As Mitt Romney prepares to travel to Orlando on Thursday to address a large gathering of Hispanic political activists, the Republican Party is still struggling to respond to President Obama’s announcement last week that he would halt deportations of young illegal immigrants — a decision that could help the president with Latino voters in this fall’s election.
But even as the Latino vote looms as a potential sore spot for Romney this year, it poses an even bigger potential problem for Republicans in future elections, particularly in eight key states.
Republicans’ problem is epitomized by rapid Latino growth in five swing states and three Republican-dominated states that Democrats are hoping to put in play in coming elections.
The U.S. Latino population increased from about 35 million in 2000 to 50 million in 2010, and about 45 percent of that growth occurred in eight states: Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Nevada, North Carolina, Texas and Virginia. (Romney’s speech to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, or NALEO, is in Florida).
Of that 15 million-person increase, nearly 20 percent came in five key swing states — Florida, Colorado, Nevada, North Carolina and Virginia.
The common thread between those five states is that all of them had gone regularly for Republicans, at least before 2008. In the seven elections between Jimmy Carter’s win in 1976 and Obama’s election, Democrats won only four of 35 contests in those five states. But they carried all five in 2008.
In addition, in every state but Florida, President Obama improved on Al Gore’s 2000 showing by between seven and 12 points — far better than his 4.6 percent overall improvement nationwide.
In other words, these states are trending in Democrats’ favor. And the Latino population growth is both the reason that has happened and the reason it could continue if Republicans don’t do something about it. If the Latino population keeps expanding and voting Democratic, there’s little reason to think these states won’t get bluer.
Beyond those five swing states are three other states with fast-growing Latino populations that Democrats hope to put in play in the near future.
There are two states that Democrats hope to target at the presidential level soon: Arizona and Georgia. And beyond that is the biggest potential game-changer of all: Texas.
While the five swing states mentioned above combined for about 20 percent of the Latino population growth over the last decade, another 20 percent came in Texas alone, and about 7 percent came in Arizona and Georgia.
In the latter two states, Democrats have flirted with investing real resources after a decade in which minorities have accounted for most of the growth. In each state, non-Hispanic white voters dropped by six points to below 58 percent of the total population.
As white voters trend downward toward 50 percent of the population (and at this rate, it will happen by 2020 or 2024 in both states), Democrats should have a real chance in states where Obama already got at least 45 percent of the vote in the 2008 election.
Whites in Texas, meanwhile, are already less than a majority. And the rapid Latino growth there has Democrats eagerly awaiting the day when they may have a shot at the state’s 34 electoral votes.
More Latinos, of course, doesn’t necessarily mean more Democratic voters. Latinos are both registered at lower rates than white voters and also vote at lower rates, diminishing their importance in today’s elections. And in some states, such as Florida and Texas, they are more apt to vote Republican than they are nationwide.
Democrats are definitely a couple of election cycles (at least) away from competing in states such as Texas, but that day may not be that far off. The state experienced the biggest population growth in the country over the last decade, and two-thirds of it came in the Latino community.
By the 2020 election, it’s quite possible that the state will feature more Latinos than whites, and whites could constitute fewer than two in five Texans.
Giving Democrats a leg up in five key swing states where the Latino population is growing rapidly could help Democrats in the near-term and may play a role if Obama can win a second term this year.
Further down the line, adding Arizona, Georgia and Texas to the mix would throw 59 solidly GOP electoral votes into the mix, and surely change the electoral college game.