Voter rolls typically shrink in non-presidential election years and registrations among whites fell at roughly the same rate, but this is the first time in nearly four decades that the number of registered Hispanics has dropped significantly.
That figure fell 5 percent across the country, to about 11 million, according to the Census Bureau. But in some politically important swing states, the decline among Hispanics, who are considered critical in the 2012 presidential contest, is much higher: just over 28 percent in New Mexico, for example, and about 10 percent in Florida.
For blacks, whose registration numbers are down 7 percent nationwide, and Hispanics, the large decrease is attributed to the ailing economy, which forced many Americans to move in search of work or because of other financial upheaval.
“The only explanation out there is the massive job loss and home mortgage foreclosures, which disproportionately affected minorities,” said Antonio Gonzalez, president of the William C. Velasquez Institute, a nonpartisan policy group that focuses on Latinos. “When you move, you lose your registration.”
Political strategists and election experts are divided on whether registrations will rise to their previous levels. But the prospect of a tight race between President Obama and Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee, has placed great importance on getting eligible Americans to register and vote.
The decline in minority registration “is obviously an area of concern,” said Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg, president of NDN, a left-leaning think tank.
But he predicted the Obama campaign “will have enough money and enough focus to mitigate the problem. . . . They have five months to get the electorate looking the way they want.”
The GOP is also watching the shifting voter registration numbers, tracking active Republican voters in swing states and making sure they are still registered. In some places, the number of voters registered as Republicans is catching up with Democrats.
“We have really closed the gap in key battleground states,” said Republican National Committee spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski, pointing to the relative parity Republicans have reached with Democrats in Iowa and Colorado.
The president’s reelection effort is focusing early this year on voter registration, which typically happens just before an election, between September and November. Last weekend, the campaign held a series of voter registration training sessions in a dozen states. In Florida, where the number of registered Hispanic voters has dropped by more than 140,000, the campaign trained hundreds of volunteers to sign up voters.