The hot phrase for analysts of the 2010 midterm elections is "enthusiasm gap" - the level of eagerness to participate that one segment of voters has compared to another. Across the board this year, polls show that Republicans are more energized than Democrats are. But few groups are being watched as closely for signs of voting enthusiasm as Hispanic voters.
Latinos are the nation's largest minority group, accounting for nearly 47 million people and 15 percent of the population. Of these, more than 19 million are eligible to vote, and this comprises more than 9 percent of the nation's eligible voters. Two-thirds of Latino voters reside in the big-population states of California, Texas, Florida and New York.
Since Hispanic voters tend to vote disproportionately for Democratic candidates, many Democrats are hoping that Latinos will help out a party facing substantial losses not only in congressional races but also in a wide range of state-level contests.
A number of the states with large Hispanic populations are playing host this year to pivotal state elections. There are competitive, open-seat gubernatorial campaigns in California, Florida and New Mexico, a spirited gubernatorial contest in Texas, and intense competition in battles for control of legislative chambers in Colorado, Nevada and New York. In Nevada and New York, one state legislative chamber is vulnerable to a partisan shift, and both are in play in Colorado. A range of other competitive statewide contests are on the ballot in places with large Hispanic populations, including campaigns for attorney general in a half-dozen or more states .
"Because of the closeness of the races in some states, Latinos can make a difference, if not the difference," says Louis DeSipio, a political scientist at the University of California-Irvine who specializes in Latino politics and voting. "They are always a critical electorate in New Mexico. Should (Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill) White win in Texas," which DeSipio considers unlikely, "It would not be possible without Latino votes."
In New York, meanwhile, Latino voters "could have a tremendous (pro-Republican) impact on a lot of local races and perhaps even statewide if they don't vote in numbers approaching the level of two years ago," says Lawrence Levy, executive director of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University.
Return to history?
There's certainly no guarantee that Democrats can count on Hispanic voters coming out to the polls in big numbers this November. Historically, Hispanic turnout is much lower in midterm elections than it is during presidential elections. It also tends to be lower than turnout for non-Hispanic black and white voters. In 2006, about one-third of eligible Hispanic voters said they voted, compared to more than half of eligible white voters and more than 40 percent of eligible black voters, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
Modest changes in turnout among Latinos, and the relative support such voters give to the two parties, can prompt decisive swings where the Latino population is large. In an ordinary election, "the Republicans will get at least 25 percent of the Latino vote," says Rodolfo de la Garza, a Columbia University political scientist. "If they get more than 35 percent of the vote, the Republicans can carry a state. If Latinos aren't voting 65 percent for the Democrats, then the Democrats are dead."
When Arizona passed a law earlier this year that sought to crack down on illegal immigration, some speculated that it could energize Hispanic voters beyond the typical level for midterms. The publicly available polling data varies somewhat, but the prospects of this happening seem limited. The Democrats are poised to win a solid share of the Hispanic vote, but Hispanic turnout levels do not appear likely to rise far above typical midterm levels, if at all.
A late-September poll for the Los Angeles Times by the University of Southern California and the research firm Latino Decisions found that 23 percent of Latinos - but 34 percent of whites - rated themselves at 10 on a scale of 1 to 10 for "enthusiasm about voting in this year's election." The numbers were closer for voters who rated themselves between 6 and 10 on the same scale - 72 percent of Hispanics and 74 percent of whites fell into that category.
Meanwhile, a poll taken in August and September by the Pew Hispanic Center found that 51 percent of registered Hispanic voters said they are absolutely certain they will vote in this year's midterm election, compared to the 70 percent of all registered voters who said the same. And just 32 percent of registered Hispanic voters said they have given this election "quite a lot" of thought, compared to half of all registered voters who said the same.
The most recent data from Latino Decisions, from October, shows a modest but notable upswing in Hispanic enthusiasm for voting, which Matt Barreto, a principal in the firm, attributes in part to voter-mobilization efforts by Latino groups. But there is big exception: the young Hispanic voters who were crucial to Barack Obama's 2008 victory, and whose enthusiasm rates significantly trail that of other age groups.
