Sotomayor: The Political Equation

May 26, 2009 11:38am

Beyond the public’s preferences in a Supreme Court nominee, which I blogged about this morning, there’s another little issue at play: the politics of it.

Republicans and conservatives are poised for a spirited challenge to Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination, as our chief congressional correspondent, Jonathan Karl, wrote today. But the Democratic majority in the Senate makes that fight a tough one. And there’s a bigger contest beyond this single battle.

That is the field of electoral politics. Sotomayor would be the high court’s first Hispanic member, a population of considerable political interest. Hispanics represent a growing share of the voting population; 9.5 percent of eligible voters (and 9 percent of actual turnout) in 2008, up from 4.7 percent of eligible voters in 1988 and 8.2 percent in 2004, according to recent Pew Research Center estimates. The comparative youth of this group portends future growth; its comparatively weak turnout rate, 50 percent, also signals potential for yet more Hispanic participation.

As I've covered before, Hispanics are a reliably Democratic voting bloc. They favored Barack Obama by more than 2-1 in November, 67-31 percent, about the average for Democratic presidential candidates in exit polls back to 1976. But it’s also a group in which the Republicans have aimed for inroads: George W. Bush did better than average with Hispanics in his elections, albeit largely via the vote in just two states, Texas (favorite son) and Florida (favorite brother).

More interesting was Bush’s showing among Hispanics who were voting for the first time. Even as he lost Hispanics overall to John Kerry, 58-40 percent, the two split first-time-voter Hispanics, 49-48 percent. And since first-timers accounted for just over a fifth of all Hispanic voters, cementing that group offered big future payoffs to the GOP.

It didn’t happen: Obama last year won first-time Hispanic voters – up to 28 percent of all Hispanics voting – by a smashing 76-23 percent. Having moved that group back aboard, the Democrats clearly would like to keep them.

Tightening the focus, given the concentration of their numbers, Hispanics matter on a state-by-state basis. They accounted for 41 percent of voters in the swing state of New Mexico in November, giving Obama his victory there. And they accounted for 13 to 15 percent of voters in Nevada, Florida and Colorado, all states Obama won with majority Hispanic support, ranging from 57 percent in Florida to 76 percent in Nevada.

Hispanics also accounted for 20 percent of voters in Texas, 18 percent in California and 16 percent in Arizona, again favoring Obama in each of these states. Nowhere else did they reach double-digits, but in close elections – and we’ve seen a few of those – every vote matters.

There is, to be fair, utterly no assurance that appointing the first Hispanic to the Supreme Court will earn Obama, much less his party more broadly, a single Hispanic vote. Voters tend to come to their choices based on a broader array of concerns and candidate attributes, and to make them comparatively – not in a single-issue or single-candidate vacuum.

All the same, group affinity is a powerful force. Assuming there are no as-yet concealed stink bombs in the Sotomayor nomination, appointing the first Hispanic nominee can only help Obama in this group. And opposing that nomination is a path the Republicans may be wise to tread with due caution.

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