A History of Presidential Elections and the Latino Vote
By John P. Schmal
In 1960, Hispanics represented only 3.2% of the national population. But it was during the 1960 Presidential election that the potential influence of Latinos in very close elections was first recognized. Early in the year, “Viva Kennedy” clubs were organized by Mexican-American activists in nine states to support the election of John F. Kennedy to the presidency. When the general election was held in November, it was one of the closest in history, with Kennedy winning by a plurality of only 144,673 votes.
With such a small margin of victory, many political analysts believe that the Hispanic vote actually helped Kennedy to win. Although Latinos made up a very small portion of the electorate, they voted in large numbers for Kennedy, who received about 85% of the national Hispanic vote.
Even more significant is the fact that Kennedy received 91% of the Hispanic vote in Texas, a state with a significant Mexican-American population. However, even with the Latino vote, Kennedy’s victory in Texas was by a razor-thin margin, having carried the state by only 46,000 votes. Kennedy also carried Illinois by only 9,000 votes, another state in which the Latino vote had been mobilized by the “Viva Kennedy” movement.
November 3, 1964
Presidential Election provided President Lyndon Baines Johnson with
42,825,463 votes, or 61% of the total popular vote, while Republican
candidate Barry Goldwater received only 27,146,969, or 38.4% of the popular
vote. In this case, the Latino vote was not considered crucial to Johnson's
In the 1968 Presidential Election, the Democratic candidate Hubert H. Humphrey garnered a large percentage of the nation's Hispanic votes. According to the estimates of José de la Isla, Humphrey won 87% of the Hispanic vote, while Richard Nixon received only 10% of the Mexican-American vote and 15% of the Puerto Rican vote. The Latino vote, however, did not help Humphrey to win the election. Richard Nixon won the popular vote with 31,710,470 votes (43.2%) against Humphrey's 30,898,055 votes (42.6%).
In the November 1972 Presidential Election, Nixon was reelected by a landslide, garnering 46,740,323 votes (60.7%) against the Democratic candidate, George McGovern, who polled only 28,901,598 votes, or 37.5% of the popular vote. Nixon won the electoral vote over McGovern by 520 to 17.
During this election,
President Nixon and his advisers took notice of the potential of the Latino
voter. Even before the 1972 election, explains José de la Isla, President
Nixon had already named some fifty Spanish-speaking civil servants, mostly
Mexican Americans, to top government positions. (By contrast, the Johnson
administration had named only six Spanish-speaking officeholders).
It was during the 1972 campaign, that George H.W. Bush, the Chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC) first discussed the possibility of establishing the Republic National Hispanic Assembly (RNHA). This organization, officially organized by Bush in 1974, is the only major Hispanic Republic organization affiliated with the RNC today.
More than 81,555,889
votes were cast in the Presidential election of 1976. The Democratic
candidate, Jimmy Carter of Georgia
received 40,825,839 votes, or 50% of the popular vote, defeating the
incumbent, President Gerald R. Ford of
Michigan, who received 39,147,770 votes, or
48% of the popular vote. The electoral college vote was also close, with
Jimmy Carter receiving 297 electoral votes to Ford's 240.
In the 1980
Presidential Election, the Republican candidate, Ronald Reagan of California
soundly defeated President Jimmy Carter, winning 43,901,812 popular votes
(50.9%) against Jimmy Carter's 35,483,820 votes (41.1%). Ronald Reagan's
showing with the electoral college was even more impressive, winning 489
votes against Carter's 49.
However, in 1980, the United States Census Bureau pointed out that only 36.3% of qualified Hispanic citizens were actually registered to vote. And, when the election took place in November, only 2,453,000 Latinos - or 29.9% - of the 8,210,000 Hispanics registered to vote actually went to the polls. According to CBS and New York Times Exit Polls, Jimmy Carter received 60.1% of the Hispanic vote. In contrast, the Los Angeles Times exit polls indicated that Carter had received 76% of the Latino vote, and that Reagan received only 22%.
However, Ronald Reagan's strongest Hispanic support came from the Florida, where he received at least 80% of the vote in the predominantly Cuban-American precincts of Southern Florida. This was the beginning of a trend that would continue through all of the Presidential elections into the Twenty-First Century. The loyalty of Cuban-American voters towards the Republican Party grew with the years and almost rivaled the traditional support that many African-American voters gave to the Democratic Party.
Out of 92,652,842
votes cast in the November 1984 Presidential Election, Ronald Reagan
won the popular vote by 54,455,000 votes (58.8%) to 37,577,000 (40.5%)
against Democratic candidate, Walter F. Mondale of Minnesota. Reagan also
won the Electoral College vote by a wide margin: 525 to 13.
The Los Angeles times
Poll indicated that Reagan received 47% of the Latino vote in 1984, while
Mondale received 53%. However, as in 1980, Cuban precincts in Florida voted
for Ronald Reagan with over 82% of the vote in the predominantly Cuban
precincts. Mondale received only 12.41% of the Hispanic Precinct votes in
On the other hand, George H.W. Bush carried the Hispanic precincts of Dade County with approximately 70 percent of the vote, far surpassing his proportion of the vote either nationally or statewide. In striking contrast, 55% of non-Hispanic Whites and 85% of African Americans in Dade voted for Clinton.
The 1996 Presidential Election
With more than 96 million votes cast in the 1996 Presidential Election, President Bill Clinton received 47,402,357 votes, or 49.24% of the popular vote. Senator Bob Dole of Kansas received 39,198,755 votes, receiving only 40.71% of the votes.
At the time of the 1996 Presidential Election, the Latino voting age population of the U.S. had reached 18,426,000. But only 11,209,000 of these Hispanics were citizens qualified to vote. And, of this group, only 6,573,000 were registered to vote. It is noteworthy that almost sixty percent of the Latinos registered to vote lived in four crucial states: California (2.1 million voters), Texas (1.6 million), Florida (570,000) and New York (540,000). During the 1990s, these four states held 133 electoral votes between them: California (47 votes), Texas (29), New York (36) and Florida (21).
However, on Election Day, only 4,928,000 Hispanics went to the polls. In effect, only 26.7% of the total Latino population qualified to vote actually cast their ballots. In 1996, the Latino electorate voted overwhelmingly Democratic, with Bill Clinton winning 71% of the Hispanic votes. On the other hand, the Republican Senator Bob Dole received only 21%, while ten percent of the vote went to third-party candidates.
The Cuban vote in Florida turned out to be an important factor in Clinton’s reelection. President Clinton received 35% of the traditionally Republican Cuban-American vote, a 15-percentage point improvement over his 1992 showing. This vote helped Clinton to win the state, which no Democrat had won since 1976. In Arizona, Clinton also won 90% of the Latino vote, making him the first Democrat to win the state since 1948.
Many political analysts believe that the poor showing of the Republican Party in the 1996 elections was related to the anti-immigrant proposals that were sweeping the country during the mid-1990s. For Cuban, Mexican and Central American immigrants, the passage of the “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996” (the so-called Welfare Law) had excluded non-citizen immigrants from many benefits and represented a personal attack on them. Many Latinos saw the Republican platform as being inherently hostile to Latino immigrants, including Cubans.
The 2000 Presidential Election
In the controversial Presidential Election of November 2000, the Latino vote in Florida became an important factor, possibly winning the election for Republican candidate, George W. Bush. By 2000, the Latino population of the United States reached 35,305,818, representing 12.5% of the national population. 5,934,000 Hispanic voters, representing 27.5% of the Hispanic voting age population, actually went to the polls in this election.
Democratic candidate Albert Gore, Jr., won the popular vote by 50,996,064 to 50,456,167, but George W. Bush, the Republican candidate, won the office of President by winning the electoral vote by 271 to 266.
It is very likely that the minority electorate played a role in winning the popular vote for Vice President Gore. At least 90% of African American voters cast their ballots in favor of Gore. A smaller number of Latinos - approximately 67% - cast their votes for Gore. Thirty-one percent of Hispanics voted for Bush.
In California, the 2000 census indicated a significant increase in the Latino population, which numbered 10,966,556, or 32.4% of the total state population. California also had the nation’s largest number of registered Hispanic voters (3 million). When Election Day arrived, 1.6 million of the Latinos - or 24.5% of all Latinos in California - cast their ballot for President.
In the 2000 census, Mexican Americans in California represented more than 77% of the Hispanic population. Because Mexican Americans were largely Democratic in their party affiliation, most analysts believed that this fact would play a role in giving California’s 55 electoral seats in the 2004 Presidential Election to the Democratic candidate, John Kerry.
At the time of the 2000 census, the Hispanic population of Texas had reached 6,669,666, or 31.99% of the total state population. Mexican Americans represented more than 76% of this total. This was seen as an important factor in future Presidential elections, especially with the increase of Texas electoral seats to 34 by the time of the 2004 election.
In 2000 census, the Latino population of New York reached 2,867,583 persons and represented 15.1% of the total state population. Of this figure, 1,050,293 persons were of Puerto Rican heritage and culture, representing 36.6% of the state’s Latino population. Dominicans represented another 15.9%. The majority of Puerto Ricans and Dominicans were registered as Democratic voters.
New York’s Latino population had grown so rapidly by 2000 that New York contained the third largest concentration of Hispanic voters (8.2 percent of the state electorate). When Election Day arrived, an estimated 502,000 of New York’s Latinos cast ballots, with 80% of their vote going to Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic candidate. At this time, New York’s 31 electoral seats represented another important asset for any presidential candidate.
Florida turned out to be the pivotal state in this election, and it was the Latino vote, which may have carried the state for Bush. In the 2000 census, Latinos made up 16.8% of the state population. At the time of the election, 802,000 Latinos were registered to vote, and by the time the voting booths had closed, 678,000 of the Latinos had voted. In Florida, Latinos made up 12.5% of the state electorate.
