December 21, 2010 | The Atlantic | Original Article

The Real Census Story: A Hispanic Voter Boom

We now know which states will lose and gain representation next year, but the real Census-politics story won't be written for a few months, when we find out how many Hispanic voters the country has gained.

The answer will affect more than just House seats: It could put typically red Sun Belt states in the blue column for presidential elections to come.

Census officials have been predicting a sharp rise in the Hispanic population, based on the 2000 population numbers, for the past few years. They'll release the 2010 race/origin breakdowns in February or March, confirming or denying their yearly best guesses.

Republicans should be happy about reapportionment, at first glance.

The big story is that Texas, a bright red state, which gained four House seats and Electoral College votes, while Rust Belt states and Democratic strongholds lost them. Ohio and New York each lost two; Michigan and Pennsylvania each lost one.

The national population shifts, however, bear the clear marks of a Hispanic population boom, meaning the political ramifications are more complicated than a simple net-plus for the GOP. Including Texas, the states to gain population are, by and large, states with already high and growing Hispanic segments: Florida, Arizona, and Nevada.

Here's how these states compared in the 2000 Census, in percent Hispanic population:

           Seats       Population         Rank Among States
State     Gained       % Hispanic         (% Hispanic Pop.)
Texas         +4           32.0%                       3rd
Arizona       +1           25.3%                       4th
Nevada        +1           19.7%                       5th
Florida       +1           16.8%                       6th

Or, put more colorfully, here's a map from the Census Bureau showing percent-Hispanic population by county in 2000 (click to enlarge):

Census 2000 Counties by Hispanic Population.png
The lesson is: Not so fast. Lost Electoral College votes in New York and Pennsylvania will hurt Democrats in presidential elections for the next decade, but the big Census winner--Texas--is likely to be gaining Democratic Hispanic voters, not Republicans, and the same is true in John McCain's bright-red home state of Arizona, Harry Reid's purple Nevada, and the quixotic Florida, where national elections are a push.

As Republicans gerrymander in these states, they may find themselves straining to avoid the creation of new Democratic districts. (This won't be an issue in Florida, which passed a fair-districting ballot initiative in November.) Several Latino advocacy groups, meanwhile, will keep an eye on the process.

"Districts are going to have to be drawn in a way that does not dilute the voices of those communities that in fact are fueling the additions," said Clarissa Martinez, director of immigration and national campaigns for the National Council of La Raza. Martinez expects a few Latino legal advocacy groups to lobby governors and state legislatures not to gerrymander the Latino vote into oblivion.

Martinez also suspects that Georgia, a southern state not typically associated with Hispanics, may owe its gained congressional seat to a growing Hispanic population as well.

It's safe to assume that Hispanics account for much of this population growth in Texas, Arizona, Nevada, and Florida, because Hispanics are the nation's fastest-growing race/origin subgroup.

Between 1990 and 2000, the Hispanic population grew by over 57 percent, from 22.4 million to 35.3 million, according to the Census Bureau. In 2010, the population is expected to grow by another 41 percent, to 49.7 million, making up just over 16 percent of the country as a whole (based on Census projections from 2008).

In some ways, this shift has yet to manifest itself politically. Arizona and Texas are still bright red. But in others, it's evident: President Obama won Nevada and New Mexico in 2008 thanks, in part, to Hispanic votes. And in the 2010 midterms, Democrats banked Hispanic votes in Nevada and California on their paths to victory in two Senate elections and one gubernatorial race.

On the whole, Hispanics vote heavily Democratic--an October Pew study found 47 percent see Democrats as more concerned about their views, while just six percent prefer the GOP--but there's some debate as to why. Hispanic voters, advocates will tell you, care about education, jobs, and health care. Pundits often assume that Hispanic votes come down to immigration policy, but immigration politicking probably has more to do with it.

"Border security is completely on the table with the majority of Latino voters, and Latino voters in general--punishing illegal alien smugglers and criminals, and if you go after people who are here who are felons or gang members or something like that--the problem is with the rhetoric, when you start lumping people in with them," Mario Lopez, the conservative president of the Hispanic Leadership Fund, told me the day after the 2010 midterms.

Latinos voted 67 percent for Obama nationally in 2008, according to CNN exit polls. That reliably Democratic base is predicted to grow from 12.5 percent of the national population in 2000 to 19.4 percent by 2020.

Ironically, this will hurt Democrats in the short term. As the Hispanic population balloons Texas's Electoral College votes to four, Democrats still have not reached an electoral majority in that state. On Election Night, it's winner-take-all, and new Hispanic voters will inflate the weight given to Texas's Republican majority in the 2012 presidential race. Then again, the Hispanics will likely supply Obama with Electoral College votes from Nevada and New Mexico.

But for now, it's best to look past the House seats and electoral votes and consider the broader changes in the U.S. electorate. Because they mean something very different for each political party.