The electorate that turned out in November to give President Obama a second term is nearly as diverse as the U.S. population at large, according to new data released by the Census Bureau this week. But the nation's fastest-growing minority group isn't experiencing the kind of explosive growth of political power that other ethnic groups have felt.
And that means Democrats could be leaving millions of votes on the table.
Less than half of all eligible Hispanics turned out to vote in 2012, according to the data. Hispanic voters in swing states were more likely to show up at the polls, but the slow pace of growth as a portion of the overall electorate shows Hispanics have yet to flex their political muscle.
Almost 11.2 million Hispanics voted in 2012, the data show. That amounts to just 48 percent of all U.S. citizens of Hispanic origin, a rate far below participation levels of other ethnic groups. More than 2.5 million Hispanics who were registered to vote failed to turn up at the polls on Election Day.
"The Latino vote nationally underperformed," said Antonio Gonzalez, the president of the William C. Velasquez Institute, a San Antonio-based foundation aimed at promoting Hispanic political involvement. "Our growth in voting was less than we grew in 2004. It was not the best year ever."
The Democratic National Committee and Obama's 2012 campaign spent heavily to register and turn out new voters, with a specific focus on minority populations—efforts that paid off, at least among African-Americans. Just over 62 percent of white citizens voted in 2012, while 66.2 percent of black citizens voted. The 2012 election was the first time the Census Bureau showed blacks voting at a higher rate than whites. White turnout and Hispanic turnout both fell by about 2 percentage points between 2008 and 2012, while black turnout increased by 1.5 points.
Boosting turnout in minority communities was a "massive goal" of the Obama campaign, said Jeremy Bird, the campaign's national field director and now a principal at the new firm 270 Strategies. And in key battleground states, they achieved that goal; Hispanic turnout rose slightly in Colorado, where 52.1 percent of Hispanic citizens voted. Hispanic turnout topped 56 percent in North Carolina and Ohio, while two-thirds of all Hispanic citizens voted in Virginia.
And to Bird, and other Democratic strategists seeking out new votes, there's still room to grow.
"The African-American turnout numbers are historic highs, but as the demographics change and the country becomes more diverse, there's a lot more voters out there that we need to get to the polls," Bird said. "Getting to 52 [percent turnout in Colorado] is what we needed, but there's 48 percent more, and that's a huge opportunity moving forward."
The census data underscores the importance of Republican outreach efforts to a growing proportion of the electorate. Fully 71 percent of Hispanic voters backed Obama, while just 27 percent chose the GOP's Mitt Romney, according to national exit polls, meaning the likelihood is that an overwhelming number of those missing votes would have gone to Democrats.
If the percentage of Hispanics who cast ballots had grown to match the percentage of whites who voted, the presidential map would have changed dramatically. Those higher rates would have meant more than 1 million additional votes in California and Texas; Arizona, which voted for Romney by a 208,000-vote margin, would have added an additional 217,000 Hispanic voters. And in key battleground states such as Colorado and Nevada, close races could have turned into runaway wins for Obama. A greater emphasis on Hispanic turnout in Wisconsin, where just 44 percent of Hispanics voted and where Obama won by seven points, would have given the president a much more comfortable victory there.
Hispanics turned out at a higher rate than white voters in just three states—Florida, Michigan, and Tennessee.
Meanwhile, Hispanic turnout in non-battleground states was dismal. Less than 39 percent of Hispanic citizens in Texas showed up at the polls, while just four in 10 eligible Arizona Hispanics—citizens over the age of 18—cast a ballot.
Those low numbers show "the huge need to invest in voter registration efforts among Latinos, especially among those under 30 and newly naturalized citizens," said Matt Barreto, a political scientist at the University of Washington and the head of Latino Decisions, a polling firm that focuses on the Hispanic vote. "If groups put time and money into voter [registration], it will have huge implications."
This article appears in the May 10, 2013 edition of NJ Daily.