Booming Hispanic Populations Could Tip Scales In Close 2012 Election

VIDEO: President makes historic visit to Puerto Rico, looks to win Latino
WATCH Obama Courts Hispanic Voters

As presidential candidates compile their campaign schedules, they might want to consult the latest census data. A report out this week shows that 22 of the country's 100 largest cities are now majority minority cities, meaning there are now more minorities than whites in almost a quarter of America's biggest metropolises.

Almost all of this minority growth is due to a booming Hispanic population, a group that both parties are courting leading up to the 2012 election.

Over the past decade the Latino population has increased from 35.3 million in 2000 to 50.5 million in the 2010, according to census data. More than 9 percent of all eligible voters were Hispanic in the 2010 elections, up from 8.6 percent in 2006.

And in a close election, that 9 percent could make the difference between victory and defeat.

"Hispanics can be an important swing vote in swing elections," said William Frey, a demographer with the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, who wrote the report. "They don't have a majority of the electorate by any means, but they have enough in close election to swing it."

Already presidential candidates are making pointed efforts to court Latino voters. The first ad put out by the Democratic National Committee this election cycle was in Spanish and President Obama made a trip to Puerto Rico in June, the first presidential trip to the U.S. territory in 50 years.

Several GOP presidential candidates have scheduled appearances at Hispanic events including Mitt Romney, who will be in Florida Thursday to address the Republican National Hispanic Assembly. In January fellow Republican candidate Tim Pawlenty also made a stop in Florida to meet with the Hispanic Leadership Network Conference and candidate Newt Gingrich has a Spanish-language twitter account.

And while Hispanics have historically voted for Democrats, they are "clearly not as strongly Democrat in their vote" as, for example, African Americans, almost 90 percent of whom voted Democratic in the past three elections, Frey said.

In 2008, 67 percent of Latinos supported Obama at the polls and in the 2010 midterm elections 60 percent cast a ballot for Democratic representatives, according to national exit polls.

Hispanics are one of the fastest growing voting blocs nationwide, with more than half a million young Latinos turning 18 and becoming eligible to vote each year. But nearly half of this rapidly growing group is concentrated in just 10 large metro areas; two of them, Las Vegas and Albuquerque, fall in battleground states.

In New Mexico, where 46 percent of the population is Hispanic, 41 percent of the state's voters in 2008 were Latino. This group voted overwhelmingly for Obama in the presidential election, with 69 percent of Hispanics voting for the Democrat. With their support Obama won the state by a 15-point margin over his Republican rival, John McCain.

But in the 2010 midterm elections, New Mexico was a completely different story. The state swung back to red and elected the country's first Latina governor, Susana Martinez, a Republican. In fact, the three Hispanics elected to statewide offices in 2010 were all Republicans.

"This is just further proof of how Republicans are more committed than ever to reaching out and engaging Latino voters," said Republican National Committee spokeswoman Victoria Martinez of the GOP victories.

Martinez said the GOP intends to build on its successes of 2010 and continue reaching out to Latino voters during the 2012 election season.

"Latinos are an important part of our party, and it's obvious that they will continue to play an important role in U.S. elections," she said.

And as minority populations continue to grow, their support is becoming even more vital to Democratic candidates as well, Frey said.

"I think [Hispanic population growth] will change the nature of the Democratic base," he said. "If you look at the Democrat's critical base as being a big tent, the party now has a more diverse tent."

Frey said this growing diversity makes issues like immigration reform and the DREAM Act, which provides immigrant children a path to citizenship by attending college or joining the military, especially important for the Democratic Party.

But Mark Hugo Lopez, the associate director of Pew Hispanic Research Center, argues that Hispanics are more concerned about the economy than any other issue because the "recession has impacted Latinos more than the general public," he said.

The unemployment rate for Hispanics was 2 percentage points higher than the rest of the country with 11.3 percent of Hispanics out of a job in July compared to 9.1 percent for the country as a while.

And according to Republican National Convention spokeswoman Victoria Martinez, the economic woes of Hispanics could provide an opportunity for Republicans to pick up votes from a constituency that has in the past supported their rivals.

"Obama's failed policies have hit Latinos especially hard," Martinez said in an email. "The President's abysmal economic record and his failure to deliver on his campaign promises will be the issues weighing most heavily on the minds of Latino voters as they look towards the 2012 elections."