The 2004 presidential election will be marked as a time when a record number of Hispanic voters went to the polls, and two Hispanics – Ken Salazar of Colorado and Mel Martinez of Florida – were catapulted to office in the U.S. Senate for the first time in nearly three decades.
What may not be clear yet, however, is whether it eventually also will be seen as a clear demarkation of the electorate's growing sophistication and power – and evolution from a stalwart piece of the Democratic Party base to an unpredictable and perhaps fragmented swing-voter group.
National Electoral Pool results showed 44 percent of Hispanic voters chose President Bush, up 8 percentage points from the 2000 elections and the most for any Republican presidential candidate in decades. But those results are being questioned by analysts and others who note that a poll by voting rights group the William C. Velásquez Institute showed that only 31 percent voted for Mr. Bush (about comparable to the 2000 election).
Robert Suro, director of the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington, D.C., notes that the exit poll that found 44 percent of Hispanics voting Republican also calculated that Hispanics made up 8 percent of all voters. That translates into more than 9 million Hispanic voters, up from 6 million in 2000. But current estimates put the number of registered Hispanic voters in the country at 10 million, "so we're talking 90 percent turnout," says Mr. Suro. "It's just not credible."
Still, Mr. Suro says, 2004 qualifies as a GOP victory. "The Republicans' stated goal was to break 40 percent. Even if 44 percent [in the National Electoral poll] is overstated, it's still significant because this is no longer a constituency assumed to be core Democratic."
Driving the shift, Mr. Suro says, is a changing demographic. "A large part of the Latino electorate is made up of native-born, English-speaking, middle-class Latinos who vote a lot like their non-Latino colleagues. They are moved by the same issues and are susceptible to the same campaign pitches. They don't watch Univision, and they aren't that much different than the rest of the population. Also, there is a growing share [of Hispanics] that is evangelical and conservative."
But until this summer, polls showed Democrats with a consistent 2-to-1 advantage in party identification among Hispanics, according to Mr. Suro. "The question now is whether this is a vote for this particular candidate or in this particular election, or is it a permanent shift?"
Sergio Bendixen, a Miami-based pollster considered a pioneer in tracking Hispanic public opinion, notes that the conflicting poll data and information make it too soon to tell what factors may have played into the voting patterns. "The national press has rushed to conclusions about the Hispanic vote," says Mr. Bendixen. "It's indisputable that the Hispanic vote has become a swing vote, but I think the only thing we can be sure of at this point is that they voted in larger numbers than before. For the first time we can say the sleeping giant has awakened."
And John Garcia, a University of Arizona professor and researcher on Hispanic group politics, says academics and political consultants have plenty of questions to consider. "President Bush made gains among Hispanics, but what's being misconstrued by some is that these Hispanics went Republican than just simply for Bush," says Mr. Garcia. "There's actually some evidence that what happened in 2004 was like Reagan in '84 – where it was the persona of Ronald Reagan and the efforts he made to appeal to Hispanic voters that made the difference."
Meanwhile, though President Bush may not have won the Hispanic vote nationally, his campaign appears to have peeled away enough of those voters to have affected the outcome in key states such as Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, and Florida, says John Zogby, president of national polling firm Zogby International in New York.
Hispanic voting patterns were especially intriguing in Florida and Colorado, both of which Bush won with 52 percent of the overall vote. Growing numbers of Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, and other non-Cuban Hispanics in Florida are seen as diluting the GOP's influence on that state's Hispanic vote. That may have contributed to Hispanics supporting Republican Mel Martinez for Senate and Senator Kerry for president by comparable percentages.
Conversely, 74 percent of Colorado Hispanics voted for Senator Kerry, according to Zogby's polling, significantly better than the 61 percent (of Hispanics) he drew nationally. The appearance on that state's ballot of two well-known Hispanic Democrats who won their races – Ken Salazar for Senate and his brother John for the House of Representatives – was seen as a likely influence.
What remains to be seen now is whether the voting patterns that appeared to emerge this year are sustained. Mr. Suro notes that in the past specific Republican candidates such as Governor George Pataki of New York and Governor Jeb Bush in Florida have won significant Hispanic votes without triggering a lasting re-alignment of the Hispanic vote. "Sixty percent [for Mr. Kerry] is still not bad, but as a result of this election, the Hispanic electorate is much more in play," Mr. Suro concludes.
Says Mr. Zogby: "Hispanics are demanding they be courted by both parties. This election is really an opportunity for Hispanic groups to now go out and really define their game and demand their price."
|Attorney General Candidate|
As White House Counsel and former Texas Supreme Court Justice Alberto Gonzales awaits Senate confirmation hearings on his nomination last month to U.S. Attorney General, his nomination has drawn both kudos and concern.
Advocacy and civil rights organizations including the League of United Latin American Citizens, The National Council of La Raza, and the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, have hailed the nomination as a historic advancement for Hispanics in politics. But some Washington analysts note that the president may be using the nomination of Mr. Gonzales – previously mentioned as a Supreme Court nominee – as a trade-off to appease national Hispanic groups while also ensuring conservatives will agree to it in exchange for more conservative nominees to the nation's court system.
"If the conservatives let this nomination go through without a fight, it'll be at an enormous cost," says political scientist Rodolfo de la Garza of Columbia University. "We're going to pay a very high price for this [nominee]."
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