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Miller: Election demonstrated rising Latino political clout

Updated: December 13, 2012 10:25AM



In 1992, Latinos made up about 8 percent of Illinois’ population, but only 1 percent of that year’s total voter pool was Latino. The trend continued for years. Latinos just didn’t vote.

Twenty years later, things have changed in a big way. According to exit polling, 12 percent of Illinois voters last week were Latinos, which is pretty close to their percentage (16 percent) of Illinois’ overall population.

That high participation contributed to many of last week’s electoral surprises.

Twenty years ago, 85 percent of Illinois voters were white and 12 percent were black, while the other 3 percent consisted of Latinos, Asian-Americans and others. Last week, whites made up 70 percent of the state’s voters, blacks were 14 percent and Asian-Americans 2 percent.

In 2004, 2006 and 2010, exit polls showed that 8 percent of voters were Latino, and they accounted for 6 percent in 2008. A persistent, years-long push by immigration rights groups to register Latinos to vote and get them to the polls definitely had an impact here this year, along with a decidedly hostile national Republican position on immigrant rights.

The state Democratic Party focused hard on getting Latinos to the polls. Only about 40 percent of Latinos live in Chicago, with the vast majority in the suburbs and downstate. So concentrating on those voters was a way of pumping up the total Democratic vote, and it appeared to work quite effectively.

Exit polling showed that 81 percent of Illinois Latinos voted for President Obama on Tuesday. That trend presumably resonated all the way down the ticket.

DuPage County is now almost 14 percent Latino, which could be why the Democratic Party did so well there this year. Lake County is 20 percent Latino, Will County 16 percent and Kane County 31 percent.

Rep. Skip Saviano (R-Elmwood Park) went into Election Day hoping to win his new district’s DuPage County precincts by 1,500 votes to overcome an expected 1,200-vote deficit on the Cook County side. He ended up doing slightly better than that in Cook, losing by 1,100 votes, but he lost DuPage by 26 votes. Despite an endorsement by U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-4th), the Latino vote appears to have done in Saviano.

Democrat Mike Smiddy’s surprise win over freshman Rep. Rich Morthland (R-Cordova) is partially due to the Latino vote, Democrats say. The district’s Latino voting-age population is about 7 percent, and a heavy Latino turnout in the Sterling/Rock Falls area reportedly helped Smiddy over the top.

Smiddy also worked very hard for a year, raised a lot of money from labor unions, particularly AFSCME, and Morthland was injured and unable to walk precincts. Smiddy won with 52 percent of the vote, without any real help from the House Democrats.

The 36th Senate District has a voting-age population that’s about 9 percent Latino, and that undoubtedly helped gin up the numbers for Sen. Mike Jacobs (D-East Moline). The Senate Democrats went into Election Day hoping to squeak out a win for Jacobs. Instead, he breezed to victory with 55 percent of the vote.

One explanation for Jacobs’ surprisingly large margin is that pollsters didn’t accurately measure the potential Latino impact because Latinos voted in far higher numbers this year than ever before. That will change, as will the perception of Latinos as non-voters. This year marks a definite turning point in Latino political power in Illinois.

The 62nd House District, where Democrat Sam Yingling upset Rep. Sandy Cole (R-Grayslake) has a Latino voting-age population of 22 percent. Yingling defeated Cole by 10 percentage points in a district drawn to elect a Republican. Yingling worked very hard for months,and Cole simply didn’t, but the Latino vote was obviously crucial.

The Kankakee-area’s 79th House District is 7 percent Latino. Democrat Kate Cloonen won the district despite being drastically outspent by the GOP and it being widely perceived as a Republican district. Hard work, message discipline and a favorable black and Latino vote enabled Cloonen to win.

If the Republican Party wants to again be relevant in Illinois, it had better stop dismissing Latino concerns. The GOP simply cannot win many elections, especially for statewide office, in this state if Latinos turn out in large numbers and vote 81 percent Democratic.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.



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