The significant demographic changes taking place in the U.S. and how they affect the electorate were the focus of Luis Ricardo Fraga’s talk for the President’s Lecture Series. He presented “The Changing American Voter in 2016 and Beyond” Sept. 22 in Duncan Hall’s McMurtry Auditorium.
Rice President David Leebron introduced Fraga, the co-director of the Institute for Latino Studies and the Notre Dame Professor in Transformative Latino Leadership at the University of Notre Dame. Calling him “remarkable for many reasons,” Leebron noted that Rice is especially proud of the fact that Fraga is a 1984 graduate of Rice with a Ph.D. in political science. Fraga also earned a master’s in political science at Rice in 1981.
“He’s actually the first Rice alum to speak as part of the President’s Lecture Series since Dr. Robert Curl spoke about the discovery of buckminsterfullerene in 1997,” Leebron noted. “I leave it to you to decide which is more complicated – the structure of carbon 60 or the election of 2016,” he said, prompting laughter from the crowd.
Fraga took the stage, pausing for a moment to thank Rice for giving him his “academic voice” and providing the opportunity to develop that voice. He first discussed the demographic transformations currently taking place in the U.S., noting that there have been substantial shifts in race and ethnicity, with significant growth in particular from the Latino population and decline of people of European descent.
“What we see is perhaps, by 2050, we will no longer be a majority white population,” he said. “That’s very different from where we were in 1970.”
In addition to the growth in traditionally Latino areas, substantial growth of Latinos is taking place in the South, areas of the Midwest and the Pacific Northwest. Fraga cited this as evidence that issues of demographic shift are affecting local communities more than ever before. And although the country continues to become more diverse, that does not necessarily translate to more political participation across the board, he said.
“We have a very interesting participation gap that actually seems to be growing as our country becomes more diverse,” Fraga said. He noted that there is almost a 20 percent gap in voter registration between Caucasians and African-Americans, and Latinos and Asians, even as the Latino and Asian populations in the country grow.
Fraga said that when actual voters are considered, the gap is even more overwhelming, and this is another place of inconsistency with where the country is moving demographically.
“Only 58.7 percent of eligible Latinos are registered to vote,” Fraga said. “There are 12.2 million eligible but unregistered, and of those (who are) registered, 81.7 percent vote.”
Fraga said that even though the changing demographics are not necessarily reflected in voter participation rates, the behavior of these voting groups has benefited both Democrats and Republicans and can still matter very significantly in determining the presidency.
“Elections are about numbers and margins, and even when you’re not participating at high rates, the margins that you have could determine the outcome of the election,” he said.
Fraga said good examples of this were in 2008 and 2012, when Latino voters overwhelmingly supported President Barack Obama. His opponents, Sen. John McCain and former Gov. Mitt Romney (in 2008 and 2012, respectively), were not able to build upon the success that former President George W. Bush experienced in 2000 and 2004.
And while it may seem that Latinos and other nonwhite groups can increasingly impact elections and that democratic responsiveness has increased, Fraga said that this inclusion has interesting paradoxes, including situations where political parties take the support of a specific group for granted or where a demographic shift and electoral impact are identified as a clear threat to the country (because of language, drains on social service, rule of law, etc.).
“There’s a way in which even having the growth and influence … can then lead to a reaction that further marginalizes these segments of our population, despite the fact they are growing in terms of their percent of the population,” he said.
Fraga concluded that ultimately, nonwhite influence in electoral politics will only increase as this percentage of the population grows, although this can be impacted by inclusion paradoxes and how voters decide to exercise their right to vote.
“This election and the choices we are able to make may say more definitively than anything else we might decide what our expectations are of our country and what our expectations are of ourselves,” Fraga said.
Fraga is the author or co-author of five books and over three dozen academic articles and book chapters related to elections, Latino politics, voting rights, immigration policy and educational politics. He has published in the American Political Science Review, the American Journal of Political Science and the Journal of Politics. He has received 15 awards for his teaching, mentoring and advising over his 30-year career as a scholar and professor. For more information on Fraga, visit http://bit.ly/2cICHWz.
Each year, the President’s Lecture Series brings to the Rice campus a variety of stimulating speakers on a range of topics. Rice offers the President’s Lecture Series as a means of enhancing the intellectual life not only of the Rice community, but of the university’s neighbors throughout Houston. For more information, visit http://professor.rice.edu/professor/president-lecture-series.aspx.
The next President’s Lecture will be Oct. 3 and feature Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation.