A study published earlier this month by the William C. Velasquez Institute looked at statewide polling data and determined that, if the election were held today, "Latino voters would provide the margin of victory for Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama in Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico."
Although most state and national polls have declared for weeks now that these key western states are leaning toward Obama, the Velasquez report found that, minus Latino voters, Obama's advantage would disappear or fall into the margin of error.
without Latino voters: Obama 44.24 percent, McCain 42.41 percent
with Latino voters: Obama 51 percent, McCain 45 percent
without: Obama 42.4 percent, McCain 40.7 percent
with: Obama 50 percent, McCain 43 percent
New Mexico (since 38 percent of eligible voters in the state are Latino, removing them has the most dramatic swing)
without: Obama 30.6 percent, McCain 34.6 percent
with: Obama 54 percent, McCain 44 percent
The study shows the role Latino voters can and do play in tight elections and explains why both campaigns have actively targeted Latinos this year.
A Denver naturalization ceremony this summer
Yet the full weight of Latino numbers aren't reflected at the polls today in part because a significant percentage of Latinos are either too young to vote or not citizens. Earlier this year, the Pew Hispanic Center produced state by state snapshots that illustrated this point. In Colorado, Hispanics account for 20 percent of the total population but only 12 percent of eligible voters. In Nevada, Hispanics account for 24 percent of the population and 12 percent of eligible voters. For New Mexico, the figures are 45 and 38 percent, respectively.
Efforts have been made to naturalize eligible non-citizens and get them to vote, but not by the political parties. As part of the News21 project, I looked at the issue of citizenship and voting over the summer. There are an estimated 8.25 million legal permanent residents eligible for citizenship nationwide, and most are Latino. But since the application and approval period can take a year or longer, political expediency means political parties don't take up the cause and non-profits and immigrants' rights groups have to help people through the process.
"The parties just won't invest in naturalization because it's too distant from voting," Louis DeSipio, chair of the Chicano/Latino Studies department at the University of California, Irvine, told me in an interview earlier this year.
DeSipio studies the impact of naturalization on the Latino electorate, and he believes the growing Latino population -- both native born and naturalized citizens -- will continue to reshape politics in states with significant numbers of Latinos.
"The naturalized may or may not play a particularly important role in the 2008 election, but they certainly will in 2012 and 2016 and 2020. It's just then we won't think of them as naturalized any more, they'll just be part of the Latino electorate," DeSipio said.
Since Latinos overwhelmingly favor Democrats, Republicans have cause for concern, but as with most demographic shifts, the growing influence of Latinos is a slow process. Before becoming eligible for citizenship, one must be a legal permanent resident for 5 years, and the millions of people in this country illegally aren't in the queue.
But what if the next president enacts an amnesty program similar to the one in the 1980's that many credit with turning California permanently blue? Some Republicans fear a Democrat in the White House could do in one term what it might take the ebbs and flows of demographic shifts decades to accomplish: a permanent Democratic majority in the West.
Pat Buchanan did some crystal ball gazing in his latest column, and pronounced the West dead to future GOP presidential candidates should Obama take the White House. He sees the "triumvirate of Obama-Pelosi-Reid" pushing through swift amnesty for illegal aliens followed by citizenship campaigns and voter registration drives that would churn out eager Democratic voters.
"This will mean that Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona will soon move out of reach for GOP presidential candidates, as has California," Buchanan writes.
Given the anti-Republican wave sweeping the nation, it's no wonder that the western swing states are tilting toward Obama this cycle, but Buchanan's fear runs deeper: that they won't swing back if current non-citizens are enfranchised by a Democratic president.