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."
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