WHY IT MATTERS: Race
The nation's complexion is rapidly changing. A more racially and ethnically diverse population is rising so that, perhaps within three decades, whites will no longer be the majority. That means shifts in political power, the risk of intensified racial tensions and also the opportunity to forge a multiracial society unlike anything in America's past.
Where they stand:
Nearly half a century after the signing of the Civil Rights Act, America elected its first black president in 2008. President Barack Obama says that milestone alone changed attitudes on race, yet "I never bought into the notion that by electing me, somehow we were entering into a postracial period." He's trod carefully on matters of race, in some minds too carefully, in favor of a rising-tide-lifts-all-boats philosophy.
Mitt Romney appears to favor the melting-pot ideal more than the mosaic, envisioning a future in which Americans put aside cultural differences grounded in race and ethnicity to stand as one people. A gulf remains, though, between minorities and the Republican Party as blacks and Latinos in particular continue to see their interests better represented by Democrats. Hispanic Republicans are making striking inroads in state politics; nationally, it's a different story. GOP immigration policy alone has been taken as a sign of hostility.
Why it matters:
The U.S. hit a historic benchmark when the census announced in May that a majority of children younger than 1 - 50.4 percent - were minorities. The fast growth in minority populations is due largely to increases in Latino births and high immigration. Hispanics are the most populous minority group, numbering 52 million last year (and representing close to 17 percent of the population). The census put the black population at 43.9 million and Asians the third largest minority group at 18.2 million.
Meanwhile, the white population in the 100 largest metro areas dropped to 57 percent from 71 percent over the last 20 years, according to the Brookings Institution. Demographers predict minorities might become the majority by 2042, although slowdowns in growth in the Asian and Hispanic populations could delay that. Minorities now make up more than 36 percent of the U.S. population.
The shift means a change in the needs of the overall U.S. population and in backgrounds.
Unemployment is higher among blacks and Latinos, as is the lack of health insurance. Latino children have higher rates of poverty. More black men are in America's prisons; many Latinos are grappling with deportation of family members.
The economic and housing crises hit black and Latino communities harder.
U.S. minority populations are younger, which means they will be a big share of the workforce for years to come and a growing force at the ballot box.
Obama's election in 2008 underscored the nation's racial gulf in politics even as it made history. He was elected with 96 percent of the black vote, 67 percent of the Hispanic vote and about 43 percent of the white vote.
Minorities increasingly will influence elections if their turnout keeps rising and the pool of voters keeps growing. It's certain minorities will want to see more people in office who look like them, understand their needs and in some cases speak their language. Communities are grappling with new populations and cultures in places far removed from America's usual centers of multiethnic life.
The next president, black or white, has no choice but to keep matters of race and equality on his agenda.