Today's back-to-back appearances by John McCain and Barack Obama before the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials encourage another look at Hispanics as a voting group – not least because there are some misperceptions about the Hispanic vote worth knowing.
First is the notion that George W. Bush did vastly better than usual among Hispanics, and that this might herald a broader Republican trend in this group. There are a few problems with the theory, starting with some squirrelly data from the 2004 exit polls.
The national exit poll in 2004 had Hispanics favoring John Kerry over Bush by 53-44 percent – a much closer margin than usual. But while that number got tongues wagging – in both languages – there's a problem with it. A bigger and better data source combines the national and state exit polls in a huge "cross-survey," with lots more interviews via lots more sampling points. And in the 2004 exit poll cross-survey, Kerry won Hispanics by 58-40 percent, not 53-44 – an 18-point rather than a 9-point margin. (The difference between the two surveys was an unusual one.)
Also remember Texas, the source of a big chunk of Hispanic voters and, of course, Bush's home state. Bill Clinton won 75 percent of Texas Hispanics in 1996 vs. Bob Dole's mere 17 percent (with Ross Perot in the race). But when favorite son Bush ran in 2000, he won 43 percent of Hispanics in Texas, and in 2004, 49 percent.
In California, by contrast, Bush won many fewer Hispanics, losing them by 67-28 percent to Al Gore in 2000 and by 63-32 percent to Kerry in 2004. (At the same time, Bush did better with Hispanics in some other states – Arizona, New Mexico – and won them, as did his father, in Florida.)
Another problem with the notion of a beyond-Bush Republican swing among Hispanics was the more recent 2006 election. Hispanics favored Democrats over Republicans in the national House vote by a whopping 69-30 percent, the biggest Democratic margin since 1996. This, of course, was in a calamitous year for the Republicans, as Americans punished Bush for the unpopular Iraq war.
Hispanic voters, of course, come in many types. Overall they are somewhat moveable, since their Democratic margin has varied over the years. Still, holding aside the 2004 data, six in 10 or more Hispanics have voted for Democratic presidential candidates in every election since 1976.
Obama's current support from Hispanics, 71 percent in the latest ABC/Post data, might be a surprise, since they heavily backed Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries. But it's essentially the same as their House vote in '06, and within a point or two of the tallies racked up by Clinton nationally in '96 and Michael Dukakis in '88.
An essential question beyond their preferences is the level of turnout mustered by Hispanics. They tend to under-represent their share of the population, in part because of the number of ineligible voters in their ranks; Hispanics accounted for 8 percent of all voters in 2004. But turnout among Hispanics swelled in the Texas Democratic primary and soared in the California Democratic primary this year, making them, indeed, a group to watch.