Part of the reason for the generally sluggish responses among these voters may be low enthusiasm for Democrats generally, stemming from frustration with the way the president and Congress have handled the economy. But experts also point to a few factors of specific interest to Latinos. They know that Republicans were the driving force behind the hard-line Arizona law and have been the most aggressive promoters of the idea that citizenship should no longer be guaranteed to the children of illegal aliens born on U.S. soil.
However, says Jorge Ramos, a news anchor with the Spanish-language network Univision, Latinos also know that President Barack Obama "didn't keep his promise to have an immigration bill during his first year in office. Democrats didn't have the political will to bring this issue to a vote when they had 60 votes in the Senate."
Indeed, a Gallup poll in September found that Hispanic support for Democratic candidates declined over the summer. In June and July, the Democrats had a 32-point margin over the Republicans. That margin declined to 13 points in September - still a notable lead, but shrinking.
A special frustration for many Latinos is the congressional Democrats' failure to pass the DREAM Act - or even to try very hard to pass it - before they adjourned to campaign for the midterm elections. The DREAM Act would create a path to citizenship for certain children who are illegal immigrants. "The Senate's failure to approve the DREAM Act will still be on the minds of Latino voters in November," said Melissa R. Michelson, a political scientist at Menlo College.
Still, polls show that Hispanics are not single-issue voters. The Pew poll found that Latinos ranked education, jobs and health care as their top three concerns; immigration ranked fifth among registered voters who were polled. And a mid-September poll by Latino Decisions found that the economy ranked first in an open-ended question about the most important issues in shaping their vote, with immigration second.
Still, Pew also found that two-thirds of Latino registered voters said they had talked about immigration policy with someone they know in the past year - and talking about an issue tends to increase a person's motivation to vote.
Judging by Arizona polls showing Republican Governor Jan Brewer with a commanding lead in her reelection bid - and the likelihood that the Legislature will remain in the GOP's hands - passage of the Arizona law seems unlikely to boost Hispanic energy enough to make much of a difference for Democrats in Arizona. This is partly because the Latino share of the electorate in Arizona is lower in than in some Western states, and partly because Arizona has fewer white liberals for Hispanics to make common cause with than in California or Colorado, for example.
Analysts who study Latino voting patterns warn that the Arizona law will not necessarily resonate in other states. Democratic hopes on Election Day will be further complicated by the fact that several Hispanic Republicans will be running statewide in states with large Latino populations. In New Mexico, Republican Susana Martinez has become a solid favorite for governor, while in Nevada, Republican gubernatorial candidate Brian Sandoval is looking like an even stronger favorite.
"Hispanic voters continue to be a growing segment of the Nevada vote and will play a role in a number of races, but the Democrats have taken them for granted for too long," says one Republican consultant. "While I would expect Republicans to still lose the Hispanic vote, I wouldn't be at all surprised if Sandoval got close to 50 percent" among Hispanics. Democrats are banking on unions to bring Hispanic voters to the polls in Nevada and elsewhere, but their effectiveness this cycle remains to be seen.
The situation could be even more complicated in Florida, where traditional splits within the Latino community - largely between Republican-leaning Cubans and Democratic-leaning non-Cuban Hispanics - will be exacerbated this year by the high-profile U.S. Senate candidacy of Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American Republican. Support for Rubio could shape Latino turnout in the state in unpredictable ways, with a potentially significant impact on the tight gubernatorial race between Republican Rick Scott and Democrat Alex Sink.
If history is any guide, the Arizona law could have a long-term impact on electoral politics that outweighs its immediate effect. Something similar happened with California's Proposition 187, the 1994 ballot measure to deny many state services to illegal immigrants. The measure passed and the state's Republican governor, Pete Wilson, was reelected, but disaffection for the GOP among Latinos turned the state largely Democratic for a generation - perhaps even Democratic enough to outlast the party's troubles in 2010.