Fueled by huge waves of recent immigration from the Americas and the Caribbean, the rapid growth of the U.S. Hispanic community is perhaps the most important American demographic story of the 21st century. At 15% of the US population today, Hispanics are now America’s largest “minority” group. One in ten Americans today is of Mexican descent, and the US now has the 2nd largest Hispanic population of any nation in the Americas. Over time this fast-growing population will grow to almost 30% of the total U.S. population, and will be the central driver in turning America into a “majority minority” nation by 2050.
Not surprisingly, this very rapid and profound population change is shifting political alignments in the U.S. Early in this decade George W. Bush’s remarkable success with this new community and electorate was critical to both of his Presidential victories. In 2005, however, the national Republican Party repudiated the modern, successful Hispanic strategy championed by the Bush family, and adopted a much more anti-immigrant, anti-Hispanic strategy. This approach was instrumental in fueling the massive immigration rallies in the spring of 2006, and swinging Hispanics significantly to the Democrats and increasing their turnout in the 2006 elections. The Republican Party’s gains in this critical new part of the American electorate were lost.
The 2008 cycle saw a continuation of this new potent dynamic – an anti-immigrant, anti-Hispanic national GOP, and a Democratic Party embracing, tentatively, the new demographic realities of the 21st century and one of its most visible battlegrounds – immigration reform. Once again the Hispanic electorate stayed with the Democrats and increased their share of the overall electorate. This emergence of a new, highly energized and pro-Democratic Hispanic electorate had an enormous impact on the 2008 presidential election. In six battleground states critical to the Electoral College – Colorado, Florida, Indiana, New Mexico Nevada and Virginia – increases in Hispanic turnout and a significant vote swing to Democrats helped tip these states from Republican to Democrat. This swing of Latino votes—as it was for George Bush in 2000 and 2004—was instrumental in electing Barack Obama to the White House in 2008.
In the span of just the last three Presidential elections, the Hispanic share of the American electorate has grown 80 percent, from 5 percent in 2000 to 9 percent in 2008, a sweeping and historic development.
The evidence of the rising political and cultural influence of America’s growing Hispanic population is all around us. In the 2008 Presidential election, each political party conducted an entire Presidential debate in Spanish, the Democratic Party fielded the first major Hispanic Presidential candidate, added a heavily Hispanic state, Nevada, to its early primary mix, and held its convention in Denver, a central spot in the new Southwestern Latino battleground. In 2009 the first Hispanic in American history, Sonia Sotomayor, was appointed to the Supreme Court. President Obama has appointed a record number of Hispanics to his Administration, including prominent Cabinet positions. Florida Senator Mel Martinez recently served as Chairman of the Republican National Committee, and New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez now runs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Spanish is now commonly spoken and used by leading politicians and their offices across the country. After years of protest, Time Warner had the good sense to remove Lou Dobbs, the most virulent anti-immigrant voice in mainstream media, from CNN. America’s relationship with Mexico—a country which has now provided so much of our population but long been distant in the American imagination—is going through an historic warming period. The coming reapportionment and redistricting will further shift political power to Hispanic regions of the country, and Hispanic regions within states.
Data from this election cycle show that the Hispanic community is still with President Obama and the Democrats and still wary of the GOP, but their intention to vote this fall trails far below the national average. For a community that has voted in very high numbers in recent elections, this is a change, and perhaps a sign of their disappointment in Washington’s continued inability to resolve the issue so close to their communities and their families – immigration reform. How the two political parties manage this issue this year and in the years ahead—particularly given the fuel a new law in Arizona has added to the fire—will be critical to shaping the Hispanic population’s future political path, and, given their numbers, perhaps the nation itself. This next chapter of “Hispanics Rising” has yet to be written, but may be the most important yet.