As this election season started, Voto Latino and other Hispanic voter advocacy groups promised that our votes would matter on Nov. 4. Pollsters discounted us; pundits who are not familiar with our civic engagement campaigns pooh-poohed us.
Now, days before Tuesday’s election, the political establishment is sitting up and taking notice, even in states that are not usually considered important states for the Latino vote.
In Georgia, the Latino share of the eligible electorate is greater than the difference in polling points between the two top U.S. Senate candidates. The same is true in Kansas, North Carolina and Iowa. Can we talk Colorado, where the Hispanic vote makes up 15.4% of the eligible electorate and is poised to decide the outcome in a major U.S. Senate race and House seat?
Yes, the Latino vote is here, growing and promising to decide key elections for years to come. The impact will be more isolated on Tuesday, not because Latinos have decided to sit out the election, but because most of the tightly competitive races for U.S. Senate, House and governorships are in states and gerrymandered House districts where Hispanic voters may not have enough numbers to influence the outcomes.
Still, even in states where politicians pay little attention to the relatively small number of Latino voters in their areas, some candidates have taken a spill when confronted with an important issue like immigration reform.
In Kentucky, where only 2% of eligible voters are Hispanic, Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes ran a campaign ad using the objectionable phrase, “illegal aliens,” and stated her approval of the ad “because I’ve never supported amnesty or benefits for illegal immigrants and I never will.” After progressives called the ad “offensive” and “hurtful,” Grimes changed her rhetoric, using “undocumented” instead of “illegal” immigrants. She also expressed support for a path to citizenship and immigration reform, and blamed the incumbent, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, for opposing the Senate’s 2013 bipartisan immigration bill.
It’s a different story in Kansas, where Latinos make up 6% of eligible voters and stand to make a difference in the U.S. Senate race between Republican incumbent Sen. Pat Roberts and independent challenger Greg Orman. Roberts opposed the Senate immigration bill that died in the House but Orman supports the contours of the reform measure.
Also, it is now clear that, regardless of the outcome in the U.S. Senate race in Georgia, neither political party will ignore the Latino vote in 2016. During the last decade, the Latino vote has grown from 34,000 to 92,000 this year and makes up 1.8% of the Georgia electorate, according to Pew Research. While the percentage of the electorate is small, Latinos are poised to make a difference in the race, which remains tied.
Tuesday’s balloting will offer guideposts on how the Latino community has readied to flex its political muscle in the presidential election in 2016.
1. Latinos are 11% of the national electorate and growing. For the first time ever, the Latino electorate has reached 11% of all eligible voters in 2014, according to Pew Research. The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund (NALEO) projects that Latinos will cast 7.8 million ballots this year, a 1.2 million increase over the last mid-term election in 2010.
2. Don’t count us out until we’re counted. The traditional Election Day exit polling tends to undercount Latino voter participation, but Latino Decisions, well-practiced in the art of gauging Latino voters’ preferences, will offer results from its own polling on Wednesday morning.
3. Don’t assume Latinos will sit out the election. While political watchers are predicting Latinos are less likely to vote on Tuesday compared to the presidential election two years ago, voting usually drops in non-presidential election years across all segments of the electorate. This year, voters’ frustration with government is a common thread.
4. Positions matter more than Spanish lessons. In Colorado, Republicans have reached out to the Latino vote more aggressively than in past elections to overcome anti-immigration reform positions. The extra push is more than about running Spanish-language television ads. In a first for a Colorado race for Congress, 6th District candidates debated in Spanish before a live Spanish language television audience. But most Latino voters are U.S. born and remember how candidates addressed – or ignored – their issues in English. Keep an eye on the Latino vote to see whether candidates’ Spanish-language appeals softened their anti-immigration reform positions.
5. Tuesday is not just about control of Congress. Tight gubernatorial races in Florida, Colorado and Connecticut could be decided by the Latino vote. Colorado voters will decide a measure that could restrict access to abortion and birth control services, an issue that has Latino voters split in national polling. In Nevada, Democrat Lucy Flores is running a strong campaign for Lt. Gov., and a win would place her at the state Capitol with Nevada’s first Hispanic governor, Brian Sandoval, a Republican.