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Virginia’s Hispanics Gain Clout as Numbers Rise, Census Shows

Virginia Exemplifies a Sprawling, Polyglot America
Arnoldo Borja, a community organizer of Virginia Justice Center, talks to Latino day laborers who stand along Little River Turnpike waiting for construction and landscaping jobs. Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

The Hispanic population in Virginia surged in urban areas in the last 10 years, potentially transforming key voting districts in the swing state, a shift detailed in 2010 U.S. Census numbers released yesterday.

The number of Hispanics increased 91.7 percent from a decade ago, with most of the growth in the suburbs outside Washington, as well as in Richmond and the Norfolk-Virginia Beach metropolitan area, Census Bureau figures show. The changing demographics, which helped Barack Obama win the state in the 2008 presidential election, underscore how communities across the country are becoming increasingly diverse.

Hispanics are the fastest growing part of the American electorate, and not just in states such as Florida, New York and Texas, said Fernand Amandi, a Miami-based political consultant and pollster.

“Almost every state in the union is now being impacted by the Hispanic vote,” Amandi said.

That’s likely to benefit Democrats. Hispanic voters have picked Democrats over Republicans by a ratio of about 2-to-1 in the past three national elections. Virginia’s 631,825 Hispanics make up 7.9 percent of the state’s population of 8 million, up from 4.7 percent in 2000.

The census data provide the first detailed look at changes in state population demographics since 2000. Virginia, Louisiana, New Jersey and Mississippi are the first to receive census figures because their election cycles are among the earliest in the U.S.

Mirror of U.S.

The rise in the foreign-born population in Virginia’s urban areas mirrors trends in other parts of the U.S., said Lisa Ann Sturtevant, an assistant professor at George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia, who specializes in demographics.

New immigrants are going to places they hadn’t gone before, such as Northern Virginia, Salt Lake City and Charlotte, North Carolina, Sturtevant said. And “Hispanics tend to be more Democratic,” she said.

Still, Hispanics, who come from various countries in Central and South America, aren’t a “monolithic, well-organized” group of voters with deep-seated loyalties to any one party, unlike black voters, said Nathan Gonzales, political editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report.

“They are closer to independents and being swayed by how people in office are doing their jobs and how it affects them,” Gonzales said.

Leaning Toward Democrats

The Hispanics settling in Northern Virginia are mostly from Central American countries like El Salvador and Guatemala, followed by Mexico, according to Sturtevant.

Republican rhetoric and opposition to immigration policies are among the issues that have pushed Latinos to vote for Democrats. In November’s congressional elections, House Democrats won 60 percent of the Hispanic vote, compared with 38 percent for Republicans, while Latino voters were crucial to Senate Democrats in the 2010 elections, helping to give the party victories in California, Nevada and Colorado.

Sturtevant said she expects to see a drop-off in the rate of Hispanic population growth from the mid-2000s because of stricter immigration policies and fewer construction jobs.

“When the unemployment rate in the U.S. goes up, immigration goes down,” Sturtevant said.

The jobless rate in Virginia climbed to 6.7 percent at the end of last year from 2.5 percent in January 2000, according to the Department of Labor.

Diminishing White Population

The state’s overall population grew 13 percent during the past decade, compared with 9.7 percent for the U.S., according to government data released Dec. 22. The white population grew 7.2 percent, and now accounts for 68.6 percent of the state, down from 72.3 percent in 2000. The black population rose 11.6 percent, and they now make up 19.4 percent of Virginians, little changed from a decade ago.

The number of Asians grew 68.5 percent from 2000, and they now make up 5.5 percent of the population, compared with 3.3 percent in 2000, a trend that may also have political implications.

“The older, first-generation East Asians tend to be much more Republican leaning,” largely because they are pro-business, said Mark Rozell, a professor of public policy at George Mason University. “But their children and grandchildren are tilting heavily to the Democratic Party.”

Drawing New Lines

Virginia must draw new district lines and pass a redistricting plan, with Democrats controlling the state Senate and Republicans the House, before August elections. Republican Governor Robert McDonnell appointed a bipartisan panel to oversee the process.

Dustin Cable, a policy associate at the Demographics and Workforce Group at the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, said the Hispanic growth adds another dimension to a national trend.

“It’s the classic urban-rural divide that’s been growing in the country, not only in terms of population, but in terms of diversity,” Cable said.

Census Bureau Director Robert Groves called it “the suburbanization of the Hispanic population,” on a Feb. 2 conference call with reporters.

‘National Importance’

Amandi, vice president of the Miami-based Bendixen & Amandi polling firm, said Hispanic voters would be wooed across the country.

“What used to be a regional and concentrated vote is now becoming a vote of national importance,” he said. “That’s part of the reason you see the Republicans now mounting an offense again to try to go after that vote.”

Hispanics and other residents are being drawn to a Washington metropolitan area that’s the wealthiest and best-educated region of the past five years, according to census estimates for 2005 through 2009. The only three communities with median household incomes higher than $100,000 are in suburban counties in Virginia. Maryland, which also borders the nation’s capital, saw income levels in Howard County grow at the eighth-fastest pace in the U.S. since 2000.

The defense-contracting industry boosted wealth in Northern Virginia and the Maryland counties near Washington.

The Washington suburbs are home to government contractors such as Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed Martin Corp., the world’s largest defense company, and General Dynamics Corp., the Falls Church, Virginia-based maker of Abrams tanks and Gulfstream business jets.

The median household income in Arlington County jumped $12,705 between 2000 and 2009, the biggest increase in the U.S., according to the Census Bureau. Two other Virginia suburbs -- Loudoun County and Alexandria City -- rounded out the top four municipalities nationwide with income gains.

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