In Florida, George W. Bush carried the Hispanic vote by 50% to 48%. The Florida Hispanic vote, however, was largely Cuban, and the Cuban community had been voting Republic for the previous two decades. In most elections, Democratic presidential candidates had traditionally received only 13 percent to 15 percent of the Florida Cuban vote.
In 2000, unofficial returns showed that Mr. Gore won the heavily Cuban Miami area by a very slim margin of 39,000 votes. However, in the two heavily Cuban precincts, the 510th and the 555th, Mr. Bush won 79 percent and 89 percent respectively. In the final tally, George W. Bush carried the Florida popular vote by 2,912,790 to 2,912,253. Although the results were contested at first, on December 13, 2000, Gore conceded to George W. Bush.
It is widely believed that the outcome of this election was influenced by events that took place in Florida’s Cuban-American community months earlier. In 1999, a six-year old Cuban boy named Elían González had been picked up off the Florida coast after his mother and other Cuban refugees died when their boat capsized after fleeing Castro’s Cuba.
Miami-based Cuban relatives of Elían had gained control of the young boy and campaigned vigorously to keep him from being returned to his father in Communist Cuba. The resulting international custody dispute involving Elían González gained widespread attention around the country and the world. Then, in April 2000, the Clinton Administration enraged the Cuban community when federal agents seized Elían in a dramatic predawn raid. This action would have important political repercussions that were not clearly anticipated at the time.
In June 2000, after several court battles, Elían returned to Cuba with his father. When Vice President Al Gore ran for President in November 2000, many Cuban Americans continued to blame the Clinton Administration for its handling of the Elían González case. The anger directed toward the Democratic Party caused many Cuban-American citizens to vote for George W. Bush. Democrats and Republicans alike turned out in large numbers to vote in the Cuban precincts of Dade County in order to vent their wrath towards the Vice President and the Democratic Party.
As a result, Al Gore only received 19% of the Cuban vote. Florida was the state that decided the close election, and most political analysts are convinced that the Cuban American community played an important role in putting George W. Bush in the White House.
As the 21st Century began, political analysts were warning that the Latino vote would become the most important factor in future elections.
But, they also warned that the Latino vote is not a monolith. As a matter of fact, the Latino voter comes from a multitude of communities, with diverse cultural, economic, social, and educational experiences.
The three major Latino groups are Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and Cubans. In 1990, 60% of Latinos were of Mexican origin, 12.1% were Puerto Rican, 4.8% Cuban origin, and 10.7% were either Central or South American. The remaining 10.7% of Latinos were members of other Latino origin groups. By 1999, 65.2% of Latinos were of Mexican origin, 9.6% were Puerto Rican, 4.3% of Cuban origin. Another 14.3% of Latinos came from Central and South American backgrounds and heritages.
Because of this enormous diversity, experts have stated that candidates would help their campaigns by learning the various regional, cultural and political differences among Hispanics. Even more importantly, it is important to understand that all Latinos do not share common opinions about the issues of immigration, crime, education, abortion, and foreign policy. Although many Latinos are Democrats, as many as one-third of Latinos may vote for Republican candidates in certain circumstances.
Large Hispanic communities reside in five states with high numbers of electoral votes: California, Texas, New York, Florida, and Illinois. It is in these states that politicians must evaluate their audience carefully before beginning a political campaign.
According to the United States Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey, Latino voter registration had soared to an all-time high of almost 8.2 million voters in the 2002 General Election. Antonio Gonzalez, President of the William C. Velasquez Institute (WCVI) commented on this fact as follows: “This statistic adds another chapter to the story of rising Latino voter clout. While all voter registration has declined for every off year election since 1990, Latino voter registration accelerated its growth.”
Although Hispanic voters still make up a small percentage of the overall electorate, President George W. Bush and Democratic Presidential Candidate John Kerry began to aggressively court them in the 2004 Presidential Race. By 2004, Hispanic voters had become a significant percentage of the voters in the swing states of Arizona (16 percent), Florida (14 percent), Nevada (13 percent) and New Mexico (40 percent).
History has shown that until very recently, the Latino electorate was almost ignored by some candidates. And, before the provisions of the Voting Rights Act took effect, many Latino Americans saw that their vote was diluted by gerrymandering and reapportionment tactics. In some cases, Latinos could not vote at all. In the early years of the 21st Century, however, Latinos have traveled a long distance and have become a political force to be reckoned with.
John Schmal is an historian and genealogist, specializing in Mexico and the Southwestern U.S. He has published four works, including "Mexican-American Genealogical Research: Following the Paper Trail to Mexico" (published by Heritage Books, 2002). In recent months, Mr. Schmal has written several articles discussing various aspects of Latino representation in American government. Contact at: JohnnyPJ@aol.com
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[Federal Election Commission, “Voter Registration and Turnout in Federal Elections by Race/Ethnicity 1972-1996”]