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The Minority Vote and the Progressive Coalition

by Ruy Teixeira

As part of what I plan to make an ongoing series on the components or building blocks of the progressive coalition, I offer the following assessment of the current state and likely future development of the minority vote, with a special focus on controversies about the Hispanic vote.

The minority vote is probably the single strongest element of the progressive coalition. In John Kerry’s losing 2004 effort, he still carried the minority vote by 71 percent to 27 percent. In that election, minorites were, according to the exit polls, 23 percent of the overall vote. However, the Current Population Survey (CPS) Voter Supplement data tell a somewhat different story, putting the minority vote at around 21 percent of the electorate. The CPS figure seems more realistic, which would still indicate that the minority vote will grow to around a quarter of presidential voters by the end of the decade. That compares to around 15 percent of voters in the early 1990's when Bill Clinton was first elected.

Clearly, maintaining these high levels of support among minorities is crucial to progressives’ future prospects. Indeed, given the increasing weight of these voters in the electorate, it would be highly desirable to move their overall support back up to the 75 percent enjoyed by Al Gore in the 2000 election. To get a sense of the contours of this challenge, we need to break down the minority vote into its three major components: blacks; Hispanics and Asians.

Black voters. Black voters, of course, are the most reliable progressive constituency. In the 2004 election, Kerry had an 88 percent to 11 percent margin among blacks, down only slightly from the 90 percent to 9 percent margin for Gore in 2000. In fact, except for 2000 and Mondale’s 1984 campaign, Kerry’s margin among blacks is the highest obtained by a Democratic candidate since the exit polls started in 1976.

In the last several elections, blacks have been about 10-11 percent of voters. Population growth trends indicate that the black percentage of the overall population will change little in the next ten years, so we should not expect the black percentage of voters to change much either.

Hispanic voters. Hispanic voters, while strong for progressives, are not nearly as strong as blacks, and have famously been more volatile in their support. In the 2004 election, it was initially reported that they gave Bush 44 percent of their vote. However, that initial exit poll figure is now widely acknowledged to have been flawed and the generally accepted estimate is that Kerry carried Hispanics by a 58-40 margin. Still, that represents a significant improvement of 5 points in Bush’s support among Hispanics over 2000 and a substantial compression of the Democratic margin among this group.

There has been much debate about the causes of this shift. Probably the best treatment of the issue was done by political scientists Marisa Abrajano, Michael Alvarez and Jonathan Nagler, whose thorough analysis of 2004 exit poll data indicates that the national security and moral values pull toward the GOP outweighed the economy, health care and education pull toward the Democrats for an unusually large proportion of Hispanic voters. This can be illustrated by the fact that Bush had a 13 point advantage among Hispanics on being trusted to handle terrorism, while Kerry’s advantage among Hispanics on being trusted to handle the economy was a more modest 5 points.

There has been even more debate about the significance of Bush’s 40 percent showing among Hispanics. Abrajano, Alvarez and Nagler find no evidence that a specific cultural issue like abortion is realigning Hispanics nor do they find evidence for the “economic advancement” hypothesis–that as Hispanics, particularly second and third generation Hispanics, are becoming richer as a group, this is moving them toward the GOP.

It is also worth noting that, if you properly compare the two Bush elections of 2000 and 2004 to the two Reagan elections of 1980 and 1984, the average level of Hispanic support for the Democrats in the Bush elections has actually been slightly higher than in the Reagan elections. And in the next election following Reagan’s relatively good performances among Hispanics—1988—the Hispanic presidential vote moved sharply Democratic, to 69–30.

The potential for such a surge is well-illustrated by the most recent national poll of Hispanics, conducted by the Latino Coalition, a conservative group close to the GOP. In this poll, Democrats have a stunning 61 percent to 21 percent lead over the GOP among Hispanic registered voters, which translates into a 50-point lead (75 percent to 25 percent) among those who express a preference. By way of comparison to the last two off-year elections, 2002 and 1998, Democrats carried the Congressional vote among Hispanics by 24 and 26 points, respectively.

The new poll also finds Democrats with a 35-point lead (58 percent to 23 percent) in party identification among voters. Also among voters, Democrats have huge leads over Republicans as the party better able to handle a wide variety of issues: being in touch with the Hispanic community (+41 points); providing affordable health care (+40); improving the economy (+31); improving education (+30); and representing your views on immigration (+29). The one exception to this pattern is on “keeping America safe and fighting terrorism,” where the parties are dead-even. And even here, this tie is a sharp decline from Bush’s 13- 14 point lead over Kerry on this issue before and during the 2004 election.

Demographic trends underscore the importance for progressives of taking advantage of Hispanics’ current leanings. As is well-known, the Hispanic population is growing rapidly, both in terms of absolute numbers and as a share of the US population. Before 1980, the Census did not even record Hispanic origin when it surveyed the country’s residents. Today, Hispanics have surpassed blacks as the nation’s largest minority group and the latest Census estimates (July, 2003) indicate that there are 40 million Hispanics in the US, 13 percent of the nation’s population.

This rapid increase in demographic importance will continue for decades. Census projections indicate, in fact, that by about mid-century Hispanics will be one-quarter of the US population (at which point or shortly thereafter, the US will become a majority-minority nation).

But it’s important to stress that the population strength of Hispanics is not matched by its voting strength, due to the large proportion of Hispanics who aren’t citizens and therefore can’t vote or are simply too young to vote. For example, of the 5.7 million Hispanics added to the US population between 2000 and 2004, 1.7 million were under 18 and 1.9 million were noncitizens. As a result of these factors, only 39 percent of Hispanics overall are eligible to vote, compared to 76 percent of nonhispanic whites and 65 percent of blacks. (For more detail, see this excellent report by the Pew Hispanic Center.)

Still, the proportion of Hispanics among the voting electorate has grown steadily and will continue to grow. Only 2 percent of voters in early 1990's, they are now somewhere in the 6-8 percent range (far more in certain states, of course) and within ten years may be approaching blacks as a proportion of actual voters.

Asian voters. Asians over the last 15 years or so have become a fairly solid progressive constituency. In the 2004 election, they supported Kerry over Bush by 56-44, similar to the margin they gave Gore over Bush (55-41) in 2000. And in the last Congressional election, when much of the electorate was going in the opposite direction, Asians actually increased their support dramatically for House Democrats going from 56-44 percent Democratic in 1998 to 66-34 in 2002.

If you look at rate of growth, Asians are also America’s fastest-growing minority group–faster even than Hispanics (59.4 percent to 57.9 percent in the ‘90s). Right now they are 4-5 percent of the population and about 2 percent of voters. Both figures will increase in the next ten years, due to this group’s fast rate of growth, but because they start from a much smaller base than Hispanics, their impact on the population and voting pool will be far more limited.