Obama and the Hispanic vote

If Obama can keep support at 65 percent or above, McCain is likely sunk.

Published October 28, 2008 4:46PM (EDT)

What makes for a pivotal demographic? As I discussed during a panel last spring sponsored by NDN, four things do:

  1. The size of that voting bloc and its growth or decline (size over time). Obviously, groups that are large and/or growing are more pivotal than those that are small and/or shrinking.
  2. How volatile that voting bloc's performance is. Groups that are relatively consistent in their voting patterns (e.g., African-Americans) are less pivotal than those that move more (e.g., white Catholics).
  3. How competitive the two parties are with that group. A group that splits closer to 60-40 rather than, say, 90-10 has a potential upside room for growth for both parties. (But this variable is conditioned on the previous one: A consistently 60-40 group may be less pivotal than an 80-20 group that shows a lot of variability.)
  4. The geographic concentration or diffusion of that group's voters. Though this can often be most pivotal in the extremes -- women voters are distributed roughly the same in all 50 states and are pivotal everywhere, but the concentration of Cuban Americans in South Florida makes them pivotal, but for now only because Florida is competitive -- it is usually better to be somewhat but not entirely concentrated in some key states or regions.

When thinking about various demographic subgroups and their importance in American politics, Hispanics fare pretty well on all four criteria: They are not quite huge but still big enough of a voting bloc to matter, and they are growing rapidly as Hispanics gain citizenship and their young population ages to reach age-eligibility threshold; their votes are up for grabs, moving between 60 percent Democratic and, perhaps this year, 80 percent; though not divided 50-50, there is potential room for growth for both parties, as George W. Bush proved four years ago. And Hispanics are neither so diffuse nor so concentrated that it dilutes their power -- they are signficant in the four Southwestern states, Southern California, a burgeoning bloc in Florida and Texas, and even double-digit shares of statewide populations of states ranging from Utah to Rhode Island.

MSNBC political director Chuck Todd has a great piece out today about the significance of Obama's support among Hispanics and why they are so pivotal to the Democratic nominee in the Southwest. The flipping of Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado is worth 19 electors -- enough, when added to John Kerry's 252 total, to flip the election right there. Winning those states would allow Obama to win without either Ohio or Florida. (And Obama, amazingly, is now within shooting distance of John McCain in his home state of Arizona.) Todd:

Obama's dominance among Hispanics in the West is proving to be the difference maker in Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico. In addition, the increased numbers of non-Cuban Hispanics in Florida, as well as the growing Hispanic population in North Carolina and Virginia, could be the tipping voting group in those three states.

Todd thinks if Obama gets at least 65 percent of the vote nationally that will lock down Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico. (Kerry got 60 percent, and that was among what was a smaller share of the electorate than it will be this cycle.) A big factor -- and one McCain could have avoided making into a big, negative factor for himself -- is support for comprehensive immigration reform, which this NDN study last month showed is the key to attracting Hispanic voters in Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Florida.

But McCain walked back his original, courageous support for comprehensive reform and his own, co-sponsored legislation on immigration reform. He sold out to the xenophobes in his party, and that is going to cost him, and the GOP in the longer term, the inside track to one of the most pivotal voting blocs in the country right now.

By Thomas Schaller

Thomas F. Schaller is professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the author of "Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South." Follow him @schaller67.

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2008 Elections Barack Obama John Mccain R-ariz.