Hispanic Voters Increase in Numbers but Not Political Clout

Even though an increasing share of eligible voters are Hispanic, a new study suggests that for several reasons, they won't impact most governors races in November.
by | October 21, 2014

Hispanic Americans represent a growing share of eligible voters around the country, but don’t expect the Hispanic vote to swing many governors races this year.

Hispanic citizens represented 10.7 percent of the nation’s eligible voting population in 2012, which is a historical high, according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center. The share of eligible voters who were Hispanic was 10.1 percent in 2010 and 8.6 percent in 2006. But in most governors races this year, Hispanic voters probably won’t have the political influence their growing presence would seem to suggest.

Hispanic eligible voters are mostly concentrated in states where the governors races aren’t predicted to be close enough for the Hispanic vote on its own to matter. Of the 36 governors races, Pew focused on nine races considered to be competitive according to public polls: Florida, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, Kansas, Wisconsin, Michigan and Maine. In only three of those states -- Florida (17.1 percent), Colorado (14.2 percent) and Connecticut (10.3 percent) -- do Hispanic Americans represent more than than 10 percent of eligible voters.*

The Pew researchers also show that in most U.S. Senate and Congressional races, the Hispanic voting bloc isn’t likely to make a difference in the outcome. The study’s methodology is strictly based on demographics and historical voting patterns, so the report isn’t making any precise statistical predictions on how much Hispanics might influence an election; it isn’t taking into account all the factors that could spur high turnout in a particular race, such as having a Latino candidate on the ballot or an aggressive voter registration drive. Instead, the analysis points to structural barriers that could limit the chance of Hispanics swinging elections this year.

The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) released a report Oct. 21 that reaches somewhat conflicting conclusions, arguing Hispanic voters are indeed in a position to affect the outcome in five close gubernatorial races. The group compared recent data on the Hispanic share of registered voters in 14 states with the margin of victory in the gubernatorial contest four years ago. In Florida, for example, Hispanics represent about 15 percent of registered voters and Gov. Rick Scott won the 2010 election by 1-point margin.

Two years ago, the Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, garnered only 23 percent of the Hispanic vote. Some opined that Republicans would need to court Hispanic voters to remain relevant in presidential elections. The Pew study is a reminder that midterms and statewide races involve different dynamics and require different campaign strategies than a presidential election.

The Pew study defined Hispanic eligible voters as Hispanics who were at least 18 years old and U.S. citizens. About three-quarters were born in the United States and about one quarter were immigrants who became U.S. citizens. More than half of the nation’s Hispanic population isn’t eligible to vote, either because of their age or citizenship status. The study relies on demographic information from the U.S. Census, which counts people as Hispanic if they check a box saying they are of Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin.

One reason Hispanics are less likely to impact most of the competitive statewide races is that more than two-thirds of Hispanic eligible voters live in just six states: California, Texas, Florida, New York, Arizona and Illinois. Also, voting eligibility hasn’t translated into cast ballots in the past. In the 2010 midterms, the turnout rate for eligible voters in the Hispanic community was 31.2 percent, far below the turnout rates for black and white eligible voters (44 percent and 48 percent, respectively). The Pew study shows that Hispanic voters had lower turnout rates than those two peer demographic groups in every midterm election since 1986.

Youth could be a factor explaining the low turnout. About a third of all Hispanic eligible voters are between 18 and 29 years old, compared to 25 percent for blacks and 18 percent for whites. In general, voters in that age bracket tend to participate in elections at lower rates than other age groups.

The study’s findings also suggest that if Hispanic voters did play a bigger role in elections, they’d differ from the general U.S. population on several major issues on the 2014 statewide ballots. For instance, Hispanic voters favor gun control over gun rights more than the average American; gun reforms are on the ballot in Alabama and Washington state in November. Hispanic voters also favor raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour more than the average American; proposals to raise the statewide minimum wage are on the ballot in Alaska, Arkansas, South Dakota and Nebraska.

*UPDATE: Governing contributor Louis Jacobson also includes Alaska and Georgia on his list of competitive, or toss-up, governors races based on polling and interviews with political observers. Again, Hispanics represent a small slice of either state's eligible voting population, 4.8 percent and 4 percent, respectively. 

Hispanic Eligible Voter Population by State, 2012

SOURCE: PEW RESEARCH CENTER