Latino vote may top 12 million in 2012

The voting population of Latinos has exploded to the point where Latinos will not only be a decisive force in the presidential election, but will likely affect the outcome of political contests from school boards and statehouses to Congress, according a new report by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

"Latino voter enthusiasm is up," said Arturo Vargas, executive director of NALEO. A recent poll by ImpreMedia-Latino Decisions confirms that analysis, counting three quarters of Latino voters as actively engaged in the election with 14% of all Latinos saying they are actively working on getting out the vote.

The number of registered Latinos has increased by 26% in the last four years to 12.2 million or 8.7% of all voters. A new potential Latino voter turns 18 every 30 seconds. Already, one of four U.S. citizens under the age of 18 is Latino, including 48% of the youth population of Texas, Vargas said, but low voter registration among young people and new voter ID laws could dampen turnout.

Clarissa Martinez, who works on civic engagement for the National Council of La Raza, cautioned that Latino voting power is held back by a lack of registration. "Once Latinos register they vote in nearly as high a numbers as anyone," she said. But a third of the entire community is not yet 18, another 23% are ineligible because their immigration status and just 14 million of the 24 million eligible Latino voters have actually registered, she said.

Even so, Martinez added "they can't get to the White House without the Latino vote, not with out a sizeable share... the Democrats need at least a majority but the Republicans cannot fall below a certain floor and they're not quite there just yet," meaning that Democrats need to pull in big numbers of Latinos voting for them and Republicans need to meet a threshold they haven't yet secured.

If Latinos do turn out in high numbers, their effect on the presidential elections could be decisive. A 2008 CNN exit poll showed that 67% of Latino voters went with then-Sen. Barack Obama to 31% for Sen. John McCain.

An Oct 17-20 poll of likely Latino voters conducted by NBC News with the Wall Street Journal and Telemundo had Obama at 70% to Mitt Romney's 25%.

"President Obama today enjoys a lead in the battleground states, and that is because of the Latino vote," said Maria Cardona, a Democratic CNN analyst.

But the presidential elections are not the only elections where Latinos could have a major impact. Vargas said Latinos are increasingly running at the county level, on school boards, to offices that once seemed out of reach, then moving up from there. There are Latinos running for Senate and House seats this year in 39 of the 50 states. NALEO projects there will be 10 new Latino state senators to bring the total to 77. There are currently 190 Latinos in state houses and assemblies and NALEO expects that number to rise to 217, with Hispanics running in 21 states including places as far flung as Arkansas and Maine.

Two Latinos are running for the U.S. Senate. In Arizona, former Surgeon General Richard Carmona is taking on Rep. Jeff Flake. In Texas, Latinos hope to elect their first Senator as polls show Republican and former state solicitor Ted Cruz running ahead.

In Congress, there are 24 current Latinos. There are 22 incumbents running, all of which are likely to be re-elected.

Latino electoral influence has been rising steadily for years. In 2010, Latinos were critical to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's victory. Latino Republicans increased their House representations from three to seven, the Senate Republicans added Marco Rubio of Florida and two Latino governors were added.

A good example of Latino electoral influence this year is Florida. Ana Navarro, a Republican CNN analyst, said the makeup of Latino voters in Florida has created a challenge for both parties as Puerto Ricans and Colombians rise in what was once a state dominated by Cubans. Both parties have had to focus on "micro targeting" ethnic groups and talk more about Latin American issues, trade, and education.

"President Obama is just off enough with just enough groups, including Hispanics, where the lead that he enjoyed four years ago with Sen. John McCain has probably been erased and if the trend continues I'd say Pres. Obama probably stands to lose Florida," Navarro said.

Cardona said the changing demographics could tilt the elections either way. "It is razor thin and I absolutely think the Hispanic vote could absolutely make a decisive difference."

Obama's emphasis on Latino voters is evidence by his renewed support for immigration reform, an issue he championed in 2008 but didn't move on. He told the Des Moines Register of Iowa in an interview published Wednesday that he believes he will achieve immigration reform next year. He also told her: "Should I win a second term, a big reason I will win a second term is because the Republican nominee and the Republican Party have so alienated the fastest-growing demographic group in the country, the Latino community."