Diego Graglia, FI2W blog editor
Latin American immigrants became an important segment of the American electorate in this election, representing forty percent of the overall Hispanic vote, according to data released this afternoon by pro-immigrant organization America’s Voice.
Initial estimates indicate that about 10 million Hispanics voted in this election, maintaining their 8 percent share of the national electorate in a year in which more Americans voted than in previous contests. While the percentage was the same, the size of the Hispanic electorate increased considerably from the 7.6 million Latinos who cast their votes in 2004 and the almost six million who did so in 2000.
Mexicans, Dominicans, and immigrants from Central and South American countries “voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama for president,” according to pollster Sergio Bendixen, whose firm Bendixen and Associates conducted exit polls among Latino voters in Los Angeles and Miami. Bendixen said 78 percent of Latin American immigrant voters chose the Democratic candidate and 22 percent supported Republican John McCain.
Support for Obama was lower –61 percent– among U.S. born Hispanics, who were 50 percent of all Hispanic voters.
The remaining 10 percent of the Hispanic electorate is composed of two groups of non-immigrant Latinos: Cuban refugees and Puerto Rican U.S. citizens. While Puerto Ricans split 77 to 23 percent in favor of Obama, Bendixen reported, Cubans were the only subgroup to prefer John McCain, by a margin of 69 to 31 percent.
“Thirty-two percent of all Latin American immigrants who voted (in this election) were first-time voters,” Bendixen said today during a conference call with national media.
“There is no doubt that the immigration issue played a very important part in getting them involved in this presidential contest,” Bendixen added, indicating that the recent divisive immigration reform debate may well have energized many Latinos to vote this year, and helped Obama win the Presidency.
After the 2006 immigrant demonstrations asking Congress to pass new laws on the matter, many Hispanics were driven to become citizens and register to vote. “In 2006, they marched. In 2007, 1.4 million of them became citizens, a record number. In 2008, they voted,” said Joshua W. Hoyt, the executive director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, who also took part in the call. The coalition produced its own exit poll in the Chicago metropolitan area.
Latino voters confirmed their importance in four battleground states –Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado and Florida– by giving Obama the winning margin and a combined total of 46 electoral votes, according to Bendixen.
Surprisingly, Latinos could also be credited with putting Obama over the top in Virginia and Indiana, the pollster said.
These states “are not associated with Latin American immigration” but exit polls showed that “there were enough Hispanic voters that they merit being given the result,” Bendixen said, because there too they voted overwhelmingly for Obama. In those two states, where the final vote was very close, he said, “the winning margin was the Hispanic vote.”
The major news media’s national exit poll by Edison Media Research confirmed the overall direction of the Hispanic vote, 67 to 23 percent in favor of Obama.
Bendixen’s analysis was based on exit polls of 5,000 Latino voters in Miami and Los Angeles. He said his firm’s findings could be safely extrapolated to interpret the nationwide Hispanic vote, because the poll included large numbers of voters of varied national origins.
The analysis also showed that immigration was, after the economy, the second most important issue for Latin American immigrant voters, three-fifths of whom said it was “very important” to them. Similarly, 51 percent of U.S.-born Hispanics considered it “very important” — and 40 percent of them said it was “somewhat important.”
Frank Sharry, the executive director of America’s Voice, said the results show that instead of a poisonous issue for candidates, immigration “has become a favorable issue for Democrats.”
“The consensus was that it was a third rail in Ameircan politics, that it helped Republicans,” he said. “That conventional wisdom has been turned on its head in this election. It’s an issue for Democrats and (Obama) arguably won six states in part from bigger turnout and bigger support from Hispanic voters.”