The term “sleeping giant” is commonly used to emphasize the importance of the Latino vote in the U.S. South. The image is that of an untapped but potent constituency that is poised to become a major political force, especially in presidential elections.
North Carolina (and its 15 electoral votes) is a particularly important state in this regard. Like much of the southeastern United States, it has experienced a rapid and significant increase of the Latino population starting in the 1990s, as economic growth sparked job opportunities. In 2002, the Brookings Institution listed Charlotte, Greensboro, and Raleigh as areas of Latino “hypergrowth.”
That in-migration also included other people from all over the country and prompted political change. Barack Obama won the state in 2008, the first time a Democrat had won since 1976, which moved North Carolina ideologically from red to purple. Mitt Romney took it in 2012, while Hillary Clinton currently has a small lead in the polls.
In other words, it’s a swing state.
Both campaigns are spending a lot of time in North Carolina as the election nears. The Republican Party has been particularly concerned and has worked to bring more resources to bear in the state. Right now, residents are being barraged with mailers, TV and YouTube ads, and robocalls. Donald Trump has very few winning scenarios if he loses North Carolina.
One problem for Republicans is that Latino voters overwhelmingly favor the Democratic Party. One reason in this election is that Donald Trump has been stunningly insulting to Mexicans and immigrants of all kinds. As a result about 72 percent are planning to vote for Hillary Clinton. But will this make or break the 2016 presidential election?
There is considerable evidence that the effect will be small. The image of the North Carolinian sleeping giant dates back to at least 2002. It was still sleeping in the 2012 presidential election. A full ten years later it seems still to be snoozing.
In late 2012, 1.6 percent of registered voters in North Carolina were Latino. By 2014, that had risen to 1.9 percent. By late October 2016 it was 2.4 percent, or 162,123 voters out of 6,835,820. This represents a 50 percent increase over the past four years, which is nothing to sneeze at. It attests to the hard work that advocacy groups have done to reach out and educate new voters. This includes Voto Latino, which has registered thousands of voters this year in North Carolina, but also local organizations like the Latin American Coalition in Charlotte.
However, the Latino population comprises about 9.1 percent of the total population of the state, so the percentage of voters continues to lag far behind. Roughly 75 percent of Latinos in the state are not eligible to vote, either because they are under 18 or because they are not U.S. citizens. As a relatively new migrant destination, North Carolina has followed a pattern of in-migration of young non-citizen families. It will take more time for these families to become politically active.
Even when they do, however, political influence will likely come only gradually. In 2012, only 54.3 percent of eligible Latinos in the state voted in the presidential election, far lower than African Americans (70.2 percent) and whites (68.6 percent). In 2016, Latino enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton appears to be strong, so perhaps that number could rise a bit, but it is still low.
For North Carolina, the electoral giant isn’t waking up quickly. Almost half of registered voters in the state (46.4 percent) are Millennials, meaning 18-33 years old. The average age of all Latinos in North Carolina is only 29 years compared to 42 years for non-Hispanic whites. Young people in general are less likely to vote than their older counterparts.
The main way Latinos in North Carolina can potentially play a critical role in this election is high turnout for a close race. In 2012 Mitt Romney won the state by a 50.4-48.4 percent margin, a difference of 92,004 voters. If Latinos turnout in 2016 could reach the rate of African Americans in the last election, that would mean approximately 114,000 voters. This could help nudge results in one direction or another, but is not giant-like. That time will come, but not until at least the 2020 presidential election.