Before the 1994 Proposition 187 galvanized them into a powerful voting bloc, it was common to refer to California Latinos as a political “sleeping giant.”
No longer. Where before 1994, Hispanics accounted for barely 10 percent of all California registered voters, today that figure is about 20 percent and climbing. Those new Latino voters are almost solely responsible for gradually converting this state from the Republican bastion that supported every GOP presidential candidate save one from 1952 through 1988 to a battleground state and then into a place Democrats take for granted.
But the same political awakening has not occurred nationally, even though it could. Because it has not, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney virtually wrote off the national Hispanic vote (except Cuban-Americans in Florida) when he chose Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan as his running mate.
Ryan voted against the so-called DREAM Act to allow legal status for many illegal immigrant students brought here as young children by their parents and for illegals who have served in the military. He backed a 2005 proposal to criminalize undocumented immigrants. For just two items that turn off Latinos. Several Spanish-language news programs also have focused on his complaints about “anchor babies.”
So Romney won’t get much Latino support either in California or elsewhere. Less than 30 percent in several early October polls. But there’s no evidence that either President Obama or other Democrats are taking full advantage of the chance this gives them to create nationally the same kind of Latino voting bloc that transformed California.
For on a national level, Hispanics remain a sleeping giant, not voting in nearly the percentages of other, far smaller ethnic groups like blacks and Jews.
A study last summer by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for American Progress (http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2012/07/latino_voters.html), found that the number of unregistered but eligible potential Latino voters is sufficient to transform 10 “red” states that usually go Republican into swing states.
In Arizona, for example, 405,300 Latino U.S. citizens are not registered to vote. Another 573,300 Hispanic permanent residents there could become naturalized citizens and register to vote. They might have gotten the impetus to do that last year, when Arizona passed its controversial “stop-and-search” law, parts of which have been thrown out by a variety of courts.
That’s what happened in California when Proposition 187 passed by a large margin and threatened to expel illegal immigrant children from public schools and prevent the undocumented from using hospital emergency rooms.
But rather than fight back by registering to vote, many legal Hispanic residents of Arizona simply left, fleeing to other states or back to their home countries.
If the large population of legal but unregistered voters there took the approach of their California counterparts, they could change a state that favorite son Republican Sen. John McCain carried by only 195,404 votes four years ago.
The same kind of change is possible, too, in Florida, where more than 600,000 U.S. citizen Latinos are not registered, and even in Texas, which went Republican in 2008 by a margin of 950,000 votes. Currently such a solid GOP state that few presidential candidates bother to campaign there, Texas has 920,000 unregistered Latinos eligible to vote right now and another 3 million Hispanics who are probably eligible for citizenship, followed by voting rights.
There could also be major changes in political equations if places like Georgia (where 218,000 legal immigrants are eligible to be naturalized), a state that went Republican by just over 200,000 votes in 2008, and Nevada and Virginia, both swing states that could become strongly Democratic if the combined 425,000 Latinos eligible for citizenship there acted in significant numbers.
But Democrats are doing little to accelerate this change. For one thing, Latinos are miffed that President Obama’s administration has been aggressive about deporting illegals, with raids on businesses continuing at the same time Obama tries to court Latino voters, many of whom object to deportations, especially when they split families.
Still,change will eventually come because the numbers are there. All that’s needed is motivation of the sort Proposition 187 provided. Despite the fact there has been no citizenship drive in Arizona on the scale that changed California in the mid-1990s, sufficient numbers of Latinos have registered to vote that neither party now takes Arizona for granted.
“If just a portion of the potential voters who exist would come out and vote, they could swing elections,” said Philip Wolgin, an analyst at the Center for American Progress.
And if that happened, it would be yet another example of California setting national trends.