Symposium | Decision 2024: Our Parties, Our Politics

The Browning of America

By Gary Segura

Tagged Demographicsimmigration

For the American party system, demography is most definitely destiny. When Barack Obama is almost certainly re-elected this November, Latinos will have played a decisive role in crucial swing states like Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, and Florida, and even in states where their population share is smaller. Latinos should comprise just under 10 percent of the national electorate this year, compared with just 5.4 percent in 2000 and 3.7 percent in 1992. At 15 percent of the national electorate by 2024 (a conservative estimate), and concentrated in several large-population states, Latino political power will have moved Arizona firmly into the Democratic column in the next decade and will eventually have created a chance for Democrats to carry Texas.

Republicans nationally receive 85 percent of their votes from white voters by capturing between 55 and 60 percent of their ballots in each election. This margin, coupled with just enough votes from minorities, may be sufficient to eke out victories in the near term. But with the demographic decline of white voters, even 60 percent of that cohort will be a poor start when it comprises just two-thirds of the electorate in 2024; 60 percent of two-thirds would net the GOP just 39.6 percent of the national vote. Republicans must improve their standing with minority voters to remain competitive over the next century.

Can the GOP respond? In the short run, I don’t think so. Race played a critical role in the formation of the GOP coalition and is the principal reason that working-class white males, particularly in the South, have been so willing to embrace the party despite its economic policies. To remove race and its rhetoric from Republican politics would serve to make the party more welcoming to minority voters but would also eliminate the primary claim the party makes in attracting those working-class whites.

As the Latino electorate grows, it appears unlikely to shift toward the GOP in the near term. What does the growth of the Latino political voice mean for American governance?

For Latinos, the racial issue of importance is immigration. Unlike many vexing issues, current polling finds majorities of Americans of every political stripe favoring a single policy solution: comprehensive immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who learn English and have paid a fine and back taxes. But the relative power of GOP primary voters in shaping the party’s agenda and its congressional delegation suggests that real immigration reform is unlikely in the foreseeable future, barring Democratic super-majorities in both chambers.

Beyond immigration, the impact of Latino growth on policy-making in the short run will be weaker than theorists of democratic accountability might find ideal. Despite growing numbers, Latinos remain—and probably will remain—wildly underrepresented in the turned-out electorate, in the graduating classes of America’s colleges and universities, and in elected office. In addition, electoral “capture” by Democrats, where GOP candidates do not represent a meaningful threat to the Latino Democratic vote, would almost certainly make the Democratic Party and its officeholders less—not more—accountable to Latino voters, a reality known all too well by African-American and LGBT voters today.

In the longer term, however, the Latino share of the Democratic coalition will reach a stage, as it has in California, where it is sufficiently sizable and willing to use its power to shape intra-party outcomes, including primaries and legislative battles, especially when coalition with African Americans is possible. We are, in fact, already within three election cycles (at most) of African Americans and Latinos comprising the majority of the nation’s Democratic votes. And despite the real danger of the Supreme Court undermining or destroying altogether Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires Justice Department approval of electoral changes in locations with a history of racial discrimination or exclusion, Latino representation will grow as the Latino population does.

What effect would increased Latino representation—and increased impact on Democratic policy-making—have on the political system? I envision three outcomes.

First, Latino empowerment will move the Democratic Party to the left. Latinos are liberals, and will be even more so as Cuban exceptionalism diminishes (and as the Cuban share of the Latino vote, even in Florida, declines precipitously). Data from the 2008 American National Election Study show that Latino voters believe in active government to solve national problems, and prefer government to free-market solutions.

Second, that shift may, finally, end the rapid disinvestment in social and physical infrastructure, health care, and education, both K-12 and higher. In school districts across the country, we have witnessed failures of school-tax and school-bond referenda reversed when Hispanic voters became sufficiently numerous to help carry the day. Latinos consistently show much greater support for most forms of government—especially educational—expenditure.

Finally, the politics of morality may begin to see tougher times. Despite significantly higher rates of church attendance, Latino voters do not vote on the basis of religious or “values” issues, as these issues never break low single digits in measures of their “most important problem,” and 72 percent oppose politicians relying on religious beliefs in making policy. Rather, polling suggests that Latinos vote on bread-and-butter issues that affect the quality of their lives and the lives of their families—on jobs, immigration, education, public safety, and health. So long as this is the Democrats’ agenda, and without significant change in how each party addresses these issues, I expect the increasing Democratic tilt among Latinos to persist for the foreseeable future.

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Gary Segura is a professor of political science at Stanford University.

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