The large influx of Hispanic immigrants into the United States over the past 4.5 decades resembles—in terms of magnitude and proportion—the great immigration wave from southern and eastern Europe that took place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Like today’s Hispanic population, a large body of research shows, these earlier immigrants possessed limited experience with US politics and received few partisan cues from their parents. The Democratic Party captured these voters because the party supported policies that addressed their central concern—the economic turmoil of the Great Depression—while the GOP took a hands-off approach. The resulting Democratic affiliation reorganized American politics for the next 30 years.
Vote-eligible Hispanic immigrants and their US-born children today appear to have a similar lack of political experience and affiliation. In a partisan sense, they are legitimately up for grabs—and consequently sit in a strategic and increasingly important position in American politics.
As their average education level, income, age and familiarity with the political process increase over time, Hispanics can be expected to enter the active electorate in far higher numbers than they have to date. Current conditions—the worst economic dislocation since the Great Depression combined with fierce controversy over an issue of central concern to Hispanics, immigration—provide the salient issues that could move Hispanics to connect deeply with one party or the other. The party that best handles those issues of high importance to Hispanics, our research strongly suggests, could be the beneficiary of a shift in turnout and partisan attachment that alters the balance of political power in America not just for the next presidential or midterm election, but for decades.
Because Hispanic allegiance to both parties is weak, the question remains: What can Republicans or Democrats do to seal the Hispanic political deal?
In 1966, the US population was estimated at 200 million, with only about 8.5 million individuals, or 4 percent, being of Hispanic descent. Forty years later, the population has grown by 100 million persons. Hispanic immigrants and their US-born offspring accounted for 29 million of those people; an estimated 15 million children born in America to undocumented Hispanic parents during this time bring the total of eligible Hispanic voters added since 1966 to as many as 45 million.
Demographers project that the share of the population identifying as Hispanic will continue to increase for decades to come. The Hispanic population, now about 15 percent of the US population, is expected to grow to as much as 25 percent of the total population by 2050. In contrast, blacks are projected to remain constant at approximately 12 percent of the population, while whites are expected to fall below 50 percent.
Despite the rapid growth of the Hispanic population, the percentage of Hispanics who vote in midterm elections is very low compared to whites and blacks. On average, about half of eligible whites vote in midterms, and just over 40 percent of eligible blacks vote in the same elections. The proportion of Hispanics who enter the voting booth reached a high of 39 percent in 1982 and has declined steadily since then to just over 30 percent in 2006. By 2006, the turnout difference between Hispanics and whites had grown to around 20 percent. The portion of Hispanics voting in 2010—a year with significant attention around immigration—increased to around 38 percent.
These aggregate differences in turnout are clearly large enough to have meaning for election outcomes. For example, if Hispanics had voted at the same rate as whites in 1978, an additional 665,000 votes would have been cast in that election, representing approximately a 1 percent increase in the total vote. Because of the growth in the number of eligible Hispanic voters, and the decline in participation over 32 years, the Hispanic turnout deficit swelled to represent some 3.3 million votes (or about 3.5 percent of the total cast) in 2006.
Many an election is decided by less than 3 percentage points.