President Obama travels to Texas on Thursday for the second time in as many weeks. He will talk about job training and economic opportunity, but he may have a political opportunity on his mind as well.
Obama lost Texas by more than 1 million votes last year. But Democrats believe their fortunes in the Lone Star State may soon change, thanks to demographics and a new organizational push.
New numbers released by the Census Bureau on Wednesday highlight the rising political power of Latinos in the United States. In the 2012 presidential election, 1.4 million more Latinos voted than did four years earlier; the number of non-Hispanic white voters shrank by more than 2 million.
Political demographer Ruy Teixeira of the left-leaning Center for American Progress says Latinos' voting power would be even stronger if more of those who were eligible to vote actually did so.
"There's a lot of upside potential for the Latino vote. There are just going to be more of them, and second, there's a lot of room for improvement in terms of turnout rates," Teixeira says.
According to the census figures, turnout among Latinos who were eligible to vote last year was just 48 percent, 14 points lower than the turnout for non-Hispanic whites. Latino turnout was considerably higher in swing states, though. These numbers aren't as precise, because of smaller sample sizes, but the trend is clear: 52 percent of Latinos turned out to vote in Colorado, 62 percent in Florida and 67 percent in Virginia — all states where the Obama campaign invested heavily in Latino mobilization and won by narrow margins.
"I think it tells you you get what you pay for," Teixeira says. "We know there's this sleeping giant of the Hispanic electorate. So if you don't do anything, or you just do the average amount, you'll get your average turnout.
"But there's a potential there to put more effort, more mobilization, more money, more time, into getting the Hispanic voters to the polls, and it should produce an increment in their vote."
Jeremy Bird, who was national field director for Obama's re-election campaign, told volunteers in a video message this winter that their job is not finished.
"Where do we go from here?" he said. "One of the answers to that is Texas — a state at a political crossroads."
In Texas, Latinos account for nearly 40 percent of the population. But voter turnout among Texas Latinos is even lower than in the rest of the country. Bird said his team knows how to change that, and he has kicked off a long-term effort dubbed "Battleground Texas."
"Over the next several years, in every single community, in every single neighborhood, our team of volunteers and organizers will be knocking on doors, registering voters, and engaging Texans to make sure that they not only turn out to vote on Election Day, but they become more politically active in the day-to-day electoral process," he said.
Some Texas Republicans are skeptical that Democrats will be competitive in their state anytime soon. Gov. Rick Perry called it the biggest pipe dream he's ever heard of. No Democrat has won statewide office in Texas since 1994. And Democrats fare even worse among non-Hispanic white voters in Texas than in many other parts of the country.
Still, the census data do show that big changes are possible over time. In 1996, turnout among African-Americans nationwide trailed white turnout by nearly 8 percentage points. Blacks began to close that gap even before the first African-American president was elected. And last year, black turnout actually topped non-Hispanic whites' for the first time on record.
If the fast-growing Latino population shows anything like that kind of improvement in turnout, and if Democrats manage to hold on to many of those new voters, Teixeira says it won't be a question of whether Texas turns purple, only a question of when.
"2016 — my guess is probably a bit too soon," he says. "2020 — I think it starts to look a lot more doable."
By 2020, Latinos are expected to outnumber non-Hispanic whites in Texas — and neither political party can afford to take them for granted.
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