Weeks before Tuesday's election, President Barack Obama began to realize his only chance for victory: awaken the so-called sleeping giant of American politics, the approximately 50.5 million Latinos or Spanish-speaking U.S. residents, 26 million of whom are eligible to vote.
“If I win, it will be because of Latinos,” he said in late October.
Obama and his private pollsters, then, may have had a clue that something was happening among Latino voters.
Something important was indeed occurring. Now there’s the possibility the same effect that turned California from a generally Republican state to a reliably Democratic one in presidential politics may spread elsewhere. This state changed from mostly red, in television parlance, to almost exclusively blue after 1994's anti-illegal immigrant Proposition 187 passed handily, threatening millions with loss of public schooling, emergency room care and other services.
Within three years of its passage, more than 2.5 million Latinos became naturalized citizens and registered to vote in California, almost all of them solidly Democratic then and now.
What happened Tuesday was an extension both of that and the 2010 “Harry Reid effect,” in which all supposedly reliable polls showed Reid, the Senate majority leader, losing his re-election bid to arch-conservative Republican Sharron Angle, a tea party-backed candidate.
But those surveys, measuring the sentiments of what they called “likely voters,” badly underestimated the number of Latinos who would turn out. Reid, who went into Election Day trailing by five points in the polls, won by about six points.
This year, the last pre-election versions of polls put Republican Mitt Romney ahead by 1 to 2 percent in the national popular vote. But when the final popular vote is in, Obama will lead in that count by at least 1 percent, besides winning big in the Electoral College.
The key for him was among Latinos.
“When you look at polls in any state that’s competitive with a big component of the electorate being Latino, you tend to see that they tend to underestimate the Latino vote,” University of Nevada political science professor David Damore said.
“Pollsters missed a component of the correct proportion of Spanish interviews," added Matt Barreto, of the University of Washington and the Latino Decisions polling outfit. "They underestimated a growing part of the electorate, and this is the part that is most heavily Democratic.”
Barreto’s outfit predicted that Latinos nationally would vote for Obama over Romney by about a 3-1 margin. It was greater than that in swing states like Nevada and Colorado, not to mention California.
Obama won in 2008 by getting record numbers of minority and youth voters to turn out. He won about 80 percent of non-white votes that year, while losing the white vote to John McCain by 6 percent. This year, Obama won not much more than 35 percent of white votes, but even more minorities turned out than four years ago. In an increasingly diverse country, in which Latinos are the No. 2 ethnic group behind only whites, that was enough. The Latino vote was about 25 percent larger than in 2008.
“We knew Latinos would vote in record numbers,” said Eliseo Medina, national head of the Service Employees International Union, whose membership is heavily Latino. “There is no longer any doubt we are a political force to be reckoned with.”
And the treatment of illegal immigrants became a central issue for them. While Romney was calling for “self-deportation” and campaigning with Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach — the chief author of Arizona’s SB 1070, the racial profiling law detested by almost all Latinos — Obama granted administrative relief to as many as 4 million youthful illegal immigrants.
That helped make up for the letdown his Latino supporters suffered when he failed to produce a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants. But Latinos voted not just on immigration.
“We certainly don’t need any more profiling laws like AB 1070,” Medina said. “But we also didn’t need repeal of a health care law that will cover 9 million more Latinos, and we don’t need a tax system that rewards the 1 percent. As much as some candidates manipulate their rhetoric, we can read between the lines.”
That all spelled another four-year term for Obama and guarantees both parties will pay even more attention to Latino issues than they have. It also means polling firms like Gallup and Rasmussen, whose readings were mistaken, need to go back to the drawing board.
Email Elias at firstname.lastname@example.org. His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough, The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft-cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit californiafocus.net.