaries show that Latino voters' share of the vote increased in many states, with especially large increases in participation in California and Texas.
In addition, this Pew Hispanic Center survey finds that 56 percent of Latino registered voters say they voted in the primaries this year, with 16 percent of registered voters reporting that they had voted for the first time.
Almost three-quarters (72 percent) said they voted in a Democratic contest, and 21 percent said they did so in a Republican contest.
The survey found that two-thirds of Hispanic registered voters are native born (67 percent), and 33 percent are immigrants who are naturalized U.S. citizens.
Younger Latinos ages 18 to 29 comprise 25 percent of all Hispanic registered voters, while older Hispanics ages 55 and older are 24 percent of all Hispanic registered voters.
More than one-third (36 percent) of all Latino registered voters have household incomes of less than $30,000, and 28 percent have an income of $50,000 or more.
Almost half (46 percent) have attended at least some college, but 24 percent do not have a high school diploma.
Latinos have participated in this election in ways other than voting in the primaries.
Among registered voters, 15 percent said they have contributed money to a candidate running for office, half of them doing so via the Internet; 15 percent reported having attended a political or campaign-related meeting; and 46 percent have used the Internet to find information about candidates.
This article is based on the authors' report, 2008 National Survey of Latinos: Hispanic Voter Attitudes, published in July 2008.