44 Million Strong

The rise in Hispanic voters can help Democrats—unless an anti-immigrant backlash kicks in.

The minority population of the United States is now just over 100 million, according to Census Bureau estimates. That's one-third of the country. The largest minority? Hispanics—44 million, compared with 40 million African-Americans. The fastest-growing minority? Hispanics. Their population has increased by more than 25 percent since 2000.

Hispanics tend to vote Democratic. Typically, more than 60 percent vote Democratic in presidential and congressional elections, according to network exit polls since 1980. President Bush has had strong ties to the Hispanic community since his days as governor of Texas. His support among Hispanics topped 40 percent in 2004. But the Republican Party's gains, which also showed up in the Hispanic vote for Congress in 2004, disappeared in 2006, in part because House Republicans took a hard line against illegal immigrants.

The growth in the nation's Hispanic population can mean two things, politically. In the long run, it can mean more Democratic voters, as more Hispanics become citizens, register, and vote. In the short run, it can mean a backlash against illegal immigration. The backlash is already having an impact on the 2008 Republican presidential race, where candidates have been feeling pressure to take a tougher line against illegal immigration. "The issue of immigration is, of course, enormously important to me," Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado said at last week's Republican debate. "I get the hint here that there are conversions happening on this issue."

Which reaction predominates—backlash or empowerment—depends on what part of the United States you are looking at. Brookings Institution demographer William Frey makes a point about minority population growth in this country. "The important thing about this milestone is not just the number—100 million minorities," he said, "but the dispersal of these minorities across the country to states that did not have large minority populations."

Two groups of states have had higher-than-average Hispanic population growth. First, those in the interior West, such as Arizona, Nevada, and Colorado. They have large Hispanic populations (20 to 29 percent). Hispanic voting power could help tilt those Bush states into the Democratic column with relatively little risk of backlash, Frey believes. "Immigrants have been in those states for a long time; the illegal percentage of those immigrants is somewhat smaller [than in other states]; and people are more accustomed to having immigrants work with them, seeing them on the streets, seeing them in the stores," he said. "I think maybe a new immigration compromise will be embraced."

But states in other parts of the country have also had higher-than-average Hispanic increases. In Georgia, for instance, the Hispanic population has grown by 62 percent since 2000. The Peach State started out with a very small Hispanic population—5 percent in 2000. It's now 8 percent, which is still far below that of Western states.

Politically potent states such as Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina have also experienced higher-than-average Hispanic increases since 2000, ranging from 39 percent in Iowa to 59 percent in South Carolina. Those states still have very low Hispanic populations (2 to 4 percent), however.

Frey estimates that states where the influx of Hispanics is a recent phenomenon also have a higher proportion of illegal immigrants. "Many of them are probably the least likely to be able to assimilate quickly into American life," he said.

In those states, Hispanic empowerment is a long way off. Still, some Midwestern states, including Ohio and Iowa, are so closely divided between Democratic and Republican voters that even a tiny Hispanic vote might tilt them into the Democratic column. But those are also states where the risk of anti-illegal immigration backlash is greater. "In those states, I think that new immigration ... will be a tough sell ... and may not go down very well," Frey said.

California experienced a backlash in 1994, when voters passed Proposition 187, which denied illegal immigrants access to many public services. The backlash helped Republican Gov. Pete Wilson win re-election that year. But California's large Hispanic population started registering and voting Democratic in high numbers. Hispanic voters have helped make California reliably Democratic in national elections. Empowerment trumped backlash.