If there are three things that come to mind for most Americans when the state of Iowa comes up, it may be corn, politics and white people. Okay, maybe some people would substitute expansive, wide-open fields, bitter cold weather, snow or ice for one of the items on that list. But we would venture that white people would remain.
We know that that's a blunt assessment of the 29th state and the home of the nation's first contest of the presidential primary season. And we mean the state no disrespect at all. But in an increasingly diverse country in which about 64 percent of the population is white and non-Hispanic, nearly 89 percent of Iowa's population describe themselves that way. And that's a big reason many question whether the state should hold such a prominent place at the very front end of our presidential nominating calendar.
However, like so many things, if you operate on the conventional wisdom, you will miss something significant taking shape right now. And that is this: Iowa is home to a small but rapidly expanding Latino population. Latinos comprise about 5.5 percent of Iowa's total population and 2.9 percent of U.S. citizens older than 18 who are eligible to vote in that state.
Allow us to put this another way. Take a look at the chart below. Note the still small size of the state's Latino population but substantial rate increase over time. In particular, do not let the nearly 424 percent increase in the Latino population over the past 20 years escape your attention. And don't let the slower but still significant rate of growth — nearly 63 percent — over the past decade pass without notice.
Iowa's population, like much of the country, has changed because of a combination of factors, none of which have been discussed with much accuracy or detail on the presidential campaign trail. Here's the quick explanation, with some help from one of the nation's leading demographers and immigration experts, Jeff Pasell of the Pew Research Center.
In the early 1990s, California, the state that had long received many of the nation's most recent immigrants — particularly those coming from Latin America — was in the grips of a fairly deep recession, Pasell explained. And as with all recessions, jobs in California became so scarce that people living there (immigrants and non-immigrants alike) started to look elsewhere.
They looked to parts of the country where a construction boom and non-union meat and other food-processing plants made companies eager to hire. That activity was most heavily concentrated in the Southeast, certain portions of the Midwest and Great Plains states. As a result, previously all-white or nearly all-white communities, began to change. Relatively large numbers of immigrants arrived over the course of the decade.
In fact, in some communities, between 1990 and 2000, about the only population growth at all was the result of Latino immigration. Younger white people from these communities in states such as Iowa, Nebraska and the like were leaving, moving to big cities. Older white Americans in these communities were aging and departing via another customary rate. And, younger, working Latino immigrants of child-bearing age were arriving.
Then, when the Great Recession hit in 2007, these jobs also began disappearing. And although immigration slowed down considerably, Latino immigrants contributed to what demographers like to call "natural population increase." You guessed it: babies. And over time, more and more of these natural-born citizens will turn 18 and become eligible to vote.
Just look at the three charts below, which drill down on the Iowa electorate in 2010, 2012 and 2014. Two numbers in the charts below are worth noting. First, there's the number of Latino eligible voters (in thousands), followed directly by what share of the electorate Latinos comprise. The number of eligible Latino voters grew from 52,000 in 2010 (2.3 percent of the electorate), to 67,000 in 2014 (2.9 percent), the most recent year for which data is available.
See how both those numbers are growing, slowly but steadily?
Then, take a look at the portion of the Latino population in Iowa that is eligible to vote. To this day, it sits below the national average of 46.1 percent, but with nearly 40 percent of Iowa's Latinos eligible to vote in 2014, that's quite different than the just over a third of Iowa Latinos who were eligible to vote in 2010.
So, right about now, those who are inclined to dismiss the very likely transformative political meaning of large-scale demographic change in the United States are probably thinking, "Okay. Big deal." Large shares of Latinos are eligible to vote but have not registered to do so in places around the country. Some political analysts have taken to calling this phenomenon by all sorts of names, including "the sleeping giant." The meaning should be clear: If and when these voters engage, they will create a formidable political force that may prompt all sorts of changes in the political landscape.
And, as much as Iowa residents of all racial and ethnic backgrounds like to talk to national reporters about their singular political engagement, it will only take small increases in Latino voter participation to really shift caucus outcomes. Political action groups targeting Latino voters as well as civil rights organizations and civic groups are already actively working right now to familiarize those new to the state's caucus with the actual process.
The reason is simple.
Even in recent years when experts have talked about spiking interest in the Iowa caucuses, total turnout remains relatively small. In 2012, 19.8 percent of the state's electorate showed up to vote on caucus night. During the previous presidential primary election in 2008, the caucus participation rate sat just under 21 percent.
These are conditions under which getting a small but significant groups of voters more involved can pay big dividends.