OPINION

Opinion: The 2016 vote will be determined by Latino voters – and we mean it this time

LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 05:  Voters go to the polls for Super Tuesday primaries in the predominantly Latino neighborhood of Boyle Heights on February 5, 2008 in Los Angeles, California. Latinos are an increasingly important factor in California where they are expected to account for 14 percent of the vote and tend to favor presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) over rival Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL). At 44 million, Latinos make up15 percent of the US population, the nation's largest minority group according to the latest Census Bureau estimates.  (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 05: Voters go to the polls for Super Tuesday primaries in the predominantly Latino neighborhood of Boyle Heights on February 5, 2008 in Los Angeles, California. Latinos are an increasingly important factor in California where they are expected to account for 14 percent of the vote and tend to favor presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) over rival Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL). At 44 million, Latinos make up15 percent of the US population, the nation's largest minority group according to the latest Census Bureau estimates. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)  (2008 Getty Images)

Every presidential cycle we hear the same old tired lines used to push voter registration drives and GOTV operations in Latino communities — “Latinos are deciding the election this year!” “Our community’s voice will finally be heard.” “They will have to pass comprehensive immigration reform if they want our vote.” 

Like the untested first-time leader who projects confidence until they finally feel it, Latino voters find themselves in a situation where their actions need to match the rhetoric. This election cycle we have found ourselves in the exact the type of situation that our community has been coveting — will finally have the deciding vote in the general election.

To underestimate the GOP is very dangerous, especially with a complicated electoral map where Florida leans red under Bush, where Sandoval could still be a running mate, and with Ohio potentially crossing into the red category in the foreseeable future with Pennsylvania following not far behind.

- David Ferreira

The signs of our electoral strength have been apparent to us for quite some time, but the importance of the Latino vote has finally become broadly acknowledged in past few electoral cycles - the re-election of Senator Reid in 2010 and the overall Congressional cycle showed how Latinos could serve as a firewall against further GOP gains, and the 2012 cycle where Latino voters punished Romney’s self-deportation rhetoric handing President Obama 71 percent of their support compared to 27 percent supporting Romney.

Much like an iceberg, the Latino community’s political muscle has yet to be seen in its entirety and its power is frequently underestimated by those who are unfamiliar with this particular voting bloc. Simply put, without numerical data it’s hard for many people to visualize how many eligible Latino voters are turning 18 every day. Let’s look at North Carolina as an example. The president won that state in 2008 but lost it in 2012. In 2008 Democrats had a noticeable increase in voter registration and turnout within the Latino community both of which didn’t materialize in 2012. When you add low registration plus low turnout plus additional losses among white voters, these factors equaled a loss for Democrats.

Looking at the data, there are few ways to win North Carolina going forward without registering and turning out new voters, and Latinos are by far the fastest growing population in the state. In a study by Nielsen, a company that studies markets and consumer behavior, they highlight that from 2000 to 2013 the Charlotte metropolitan region had seen a 168 percent increase in Latino population, with Raleigh seeing a 139 percent increase. This virtually untapped concentration of eligible voters means that the cost per person for registering and turning out new voters has a much better return on investment for campaign spending than reaching out to existing white voters as it costs about ten times more to persuade a white person to vote for a Democrat than it does to register and turn out Latinos who will likely vote for the Democratic candidate by wider margins.

In 2016, the Latino electorate of North Carolina will be 2.5 percent of the vote share, and possibly even higher depending on registration and turnout scenarios. Consider also that Romney won the state by 2 percent in 2012 while the president won it by 0.4 percent in 2008. Therefore, while whites and African Americans continue to be the dominant voters in the state the math on population growth highlights Latinos as the clear demographic target for new voter registration and turnout efforts this cycle and for years to come. The electoral math in North Carolina is similar to what we see in a handful of other states, including Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin.

The other category of states where the Latino community is critical are those toss-up states with large numbers of Latinos, who tend to be under-represented in the polls, but where an increase of just a few percentage points in registration and turnout could have an extraordinary impact. We can see this pattern in states like Florida, Colorado, Nevada and Arizona.

While Arizona is not technically a toss-up state, it is quickly moving in that direction and offers Democrats a rare “red to blue” target. Unfortunately, this is also where the electoral decision-making gets a lot tougher. If the GOP candidate were to be former Governor Bush, who is still the leading mainstream GOP candidate, or Senator Rubio – would Democrats still have an opportunity to win Florida? That could hinge largely on a diverse Latino community that is now mostly Puerto Rican and Central American, rather than Cuban.

For years the state of Florida has been ripe with promise for Democratic gains, and it showed that potential in 2008 when the president won the state by a 2.8 percent margin. The GOP did a good job of recovering some of those losses in 2012, but those efforts were not good enough with President Obama holding on to victory by a margin of 0.88 percent. Similar to North Carolina, the State of Florida offers Democrats a great demographic opportunity to register and turn out new Latino voters.

This is a state where the I-4 corridor traditionally underperforms because many candidates have difficulty crafting a successful message to a Puerto Rican population whose politics defy the traditional spectrum of right and left, with large numbers of evangelicals, and many of whom are more culturally and politically tied to Puerto Rico rather than Florida.

While the recent exodus of Puerto Ricans moving to Florida may improve the cost-benefit calculation of voter registration and turn out project in the I-4 corridor, Democrats should remember the lessons of 2004 when the Kerry campaign saw a large turnout in that region that exceeded their projections. Unfortunately, many of those voters were evangelicals picked off by single issues like gay marriage and voted Republican in greater margins that election.

It is apparent that significant investments in Latino voter registration and turnout in key states like will be necessary if Democrats want to generate the extra bump needed with those states, but they will also be necessary to compensate for losses from the non-college educated white voters who are increasingly voting Republican.

Unions used to be the anchor that held together white support within the Democratic Party. With declining union numbers and the resulting decline in union political clout, we will see continued erosion among those voters, especially in rustbelt states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. In order to offset the loss of traditional Democratic voters the party and its allies will need to register and turn out more Latinos to the polls in order to deliver the margins of victory needed to see Democratic gains in these states..

If any Democrat is under the delusion that this will be an easy electoral cycle and presidential campaign, they are in for a surprise. The GOP clown car will not be around forever to entertain and distract us, and GOP voters will eventually weed out those loud but unelectable candidates in their field. To underestimate the GOP is very dangerous, especially with a complicated electoral map where Florida leans red under Bush, where Sandoval could still be a running mate, and with Ohio potentially crossing into the red category in the foreseeable future with Pennsylvania following not far behind.

This new electoral map puts more weight on Democrats to win states like Florida, Virginia, Nevada, Colorado, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, and to try to turn states like North Carolina and Arizona. As the population data shows, a shift in voting demographics has increased the odds that the next president will be decided by how well Latinos perform at the polls. That is a lot of weight on our shoulders and I truly hope we can deliver.

David Ferreira is a government relations and public policy professional in Washington DC with nearly 20 years of experience in the field. You can follow him on twitter @ferr_start

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