After decades of use, the tired metaphor of the "sleeping giant" can be tossed. More than 10.8 million Hispanics woke up and went to the polls November 4—compared to 7.6 million in the 2004 presidential election—helping red states turn blue and adding to Sen. Barack Obama’s overwhelming victory in the Electoral College.
Nationwide, 63 percent of Hispanic voters ages 45-plus cast their ballots for Obama, and about 35 percent for Republican rival Sen. John McCain, according to CNN.com’s 2008 presidential exit polling data.
In the Mountain West, what Roberto Suro calls the "blue blob" that Democrats have been trying to create finally took shape, the University of Southern California journalism professor and former director of the Pew Hispanic Center, says. Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada—three states that gave their electoral votes to Republican candidate George W. Bush in 2004—went for Obama this time, with CNN exit polls pegging the Hispanic vote as among the key factors in the shift. Latinos supported Obama by 73 percent in Colorado, 69 percent in New Mexico, and 78 percent in Nevada—making Latinos the second most likely group to vote for Obama (African Americans, 95 percent of whom voted for Obama, were first).
But Suro says that in Florida, which also went into the Obama column—and where 57 percent of Latinos voted for the Democrat—the Hispanic influence could be harder to pin down. "Understanding the Latino vote in Florida will take some time because it is such a heterogeneous vote now," he says. “They were one important factor in Florida, but it’s hard to know how much credit to give them” for Obama’s victory in the Sunshine State.
Arturo Vargas, the NALEO Educational Fund executive director, is not as reluctant to give Hispanics credit for helping swing Florida Obama’s way. "[President George W.] Bush took Florida in 2004 with the Latino vote," he says, "and this year Latinos swung the other way and helped Obama carry that state, Nevada, New Mexico, and Colorado." Hispanics, he adds, "vote their interests; they vote for the candidate that is listening to them and is willing to respond to their needs. They are willing to swing one way or another."
And now? "I would hope that the next administration and Congress are going to understand [Latinos’] impact and put a focus on their issues," Vargas says, listing the economy, the war, health, and immigration reform as the top concerns of Hispanic voters. "This is an indication of how people are hurting. They can’t afford health care, and they have family members serving in Iraq. They want their sons, grandsons, daughters, and granddaughters back home."