Are Latinos Relevant to Midterm Elections?

A similar post appeared on NBC Latino

The day after the 2012 presidential election pundits across the country declared Latino voters as one of the most important voting blocs in re-electing President Barack Obama.  With the 2014 midterms already in sight, many are asking if Latino voters will once again be a critical electorate. Recently, we outlined detailed analysis of 24 GOP held House districts where Latino votes could play a big role, and also released polling data of Latinos in these same 24 districts examining what role immigration reform will have on their 2014 vote.  Our conclusion: Latino voters have the capacity to be quite relevant in 2014, depending on what happens with immigration reform.

Not everyone out there agrees. The central criticism of our analysis of competitive House districts where Latino voters are positioned to be influential in the 2014 election offered by Nathan Gonzales is that Latinos will not actually turnout to vote in the 2014 election. As we note in the original posting of our work, which created tiers of closely contested districts where the Latino voting age population either exceeds or approaches the 2012 margin of victory or the district was won by the opposition party’s presidential candidates, there are three important caveats associated with our analysis – all of which are relevant to Gonzales’s criticisms.

First, the white and Latino voting age populations data that we use are from the 2010 Census and thus, do not reflect subsequent population growth of Latinos to 2014.  Given the relative youth of Latinos relative to whites, if anything our data underestimates the Latino population share and overestimates the white share in our 24 battleground GOP districts.  That is, the Latino population will be larger in every single district in November 2014, than what the Census counted in 2010. Thus, there may be even more districts where Latino and non-white voters are poised to be influential.  Regardless, one point is clear: the 2014 midterm election will feature the smallest share of white voters in the country’s history.

Second, voter turnout declines precipitously in midterm elections for all voters.  Typically, around 60% of eligible voters turnout in presidential elections as compared to just over 40% in midterm elections. While some think the incumbent President’s party will always lose seats in a midterm, the fact is, the party of the president has gained House seats in two of the last four midterm elections.  To be sure, Latinos turnout relative to overall population lags behind other demographic groups, but during midterm elections participation by these other demographic groups declines as well. Thus, the degree to which “marginal” midterm voters are motivated to turnout overwhelmingly for one party can have outsized effects when turnout in general decreases.  That is, analysts at Rothenberg and Cook, expect Latinos to vote at low rates in the midterm, so if Latinos are actually mobilized, perhaps frustrated or even angry at House Republicans for blocking an immigration bill, their heightened turnout in 2014 will take these analysts by surprise.  This is exactly why analysts at Rothenberg, Cook, and even Nate Silver at 538 all wrongly predicted Harry Reid would lose to Sharon Angle in the 2010 midterm, because they all expected Latinos to vote at moderately low rates.

For what it is worth there is also evidence that the House GOP’s immigration tactics alienate another fast growing group of voters – Asian Americans.  And of course, there is the long play.  Voting is not a one-time event and once people get in the habit of voting for one party those attachments can last a lifetime.  In our recent poll, we seek to capture some of these effects by sampling voters who turned out in the 2010 midterm (a more engaged and somewhat more conservative sub-group) and those who voted in 2012 and not 2010 in the tier one and tier two districts from which we sampled.  Among Latino midterm voters in these 24 GOP held districts, 71% say they have a more favorable view of the GOP if they follow Paul Ryan who said “We need to offer people a path to earned legalization and a chance to earn citizenship. We should welcome anyone who is willing to take that pledge and who shares that commitment to our country.  In contrast, 78% of the same Latino midterm voters say they will be even more opposed to the GOP if they follow Steve King who said, “Congress does not have an obligation to resolve the issue of the 11 million people who are here illegally. They came here on their own. They came here to live in the shadows. There’s no moral calling for us to solve the problem they created for themselves.” This is the definition of what a swing electorate looks like. What’s more, even if tier one and tier two incumbents survive in 2014, they are unlikely to survive in 2016.

Third, the competitiveness for a given House race is shaped by contextual factors (i.e., retirements, divisive primaries, and challenger quality) that at this point are largely unknown for most districts.  This can be easily seen in two districts included in our analysis:  Nevada’s 3rd and Minnesota’s 6.  In the latter, Michelle Bachman who narrowly won (1.2%) while underperforming Mitt Romney by nearly 14 points in 2012 is retiring.  Thus, without the Tea Party firebrand to run against, it is unlikely that Democrats will compete for that seat in 2014.  Nevada’s 3rd suggests different dynamics.  Instead of running against a lackluster opponent in a district carried twice by Barack Obama that was overshadowed by Presidential and U.S. Senate races in 2012, Joe Heck will be facing a heavily recruited and funded candidate who will enjoy the full backing of the Reid machine as the Senate Majority Leader tunes up his organization in anticipation of his 2016 reelection.  And let’s not forget how significant Latino turnout was to Reid’s 2010 victory against Tea Party darling Sharron Angle, or did we already mention that?

David F. Damore is a Senior Analyst at Latino Decisions and Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He is also a Nonresident Fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Governance Studies Program, and a key vote advisor to Project Vote Smart.