By David Byler, RCP
One of the biggest stories of the 2012 election was the Latino vote — how President Obama won Hispanics so convincingly; whether Republicans need Latinos to win future elections; how Republicans can win over Hispanics — but much less attention has been paid to Latinos this election cycle.
These voters will likely have less influence in 2014 than they did two years ago, and there are several reasons why. These range from decreased turnout overall in midterms to the low concentration of Latinos in states with key Senate battles to disappointment over the president’s shelving of action on immigration reform. But some of the most important impediments to Hispanic influence in the upcoming elections are structural.
Consider the makeup of congressional districts and of the Senate map this year. Aside from a handful of western states, Hispanic voters are concentrated in a few highly populous states and are heavily packed into a few congressional districts. So-called “minority-majority” districts have increased the diversity in Congress, but they also dilute the ability of minorities to affect election outcomes in swing districts.
In the Senate, the situation is a bit of an anomaly: Only two of the 12 Senate races believed to be in play this year (Colorado and Kansas) take place in states where Hispanics make up more than 10 percent of the population. Here is a closer look:
Although the nation’s demographic picture is changing, the figure below demonstrates that Hispanics are still most heavily concentrated in a modest number of states, most of them in the far West and Southwest.
New Mexico, California, Texas, Arizona, Nevada and Colorado have large Hispanic populations. At the time of the last census, Hispanics composed roughly 16 percent of the U.S. population, but in only nine states — the six just cited plus New Jersey, New York and Florida — were Latinos represented proportionately well.
Put differently, only 18 U.S. senators serve a state that is as Hispanic (or more so) than the national average. Proportional representation by ethnicity hardly translates directly into policy changes, but at a time when Latinos are increasingly voting Democratic, we can drill deeper into the numbers to get an inkling of how much influence Latinos lose because of their geographic placement.
This graph compares Latinos’ actual influence on the Senate to their “ideal” influence. Actual influence is calculated by adding the percentages of the population that Latinos make up in the states that hold senatorial elections in a given year (with special elections omitted). To arrive at the number 3.96 for 2012 (the salmon-colored column), percentages were translated into decimals (40 percent would equal 0.4, for example) and those figures were tallied together. Ideal influence is how much sway Latinos would have if senatorial seats were apportioned evenly by population without regard to the vagaries of geography.
By these measures, Latinos have between 64.3 percent and 69.3 percent of the influence that their population size might ideally merit. Note that this measure isolates disadvantage from geography and excludes any effects that turnout, age distribution or other factors might have. The exact number will vary across years as the Latino population grows and as different states hold senatorial elections, but that’s they lay of the land as of the last decennial census.
After the 2010 elections, state legislatures redrew congressional districts. Most analysts and academics focused on how much the new congressional districts favored Republicans over Democrats and why that happened (some good reading on this issue can be found here, here, here and here), but less attention was paid to how the most recent round of redistricting affected Hispanics. Latinos are tightly packed into relatively few House districts, and that causes them to be under-represented in the lower chamber.
The histogram above summarizes the situation using data from the American Community Survey. There are quite a few tall bins to the left of the dotted line (representing the mean) and the bins to the right of the dotted line are spread across a large range of values. For those unfamiliar with histograms, this means that a large number of congressional districts have a below-national-average percentage of Hispanics while a few districts have large Latino populations.
Put another way, almost half of all House members hail from districts where less than one in 10 citizens is Hispanic (the estimated national average is 17.1 percent). Roughly two-thirds of the members come from districts where the percentage of Hispanics is lower than the national average.
In other words, congressional districts are constructed such that most incumbents running for re-election do not have to worry much about earning Latino votes. We can gain more insight by breaking the data down geographically.
First, a few districts in the Southwest have a high concentration of Hispanics while most of the rest of the country does not. Even within states with high Latino populations (e.g. Texas, Arizona, California), the concentration of Hispanics across districts varies widely. For example, the congressional districts in East Texas are much less heavily Latino than those on the state’s border with Mexico.
Second, Latinos are often concentrated in densely populated, urban areas. This pattern shows up clearly in Illinois:
The state’s Latinos are clustered in the Chicago area (top right-hand corner) while more rural districts have low Hispanic populations.
Some might argue that having a few majority-minority Hispanic districts is more advantageous than having broader representation across in the rest of the country: Latinos in highly concentrated districts can elect representatives who focus on Latino issues, answer to Latino populations and make sure their interests are well-represented on Capitol Hill.
Yet, passing laws requires congressional majorities. As long as most districts do not contain sufficient Latinos, many members will have less incentive to pass laws perceived to be of primary benefit to that community. This dynamic is unlikely to change in the near future. The next round of redistricting happens after the 2020 election.