Latinos as Political Game Changers

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From NewsTaco, where this blog was first published.

My friend Henry Flores, who teaches political science at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, said something startling to me. The midterm election was an aberration. The result was due to low voter turn out. Not only that, if things don’t change we could be seeing the end of the surge of the Republican Party.

I trust what Dr. Flores says because I’ve known him for a while. He designed the strategy and the questionnaire and analysed the answers of the largest Latino political exit poll of its day. It was the 2004 presidential election and I was scurrying around Denver helping the pollsters do their job, coordinating people and material.  When I was done and the numbers were crunched I sat back to listen. Dr. Flores had been interpreting political numbers since way before that day.

The idea is simple. Just by sheer numbers and potential voters projected into the years and elections to come Latinos will hold sway in swing states. There is no evidence, empirical or otherwise, to indicate that Latinos will move away from the Democratic Party so the game seems to be in the bag. And that’s not all good news, at least not for Latinos.

Juan Willimas said pretty much the same thing in a recent article published on The Hill:

We had a display of the old racial order in last year’s midterms. After that election, Republicans control almost two-thirds of the districts where whites are 70 percent of the population. In districts that are more than 40 percent minority, Democrats outpace Republicans 106 to 36.

Redistricting will be key to what happens next. The process, though, will be more enlightening than the result. It’s become difficult and will only become more so to carve out safe Republican districts – the Latino growth has been that widespread. But here, according to Williamas, lies the problem:

The Hispanic political community has a decision to make. Do they play by the old rules and seek the highest possible number of Hispanic congressmen? Or do they change the rules? With sharply increased numbers Hispanics have the power to become a sought-after swing vote, a moderating influence on the polarized politics caused by so many hard-right majority-white conservative districts and the smaller number of hard-left black and Latino districts.

First, Williams presumes that Latinos have the power, at the moment, to determine whether they’ll be in Latino-majority districts or a “moderating influence” in those that aren’t. I think that, at best, Latino politicians at the state level will be trying to pull-off the best district line swaps that they can. How these affect the balance of Latino political power is yet to be seen. The real effect is still down the road when more Latinos move into places where they tip the political balance.

Writing in the National Journal recently, journalist Ron Brownstein observed that, based on the latest Census numbers, almost exactly half of all House members now represent districts where minorities constitute more than 30 percent of the population. Only a quarter of House districts were that diverse in 1992. In the Senate, there are now 20 states where African-Americans and Hispanics make up more than 30 percent of the population. In 1992, there were only nine such states.

So here we go.

Texas, Florida, Arizona and Nevada will soon no longer be blood-red states on the electoral map.  That’s not what the GOP envisioned years back when they carved majority-white districts on purpose to solidify their power base. After they did that they got busy being Republicans and didn’t notice that the population landscape was changing on them. They sense that they can’t win without Latino voters on their side; some prominent Republicans have been preaching the shift for a while and have managed to make a dent on the entrenched GOP thinking.  Newt Gingrich’s The Americano web site and the election of a Republican Latina, Susana Martinez, as Governor of New Mexico are two examples of where the message has taken root.

The trouble, according to Williams and I’m sure Dr. Flores would agree, is that

… politicians, Democrats and Republicans, no matter their skin color, run this redistricting game and they want to win votes, retain power and get their phone calls returned. Ending political polarization and giving minorities more voice in Congress are not high on their list of priorities.