May 17, 2011 | The Hill | Original Article

Rising Latino tide

When you compare U.S. Census maps of the Latino population between 1980 and 2006, it becomes clear why xenophobes are freaking out. 

Once relegated to the Southwest, South Florida and a handful of urban outposts in the Midwest and Northeast, Latinos have fanned out through most of America, with a substantial presence in nearly all Western states, most of the Eastern Seaboard up to southern New Hampshire, the Great Lakes region and significant pockets in the South — particularly in purple North Carolina. 


And those are the 2006 maps. The updated maps due from the 2010 census will show even stronger and wider growth of this key demographic. 

Electorally, Latinos are bound to shape future contests, and therein lies the dilemma for Democrats. Latinos are voting in record numbers, but turnout is still far less than other racial and ethnic demographics, as detailed by a recent Pew study. Among the findings: 

In the 2010 elections, 6.6 million Latinos voted, a record for a midterm election. However, just 31.2 percent of the 21.3 million eligible Latino voters turned out. By comparison, 44 percent of eligible African-American voters hit the polls, as well as 48.6 percent of white voters. 

While Latinos constituted 5.8 percent of all voters in the midterm election in 2006, they were up to 6.9 percent in 2010, another record. They provided key margins in places where Democrats pulled off unlikely electoral victories, like Colorado and Nevada. But Latinos now represent 16.3 percent of the general population, so that 6.9 percent only hints at their potential electoral impact.

Although there’s been a dramatic surge in the number of eligible Latino voters since 2000, just 42.7 percent of the total Latino population is registered to vote. By comparison, 77.7 percent of whites are eligible to vote, as well as 67.2 of African-Americans and 52.8 percent of Asians. That’s because 22.4 percent of Latinos are not U.S. citizens. Moreover, the Latino community is uncommonly young — 34.9 percent are under the age of 18. By contrast, only 20.9 percent of whites are under voting age.

The rise of the Latino community is undeniable, having grown 43 percent in just a decade. In fact, Latinos account for 56 percent of all population growth in the United States. And the GOP’s stronghold in the South is showing some of the strongest Latino growth. Over the last 10 years, the Latino population has climbed 148 percent in South Carolina, 145 percent in Alabama, 134 percent in Tennessee, 122 percent in Kentucky, 114 percent in Arkansas and 111 percent in North Carolina. The Latino population also doubled in Mississippi, South Dakota, Georgia and Virginia.

So far, Republicans have been lucky that so many Latinos are ineligible to vote, and that even those who can vote refuse to do so in significant numbers. But that’s a temporary situation. 

Those young Latinos will turn 18. And many of those who are currently non-citizens will eventually be naturalized. Although cultural norms make Latinos fertile recruiting ground for conservative Republicans, the GOP has instead decided to stoke the xenophobic fears of its shrinking white base. It’s a political calculation that has served the party well in the short term, but will inevitably bite it in the future. 

The harder Republicans fight to tear up Latino families and deny their children educational and military opportunities, the more that community will align itself with Democrats — and they’ll be increasingly motivated to turn out and vote.