Analysis: If Obama Wins, Thank Latino Voters

PHOTO: With limited staff and one printer, election officials decided to shut down the main office, doors were reopened after voters protested and demanded to exercise their right to vote.

Alan Diaz/AP Photo

Election Day is tomorrow and, of course, many have already voted early. This makes it a good time for a final look at the state of the Hispanic vote and the role it's likely to play in this election.

National View

Let's start with the national vote. As I have noted in previous columns, President Barack Obama looks set to surpass his 2008 performance among Latinos (67-31 or a margin of 36 points). An average of the last eight national polls of Latinos has him ahead by 70-22, a margin of 48 points. The final Latino Decisions tracking poll released Monday shows Obama with a 73-24 percent lead among Latinos, with Obama's share being the largest ever for a presidential candidate. This strong support from Latinos seems likely to drive Obama's overall support level among minorities this year close to the 80-percent level he received in 2008.

As for turnout, there will be 23.7 million eligible Hispanic voters this year, an increase of 22 percent over 2008. This has brought the Hispanic share of all eligible voters up to 11 percent, 1.5 percentage points higher than 2008. Recent data also indicates that Hispanic voter enthusiasm, after flagging early in the campaign, is now, if anything, higher than in 2008. This data suggests that the Latino share of voters in 2012 should go up relative to 2008, helping drive up the overall share of minority voters in the process.

And the significance of a large minority vote is difficult to overstate. For example, if the minority vote share in 2012 merely matches its 26 percent share in 2008, then Romney needs a 22-point margin among whites (better than any Republican candidate since Ronald Reagan) just to nose out Obama by two-tenths of a percentage point in the popular vote. And Obama likely will win the popular vote if he can get just 39 percent of the white vote (he got 43 percent in 2008).

But Latinos should help drive the minority vote even higher than its 2008 level. If the minority vote were to exceed expectations and reach 28 percent, Romney would need a 25-point margin among whites to prevail in the popular vote. He has been nowhere close to that level in polling during this campaign.

Latinos therefore could be the linchpin of an Obama popular vote victory on Tuesday. However, we know that presidential elections aren't won by the popular vote but rather by the electoral vote in the states. Here too Latinos seem poised to make a decisive contribution.

Battleground States

There are three battleground states where Hispanics could make the difference between victory and defeat for Obama (this leaves aside a state like New Mexico, which was never really contested). The first is Colorado, where the Hispanic share of eligible voters increased by about four percentage points to 15 percent of eligible voters, accounting for all the increase in the minority share of eligible voters in the state in the last four years. Colorado is extremely tight, with Obama leading the race by less than a percentage point, so victory for Obama probably depends on his campaign's ability to mobilize this burgeoning population of Hispanic voters, who lean heavily to Obama, according to the polls.

The second is Nevada, where the state's gain in the share of Latino eligible voters was essentially the same as Colorado's, taking the overall Hispanic share of eligible voters up to 17 percent. But in Nevada, gains among other minorities—blacks, Asians and those of other race—were also strong. Indeed, between 2008 and 2012, the overall minority share of eligible voters increased by an astonishing nine points, more than two points a year. Minorities are now almost 40 percent of Nevada's eligible voters. But within that group, Hispanics loom large, being the biggest component of the minority vote and currently favoring Obama by large margins. They are probably the key reason why Obama's average lead in the state is now three points and he is a currently favored to take the state.

The third state is Florida. Florida had roughly a two-point growth in the share of Hispanic eligible voters between 2008 and 2012, taking the overall Hispanic share up to 18 percent, with growth driven by increases among relatively liberal non-Cuban Hispanics in the state. Another two-point increase was contributed by growth among African American, Asian and other race-eligible voters, making for a total four-point increase in the overall minority share of eligible voters. If Obama has any chance of taking the state (he is currently behind Romney by less than a percentage point), it will be due to mobilization of minority voters, especially the fast-growing Hispanic population.

We will know very soon how the 2012 election turns out. If Obama does prevail, which now seems substantially more likely than not, the fingerprints of America's growing Latino population will likely be all over that victory.

Ruy Teixeira is a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution, and a senior fellow at both The Century Foundation and American Progress. He writes extensively on the shifting demographics of battleground states.

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