Behind Obama’s Victory: A Major Swing by Latino Voters Back to the Democratic Fold

Two thirds of Hispanics cast a vote for Obama, reversing inroads made by Bush in 2004.

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In one of the biggest upsets for Republicans, Hispanic voters surged for Barack Obama in record numbers, breaking more from their 2004 voting patterns than any other ethnic group.

Two thirds—or 66 percent—of Latino voters cast ballots for Obama on Tuesday. More voted Democratic than have in any presidential election since 1996. And more Latinos voted for Obama than had voted for John Kerry in 2004 by 13 percentage points.

Since Latinos account for 9 percent of all eligible voters, that's a real boon for Democrats hoping to keep their hold—and a blow to Republicans, whose Karl Rove-engineered tactics steered President Bush to a historic 44 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004. Rove helped win over many Hispanics in particular by focusing on hot-button social issues like gay marriage.

The Republican advantage, however, "pretty much evaporated in this election," says Antonio Gonzalez, president of the nonpartisan William C. Velasquez Institute, a research nonprofit focusing on Latino issues and trends. "Hispanics are saying that the party in power has not delivered its promises to us, so we're going to vote for the other guy."

The break boils down to a few factors, analysts say. The economic crisis may have affected Hispanics more than the general population. Other issues, like the Iraq war and immigration policy, were particular turnoffs to Latino voters. And voter registration drives, along with the Democratic campaigns, targeted Hispanics in record numbers.

Like voters nationwide, the majority of Latino voters said they had one concern above all others: the economy. While nothing pushes voters toward Democrats like a fiscal crisis, the dynamic may have been exacerbated among Latinos. Hard data aren't yet available that break down foreclosures by race, but Hispanics were more than twice as likely as whites to get a high-cost loan, making them particularly vulnerable to foreclosures. Meanwhile, the number of Hispanics granted home purchase loans declined 44 percent from 2006 to 2007, compared with a 19 percent decrease for whites.

Unemployment also has hit Hispanics harder than most other ethnic groups. Labor statistics from September, the most recent available, show that 7.6 percent of Latinos were unemployed—a rate second only to African-Americans.

Even before the fiscal crisis, however, Latinos were breaking from the Republican Party. A nationwide survey by the nonpartisan Latino Coalition in 2006 showed that only 16 percent of Hispanic voters said they identified with Republicans, a sharp downturn from 29 percent in 2004.

"As the nation has been dissatisfied with the direction of the country, a lot of people have been leaning Democrat, and we have seen that particularly with Latinos," says Mark Hugo Lopez, associate director of the Pew Hispanic Center. Hispanics fell off in their support of the Iraq war, for example, far more quickly than the general population.

Meanwhile, one Republican underpinning that tends to draw Latinos—conservatism on social issues like abortion and gay marriage—was largely overlooked in this election. "The culture wars weren't quite as important, particularly in those battleground states of New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado," Lopez says. Instead, everything was overshadowed by the economy.

Making matters worse was the Republican stance on immigration. The issue hit headlines in 2006, with Republicans in Congress fighting against illegal immigration and for firm English-only policies. To some voters, that felt like a betrayal.

"Bush was the pro-Latino Republican in the '90s," says Gonzalez." And who was at his side? His brother Jeb—and John McCain. They said, 'We're pro-Hispanic; we're for affirmative action; we're for quotas; we love Mexico." But instead, both Bush and McCain deserted Latinos, Gonzalez says. Partly as a result, a recent Pew study shows that 55 percent of Hispanic voters say the Democratic Party has more concern for their community, opposed to 6 percent who say the same of Republicans.

But another major trend brought Latinos, like voters nationwide, to the left: the flood of new voter registrations. In Florida alone, registered numbers of Hispanic voters jumped 22 percent from 2006. And, like nationwide trends, those new voters tended to be Democratic. While Democrats had a slight advantage in the number of voter registrations two years ago, that edge now has more than doubled.