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Analysis: Why Latino voters can be quite relevant in 2014

With the 2014 midterms already in sight, many are asking if Latino voters will once again be a critical electorate as they were in 2012. Recently, Latino Decisions presented detailed analysis of 24 GOP held House districts where Latino votes are positioned to determine outcomes and released polling data from these districts examining what role immigration reform will have on their 2014 vote. Our conclusion: Latino voters have the capacity to be quite relevant in 2014, depending on what happens with immigration reform.

Not everyone out there agrees, including Nathan Gonzales who recently took on our work in a post for NBC Latino.

RELATED: Analysis: Why Latino voters won’t decide control of House in 2014

As we note in the original presentation of our analysis, there are three important caveats associated with our work – all of which speak to criticisms that Gonzales raises.

First, because the population data that we use are from the 2010 Census, they do not reflect subsequent Latino population growth.  This means that our data underestimate the Latino population share and overestimate the white share. Regardless, one point is clear: the 2014 midterm election will feature the smallest share of white voters in the country’s history.

Second, voter turnout declines precipitously in midterm elections – from about 60 percent of eligible voters in presidential elections to just over 40 percent in midterm elections. While some think the President’s party will always lose seats in a midterm, the party of the President gained House seats in two of the last four midterm elections.

To be sure, Latino turnout relative to overall population lags behind other groups, but so does participation by other groups during midterms. Thus, the degree to which “marginal” midterm voters are motivated to turn out overwhelmingly for one party can have outsized effects in competitive contexts.

To this end, the status quo outcomes being predicted by many analysts stem in part from expectations that Latinos will vote at low rates in 2014.  However, if Latinos are mobilized out of frustration or anger with House Republicans for blocking immigration reform, their heightened turnout in 2014 will take these analysts by surprise. This is what happened in 2010 when analysts at Rothenberg, Cook, and even Nate Silver   failed to predict Harry Reid’s near six point victory to Sharron Angle. .

For what it is worth, there is also evidence that the House GOP’s immigration tactics alienate another fast growing group of voters – Asian Americans. And of course, there is the long play. Voting is not a one-time event and once people get in the habit of voting for one party, those attachments can last a lifetime.

In our recent poll of Latinos residing in our tier one and tier two districts, we captured some of these effects by sampling voters who turned out in 2010 (a more engaged and somewhat more conservative sub-group) and those who voted in 2012 but not in 2010. Among Latino midterm voters in these 24 GOP held districts, 71 percent say they have a more favorable view of the GOP after hearing a statement from Congressman Paul Ryan saying “we need to offer people a path to earned legalization and a chance to earn citizenship.”

In contrast, 78 percent say they will be even more opposed to the GOP after hearing Iowa Rep. Steve King say  “Congress does not have an obligation to resolve the issue of the 11 million people who are here illegally.”

This is the definition of a swing electorate. What’s more, even if tier one and tier two GOP incumbents survive in 2014, they are unlikely to survive in 2016.

Third, the competitiveness of House races is shaped by factors such as retirements, divisive primaries, and challenger quality that are only now coming into focus. This can be seen in two districts included in our analysis: Nevada’s 3rd and Minnesota’s 6th. In the latter, Michelle Bachman, who narrowly won (1.2%) while underperforming Mitt Romney by nearly 14 points in 2012, is retiring. Thus, without the Tea Party firebrand to run against, Democrats are unlikely to compete for that seat in 2014.

Nevada’s 3rd suggests different dynamics. Instead of running against a lackluster opponent, Joe Heck will be facing a heavily funded candidate with the full backing of the Reid machine. And let’s not forget how significant Latino turnout was to Reid’s 2010 victory against Tea Party darling Sharron Angle, or did we already mention that?

David F. Damore is a Senior Analyst at Latino Decisions and Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. His also a Nonresident Fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Governance Studies Program, and a key vote advisor to Project Vote Smart.

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