Whatcom County crossed a statistical threshold in its racial makeup in 2014, according to U.S. Census Bureau data released in June. The minority population exceeded 20 percent of Whatcom’s total population, possibly for the first time since the pioneer era.
White people who are not Hispanic decreased as a proportion of the total county population, from 81.9 percent in 2010 to 79.9 percent in 2014.
Local experts across the political spectrum say the changing demographics present opportunities for both major parties, even though the largest minorities in the county — Asian and Hispanic people — typically vote Democrat.
Asians, including people from the Arabian peninsula, India and southeast Asia, increased the fastest from 2010 to 2014, by 19.4 percent. They comprised 4.1 percent of the Whatcom population last year.
The second-fastest growing group was the Hispanic population — 17.1 percent over those four years to become 8.9 percent of the county’s population.
The number of black people in the county grew 13.5 percent from 2010 to 2014, but were only 1 percent of the total population in the most recent figures.
The Native American and Alaskan populations grew at the same pace as the county as a whole and held steady, near 2.5 percent of the county total.
The growth of the white population lagged that of the county as a whole, resulting in the declining percentage. While the countywide population grew 3.4 percent from 2010 to 2014, the white population grew 0.9 percent.
Exit polls from the last presidential election showed more than 70 percent of Asians and Hispanics voted for Barack Obama. Combined, these two groups make up 13 percent of the county’s overall population — and growing — and they may start to shift Whatcom’s voting tendencies further to the left.
In the 2012 election, Whatcom voters preferred Obama to Republican challenger Mitt Romney 57 percent to 43 percent, excluding votes for minor-party candidates.
The Democrat-Republican split was closer in lower-profile elections where the candidate’s party may have been a more important factor in voters’ decisions. In votes for both lieutenant governor and secretary of state in 2012, the Democrat got less than 52 percent of the vote in Whatcom County.
It’s not clear whether the particular segments of the Asian population who live in Whatcom County vote in line with Asians nationally.
For one thing, “Asian” is too broad a racial category to lend itself to generalizations about voting habits.
“When we talk about the Asian vote, it’s something that’s hard to get a handle on,” said Todd Donovan, a political science professor at Western Washington University who studies elections. Donovan is also a Democrat who is running this year for the nonpartisan County Council.
The four most represented Asian nationalities in Whatcom County, based on five years of census data collected from 2009 to 2013, are Vietnamese, Indian, Filipino and Chinese. All have 886 or more residents in the county, taking the low end of the margin of error.
“In a lot of parts of the country (the populations of Asians) are not big enough to make generalizations. … especially with the Punjabi Indians,” Donovan said. “That’s such a new population in a lot of parts of the United States.”
Satpal Sidhu, a Whatcom County Council member born in the Indian state of Punjab, said the census may underestimate the number of Indians in the county. The government data says 1,450, give or take, but Sidhu would put the number at 2,500 or more Indians, Pakistanis and Fijians.
This would make them the largest Asian group in the county, if the census were right about the numbers of Chinese and other prominent nationalities.
As for how Indians in Whatcom County vote, or more specifically the large proportion that are Punjabi Sikhs, that’s hard to say even for someone within the community such as Sidhu.
“Their main focus is economic well being, growth, education and safety (I mean, not to face discrimination of any sort),” Sidhu wrote Tuesday, July 28, in an email to The Bellingham Herald.
“I am not sure they come here with their mind made up to lean Democrat or Republican. They observe and decide.”
Sidhu describes himself as a business-minded centrist. He was endorsed in the 2014 state elections and again in this year’s County Council elections by the Democrats.
Hispanics in the county do mirror the national voting trend by leaning heavily Democratic, said Rosalinda Guillen, executive director of Community to Community Development, an advocacy group in Bellingham that works on immigration and food-justice issues.
“Among Latinos there is a big mistrust of the Republican Party because of their anti-immigrant positioning,” she said.
But Hispanic residents also feel disenfranchised by the political system as a whole, and a large number of them don’t vote, Guillen said.
While Hispanics feel alienated from the Republican Party in part because some of its members have taken extreme stances on immigration — recent words by GOP presidential hopeful Donald Trump come to mind — Democrats are also responsible for making immigration a wedge issue, said Gonzalo Ferrer, chairman of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly, a group that promotes the Republican Party in the Hispanic community.
Democrats highlight Republican opposition to immigration reform in their outreach to Latino voters, Ferrer said.
“It stops a Republican Hispanic American from going out to vote,” he said. “Hispanics are predominantly conservative in social issues.”
In a recent Colorado election, 44 percent of Hispanic voters went for the Republican, Ferrer said.
“I think that to say that Hispanics vote Democrat is not true,” he said. “The Hispanic American vote is more like a swing vote.”
Democrats and Republicans alike in the county are reaching out to minorities. Charlie Crabtree, chairman of the Whatcom Republicans, said he was looking forward to his party’s diversity growing with the county’s.
“I think where we are as a party is looking forward to a change to the Republican Party, and getting the country out of a stagnation economically and culturally,” Crabtree said. “That will lift everybody up.”
“It’s the same old story with the Democrats and the liberals,” Crabtree said. “They’re going to present the game that there’s a war on minorities from the Republican side, or a war on women like they said two years ago. And I just don’t see that. We have activists of all contingents of our culture in the Republican Party.”
Political victory in the county could hinge on how successful the Democrats are at maintaining Hispanic loyalty, or how well the Republicans translate talk of acceptance and helping to action. If other states are an indication, the Hispanic vote is on the verge of making an impact in Whatcom County.
Latinos’ votes start to have sway when the ethnic group’s population approaches 10 percent, Donovan said — as has been observed in states such as Georgia and Virginia. At 8.9 percent, Whatcom’s Hispanic population is getting there.
Guillen said she sees hope for a meaningful Hispanic vote in Whatcom County from a few sources: children raised here who are reaching voting age, retirees from California who tend to be politically engaged, and the politically aware people Community to Community puts through its citizenship program.
“It seems slow, but we will have an election where we will make a difference,” Guillen said. “That day is coming.”