Hispanic growth will eventually tilt Ga. politics, census suggests

Propelled by a surge among Hispanics, Georgia's minority youth population rose substantially over the last decade, census figures show.

 

And there are now fewer non-Hispanic whites in that population category - people under 18 - than in 2000.

Those trends - which resemble national and local ones - may eventually upset Georgia's political balance of power, but not soon, experts say.

In any case, said Nicholas Jones, chief of the Census Bureau's Racial Statistics Branch, the shifts are worth watching "in terms of what the future may bring."

"When we examined the data for kids," Jones said, "we found their distributions are strikingly different than data for ... for people over 18 ... age, the adult population.

"Most striking is that nearly half of all kids, 46.5 percent, ... are something other than non-Hispanic white ... ."

That is how the bureau defines minorities; in Georgia, they comprised 53 percent of the under-age-18 population in 2010.

Georgia's minority youth population grew by 14.4 percent.

"These trends definitely will spiral up the overall minority population," said University of Georgia demographer Doug Bachtel. "We now have more of them and more of them are having children."

Kennesaw State University political science professor Kerwin Swint agreed.

"Long term, it's definitely going to happen," Swint said. "We've heard the warning bells for quite a while."

Over the decade, Hispanic youth numbers soared 131 percent statewide and by 259 percent in Chatham County.

 

Watching trend line

"Certainly one can look at the trend line and foresee significant gains ... for the foreseeable future," said Jerry Gonzales, executive director of Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials.

The population of Asians under 18 also is up, but Asians ended the last decade with barely 3 percent of Georgia's people of all ages.

In contrast, non-Hispanic whites of all ages were 55.9 percent of the statewide total and blacks were 30.5 percent. The Hispanic slice of the population pie was 8.8 percent - up from 5.3 percent in 2000.

Although America's Voice, an immigrants' rights group, hailed the census data as a "surge in Latino political power," others are more cautious.

"That will only happen if these people vote," Robert Eisinger, a Savannah College of Art and Design political science professor.

But Eisinger noted that Hispanics are mostly younger than other people and that young people lag behind their elders in voter turnout.

"People who are 18-to-29 are the people with the lowest turnout," agreed Emory University political scientist Merle Black.

Moreover, at least some of the new Hispanics - the Census Bureau says it has no idea how many - are illegal immigrants. So, at least for now, they're ineligible to vote.

"We're talking about an impact that's a long way off," Swint said. "They're still in single digits."

But over time, said University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock, Hispanics will start voting in much greater numbers. Their influence likely will be felt soonest in counties such as Whitfield and Hall, where the Hispanics make up more than 20 percent of the population.

 

Potential challenge
to GOP

There and elsewhere, Republicans - who have relied heavily on white voters to win elections - will face a major challenge, Bullock said.

Polls show that Hispanic voters favor Democrats, although not as lopsidedly as blacks do.

"Republicans need to come up with a broader approach that appeals to people other than whites or they are destined to become a minority party," Bullock said. "Our population is now more than 40 percent non-white and that number is bound to grow."

If the party fails to respond, it could end up like Republicans in California, where they are regarded as a more-or-less permanent minority, he said.

But many Hispanics are conservative on social issues such as abortion, said UGA's Bachtel, so there's no reason why the GOP shouldn't be able to win their votes.

Except immigration policy, others say.

"The strident tone of many Republicans and their enforcement-only approach is a non-starter for many Latinos," Gonzales said. "If they want to reach out to us, they have to change their tune."

No, they don't, insists former state Senate President Pro Tem Eric Johnson. The longtime Savannah Republican leader agreed that demographic shifts mean his party must step up its appeal to minorities.

"But we don't need to change our message," Johnson said. "The really big issue for everyone is jobs. We're for entrepreneurs, more opportunities and lower taxes. And that's how you create jobs."

Eisinger agreed that an appeal based on jobs might help the GOP and questioned whether ongoing population shifts necessarily threaten the party.

"If they can find the right candidates who can articulate the right messages," he said, "they can gain votes among minority groups."

He cited the success of Indian-American Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana, as an example.

 

A Republican perspective

Moreover, Johnson said immigration policy isn't an obstacle for his party.

"We're not against immigration," he said. "We're only against illegal immigration. Many legal immigrants are, too."

Bullock acknowledged that many legal immigrants may resent illegal ones.

"But with each passing year," he said, "there are more people who have friends or family members who are here illegally and would be sent home with aggressive enforcement."

And America's Voice cited a poll finding that 72 percent of Hispanic voters reject congressional candidates who want to deport most illegal immigrants.

For now, though, said Swint of Kennesaw State, a hard line against illegals helps win GOP primaries and doesn't hurt the party in general elections.

"It's not something (Republican Gov.) Nathan Deal needs to worry about," he said. "But eventually it could be a big factor."

But it might not be if farmers and businesses heavily reliant on immigrant labor convince Republicans to soften their position, Emory's Black said.

"All of these sorts of things matter only if the positions of the parties on various issues remains the same," he added.

Bullock doesn't contest that. Sooner or later, though, he said, Republicans in Georgia and elsewhere will need "a more encompassing vision."

And they might have to learn that the hard way, he said.

"A lot of the time in politics," he said, "until there is a crisis - that is, until you lose an election - you don't do anything."

 

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