When the 2000 Census revealed that the Latino population had become the nation's most populous minority a decade earlier than projected, the media began speculating how this would translate at the ballot box.
"Will Minorities Take Over America?" asked the Chattanooga Times/Free Press. (September 2000). "Census 2000 Blurs Black-or-White Issue; Some Fear Multiracial Snapshot Could Harm Civil Rights Efforts" said the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (March 2001), while the American Prospect predicted a "Liberal Crack-Up" (November 2001).
But conversations with scholars who study Latino electoral behavior suggest that the hand-wringing, while earnest, is probably ill-informed and certainly premature.
The facts are clear, however. The Latino American population grew 58 percent between 1990 and 2000, making this group with 35.3 million people and 12.5 percent of the nation's population, compared with 34.7 million people and 12.3 percent for African Americans -- the nation's largest minority. And if immigration and birth rates remain high, this population is poised to increase its share of the U.S. population in the coming decades.
Equally remarkable have been the gains Latinos have made at the ballot box.
"Going back to 1980, which is when the first reasonably solid data were available, (the Latino electorate) has grown about 20 percent every four years. And that's a great number; no other large national electorate can match it," says Dr. Louis DeSipio, a professor of political science at the University of California-Irvine whose many publications include the classroom standard, Counting the Latino Vote: Latinos as a New Electorate (1996).
But there's more to the picture, DeSipio says.
"What that 20 percent growth obscures is that the number of those eligible who don't vote is also growing by about that much. So you have two stories. One is increasing numbers turning out every four years. At the same time, even as the numbers grow, you have an equal share not turning out. It's a glass-half- full-half-empty kind of thing."
What this means for Latinos is that the political power has failed to keep pace with population growth, adds Dr. Melissa Michelson, an assistant professor of political science at California State University-Fresno. Michelson's work focuses on the links between government policy and Latino voter mobilization.
"There's a clear difference between having the numbers to be a potential source of political power and being politicized and mobilized to where you can get a piece of that political power pie," she explains. And Latinos have not yet bridged that gap.
Michelson calls Latino electoral participation rates "dismal" in comparison to the group's share of the American population. Indeed, an Associated Press analysis of the 2000 presidential election found that only about a quarter of voting age adults in predominantly Latino neighborhoods voted in the election, compared with 51 percent of the eligible electorate as a whole. Michelson explains that the factors that tend to encourage turnout are not in place among Latinos: Many are not citizens and the Latino population tends to be younger, to have lower-than-average incomes and lower-thanaverage education levels -- all demographics associated with low voter turnout.
"The potential is there," Michelson adds. "If Latinos were mobilized, they'd have the numbers to make an impact in many states -- but they' re not close to realizing that potential yet."
Latinos may not yet be a political force, but both political parties appear to be looking forward to the day when they will be. The 2000 presidential campaign saw unprecedented outreach efforts aimed at Latino voters. George Bush lost the Latino vote to Al Gore by a 35-to-62 percent margin, but he improved the GOP's margin substantially over the 21 percent that Bob Dole managed against the Clinton-Gore ticket in 1996.
Until the events of Sept. …