What does a Mexican-hating right-wing radio shock jock named Jay Severin have in common with President Obama's yet-to-be-named Supreme Court nominee? The former already is, and the latter will likely turn out to be, a signifier of a new political calculus that is lowering the profile of the burgeoning Latino electorate, two-thirds of which is Mexican American.
Between 1998 and 2008, the Latino share of the national electorate nearly doubled from 3.6% to 7.4% of all voters. In 2000, Latino voters were so heavily courted that pundits labeled them the new soccer moms. But despite that surge, by 2008, Latinos had been downgraded almost to a political footnote.
To be sure, the campaigns went after Latino voters, and in the end, Latinos expanded Obama's margin of victory in a few battleground states -- primarily Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada. But in the final analysis, they received a lot less attention last year than they did in 2000. In fact, the liveliest campaign discussion about Latino voters revolved around the idiotic -- and yet widely believed -- suggestion from the Hillary Clinton camp that Latinos would not vote for a black man.
But the dimming spotlight on this voting bloc had less to do with the Democratic nominee than it did with the rightward lurch of the Republican Party. Immigration reform activists like to say that Latinos rejected the GOP because of the Republicans' anti-immigrant stance, but the truth is even simpler than that.
In 2000, George W. Bush made outreach to Latinos a central part of his effort to cast himself as a "compassionate conservative." He promised immigration reform; he went to Mexico on his first foreign trip (Obama went to Canada); he leaked word of a possible Supreme Court nominee. Bush charmed, courted and routinely acknowledged Latino voters. And though he hadn't delivered on promises, Bush nonetheless raised his Latino support from 35% in 2000 to 44% in 2004.
But as the White House and the GOP tilted rightward, not only did outreach dry up, but anti-Latino rhetoric on its fringes increased. For all their insistence that race has nothing to do with their stance on immigration, the right's nativist activists do spew an awful lot of nasty remarks. After the election, Mel Martinez, Florida senator and former chairman of the GOP, admitted that voices within his party were spouting "anti-Hispanic rhetoric."
The problem isn't just those voices -- though radio blowhard Severin, a former GOP consultant, was recently suspended for calling Mexican immigrants "leeches" and "the world's lowest of primitives." The bigger problem is that there's no longer a strong Republican voice that mitigates or mutes the harsh racism of the far right.
In the end, perhaps as much as anything else, it was GOP negligence that gave last year's Democratic nominee a phenomenal 14-percentage-point jump in Latino support compared with 2004. While John Kerry won 53% of the Latino vote in 2004, Obama captured 67% four years later. In California and Nevada, Obama's numbers were 74% and 76%, respectively. And according to a recent Gallup poll, Latino voters aren't suffering from buyer's remorse: Obama has an 85% approval rating among Latinos.
Paradoxically, it might be that such lopsided support means there will not be a Latino nominated to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice David H. Souter. It's one thing to put U.S. Appeals Court Judge Sonia Sotomayor, a New Yorker and the daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants, on the short list. But without solid Republican competition for Latino votes, the pressure to actually name her is minimal. (Besides, the White House is no doubt aware that Puerto Ricans make up less than 10% of the U.S. Latino population and, if Obama is looking for gains in that demographic, such a selection would have little political resonance in Western battleground states and among the two-thirds of Latinos who are of Mexican origin.)
All this adds up to Democratic complacency vis-a-vis Latino voters (and probably no Latino nominee). Democrats have other constituencies -- generally more sophisticated, monied and politically savvy -- to tend to.
In the meantime, a survey published last week by the nonpartisan Latino Decisions found that 63% of respondents identify the economy and jobs as the "most important issue for the new administration this year" (at 12%, immigration reform was a distant second). That means that, like most Americans, Latinos have money on their minds. And if the president helps ease the financial crisis, he's likely to keep their support no matter what else he does.
Democratic strategists surely recognize the growing role Latinos will play in the future of politics in this country. The question is how far out of their way they will go to court them, especially without the presence of Republicans vying for Latinos' electoral love.