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Will the Minority Vote Matter?

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Pundits are predicting that the black and Latino vote can shape the results this year, something we’ve heard every election for the last 40 years. But this year, it looks possible for them to affect national politics beyond the boundaries of their districts.

There are two ways minority voters could be pivotal in 2010. The first involves their ability to change the outcome of statewide elections. This is a difficult threshold to meet simply because of the math of minority votes. In the 2008 election, for example, despite widespread mobilization and record levels of support, only in North Carolina, Florida and New Mexico were minorities essential to Obama’s victories.

This year, Latino voters will be in a position to influence gubernatorial elections in California, Colorado and Texas, and senatorial races in California and Nevada. Latinos constitute the great majority of minority voters in these states, but rather than attribute such victories to the minorities as a group, it would be more accurate to describe them as a reflection of Latino turnout and preferences. This is what Latino leaders are likely to do -- even though this will likely lead to disagreements with African American leaders.

Thanks to the Voting Rights Act redistricting requirements,  district-based races that include congressional, state and local legislative contests always reflect minority preferences. This is why the percentage of Black and Latino Congressmen and women is so much greater than their percentage of governors and senators. Latinos and African American members of Congress, almost all of whom are Democrats, are not at risk of losing to Republican challengers even while Republicans have a good chance to become the majority party in the House. But because these representatives are concentrated within majority-minority districts, the probability that either group will influence outcomes in non-minority districts in this election is low.

Overall, minorities and Latinos in particular have a good chance of preventing a Republican takeover of the Senate. Latinos will also be able to claim credit if Democrats prevail in gubernatorial elections in California, Colorado and Texas.

To convert this highly likely scenario into reality requires the following tactics. In California, Jerry Brown must develop a new type of Latino outreach. He must abandon or greatly expand his ads so that they do more than emphasize his historical connections to Cesar Chávez. In Colorado, the stealth union-based campaign that led to Ken Salazar’s senatorial triumph must be emulated. In Nevada, Harry Reid must similarly use unions to mobilize Latino voters in his Senate race. These steps make it likely that Latinos will finally begin to realize the influence pundits have so mistakenly attributed to them.

Rodolfo de la Garza, a Columbia University professor of Political Science, has studied immigration, political attitudes and voting for over 30 years. He directed the first national political survey of Latinos and has authored, co-authored and edited 18 books and more than 100 scholarly articles and reports on foreign policy, immigration and political attitudes and behavior.