Recently I encountered a market report that indicated the sale of tortillas is surpassing the sale of bread in what may be another indicator of the growing Hispanic presence. But while much has been made about the strengthening economic and cultural influence of Hispanics in the United States, 2004 also presents an opportunity for heightened political influence.
Four factors will be key in defining the role of Hispanics in this year's elections:
•A changing demographic imperative and growing political capital;
•Recent foundational developments;
•A renewed Hispanic political agenda; and
•Externalities such as political parties, public opinion, and counter-movements.
Hispanic growth and geographical dispersion has reached new areas such as the South, Central Plains, and Northeast, and Hispanics have grown to become the largest minority group. But although a larger population and concentration in key electoral states has increased the political capital of Hispanics, we still operate between potential and fully realized political clout. The electoral record, for example, indicates lower levels of voter registration and turnout than other groups. Reports from the U.S. Census Bureau show that while 57.3 percent of Hispanic adults registered to vote in 2000, only 45.1 percent actually voted. And while the Hispanic proportion of the electorate continues to steadily increase, the pace does not match our population growth, partly because of the noncitizen segment. Fully 39.1 percent of the Hispanic voting-age population are noncitizens and the voting rate among all Hispanics is 27.5 percent, compared to 60.4 percent for Anglos. If the noncitizen segment is removed from the voting rate, 45.1 percent of Hispanics voted in 2000.
As the Hispanic proportion of the electorate rises, turnout becomes less of an issue in some areas; and sophisticated Hispanic organizations, labor unions, and political parties are focused more on registering Hispanic voters. The essential ingredient is a "hook" that causes Hispanics to become connected, motivated, and interested in the political system and its impact on their lives. Although a variety of links exist, the challenge is the deployment on a regular basis of our social networks to engage more of our community in political affairs.
Meanwhile, recent foundational developments in political infrastructure, such as the number of Hispanic public officials, the resources and sophistication of Hispanic organizations, and increased attention (at least symbolically) by the major political parties and media regarding Hispanic political capital, enhance the political abilities of Hispanics to target and influence election outcomes and policy directions.
The third critical factor is a growing focus on a Hispanic political agenda. There have been discussions and plans for a variety of policy/issue summits, serving to interject Hispanic priorities into policy debates at the national, state, and local levels. To the extent such forums reach a common ground, the process helps to clarify, motivate, and hold political parties' "feet to the fire" on policy priorities and commitments to the Hispanic community. This contrasts with the major issues highlighted during the 2000 national campaign and their lack of congruence with Hispanic priorities. The economy, job creation, education, national security, and health care are key issues for the nation, but there are particular emphases that Hispanics bring to these policy discussions.
This moves us to the last factor: political externalities such as how movements, media, and political parties external to our community respond to Hispanic-issue priorities and interests. The range of responses typically includes ignoring, marginalizing, or making symbolic or token gestures. But now, from a partisan perspective, current Republican efforts are more directly tied to getting a larger portion of the Hispanic vote, while the Democratic Party is hoping to retain and expand its Hispanic base.
So, while 2004 is still young, these four critical factors point toward greater political empowerment for Hispanics. Although a community is not able to control completely its political destiny, becoming more than only a recognized participant has been the agenda for Hispanics for decades. This year, more of the critical pieces are in place and the community has taken greater responsibility to advance its agenda, setting the stage for an action-packed and meaningful political drama.
John A. Garcia is professor of political science at the University of Arizona.
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