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Latino votes will play a big part in 2012 presidential election

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Updated: November 15, 2012 6:35AM

Latinos are a key feature of the American political landscape, and their population is growing. Latinos now comprise 28 percent of Chicago’s population, up from 14 percent in 1980. They comprise 16 percent of the state’s population, up from 12 percent in the last 10 years.

This rapid growth has been fueled equally by immigration and the natural increase of births exceeding deaths.

Latinos are a relatively young population, a fact of great significance to their future political strength. Ninety-three percent of Latinos younger than 18 are U.S. citizens, compared with 62 percent of adults. Thus the passage of time will bring more Latino citizens into the voting booth. Already in Chicago, one in five citizens of voting age is Latino.

What is the likely impact of this Latino boom on the 2012 election? On the campaign trail, its importance already has been seen as the presidential candidates and parties work to court the Latino vote.

In 2008, more than two out of three Latinos voted for Barack Obama. Given current demographics and the 2010 reapportionment of electoral votes to states that traditionally vote Republican, if the turnout rates and party preferences are the same this year, Latino voters will be a major cause of an Obama win. In particular, the Latino vote could put Obama over the top in the toss-up states of Florida, Georgia and North Carolina. It also makes Colorado too close to call.

But if the inexorable increase in Latino voters helps Democrats, why did Republicans make such impressive gains in the 2010 congressional and statewide elections?

Off-year elections are very different than presidential elections, especially in terms of voter turnout.

For white voters, the typical turnout rate for presidential elections is about 25 percent greater than their mid-term voter rate. But for minority voters, presidential election turnout usually runs about 35 percent greater than mid-term election turnout. Thus, the 2010 electorate was smaller and whiter than in 2008, and this favored the GOP.

The turnout rates of different racial and ethnic groups will be crucial to the outcome of the 2012 presidential race. If voters’ partisan preferences by race and ethnicity are the same as in 2008, analysis shows that even with turnout rates at the 2010 level, the Latino vote will help Obama win re-election, though by a smaller margin.

Under the 2008 conditions, the Republican vote in 2012 would be much stronger in Colorado, which would give Mitt Romney a likely win there. Georgia would become a statistical tie. And the Latino vote would help Obama win in North Carolina and Florida and, thereby, win re-election.

And certainly 2012 will not be the last election in which this rising ethnic group has a large influence. The Latino vote is a significant determinant in national electoral outcomes, as well as those in many states and localities. The outcome of the 2012 presidential election very well may be decided by Latino voters. Candidates who ignore this fact of political and social life do so at their peril.

Jorge Chapa is a professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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