Latinos are constantly touted as key players in the upcoming election, even capable of swinging red states like Arizona blue. And there's little doubt that they can make a difference in the outcome of not only the presidential election, but state and local elections as well.
The real question, though, is will they?
Latino turnout is expected to reach its highest levels in history in November; experts believe over 12 million could cast ballots on Election Day.
But there is a nagging sense that Latinos could be more influential. Overall, 22 million are eligible to vote, but almost half aren’t expected to show up to the polls. That’s not a problem unique to Latinos. A surprisingly low number of people who are eligible to vote actually cast a ballot -- in the last presidential election, only about 60 percent of people eligible to vote actually did, and that was considered high.
At the same time, special challenges face the Latino community when it comes to political participation. Let’s take a look at what could drive Latinos to the polls in November and what could keep them away.
Obstacles to increasing Latino turnout
Many Latinos feel ignored by both political parties, or, at the very least, like issues that are important to them are being ignored.
That feeling often leads to voter apathy, something outreach organizations have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to overcome by convincing Latinos that their votes, particularly in state and local elections, can translate into new and different policies.
According to Matt Barreto, co-founder of the political opinion research firm Latino Decisions, "ethnic issues" can be key factor in mobilizing Latinos, even if they are not named as the most important issues. For example, the economy and job creation have consistently been named the most important campaign issue by Latino voters, but it's not necessarily what will make them turn out at polls. That trigger is more likely to be, for example, immigration.
"They are personal issues, and very meaningful," Barreto said, citing California's Proposition 187 in 1994 as evidence that a hot-button issue (in that case it was a controversial state-run citizenship screening system that was eventually shot down in court) can motivate those on the fence about voting to head for the polls.
"The biggest reason people don't vote is they think there's no difference between the parties and their vote won't matter," Darrell West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan think tank, said. "But this is an election where there are such stark policy differences it's going to pull in people because they will understand that the stakes are very important, especially after [Rep. Paul] Ryan joined the Republican ticket."
According to Clarissa Martinez-De-Castro, director of immigration and national campaigns for the Hispanic advocacy organization National Council of La Raza, many Latinos vote for with their community interests in mind.
"The last election, in 2010, we saw a plurality who said they were more motivated to take a stand for their community rather than the candidate they voted for," Martinez-De-Castro said. "That may be a motivator given the anti-Latino environment we're experiencing. So people are making the connection about the need to grow political over the long-term."
Barreto said the threat of something can lead people to vote, such as the threat of Medicare cuts, or cuts to Social Security.
West agrees, and says he expects a big turnout among Latino voters in November.
"Latinos have lots of reasons [to vote this election]," West said. "Immigration policy, the state of the economy, possible changes in the federal budgetary policy -- all those issues have a dramatic consequence for Latinos, so expect big turnout."
Whether Latinos vote depends on whether they are asked to vote, he said, and if the candidates are debating issues they care about -- jobs, healthcare, and immigration.
"I think Obama's campaign has been pretty skilled at ensuring immigration is part of the debate," Prof. Louis DeSipio, a Latino voting expert at UC Irvine, said, "and Obama's immigration plan is something Latinos want to hear."
The “Registration Gap”
Latino voter outreach is a traditionally tough task for Latino advocacy groups. Eligible voters, especially immigrants, who have never participated sometimes hold cultural beliefs that discourage voting.
“The Latino culture, it’s very hard to make them vote because maybe the corruption [in their home country], maybe they don’t have the education, maybe you never told them before they have something where they can make a difference,” Edwin Gil, a Charlotte, N.C. painter recently told the Washington Post.
On top of that, there is less funding for voter registration than in previous cycles, according to Martinez-De-Castro, and super PACs have given rise to a barrage of negative ads that are likely to decrease participation.
There is also greater instability in general, not just for Latino voters, but all voters, and the economic crisis and foreclosure crisis have hit Latinos particularly hard. Instability can lead to lower voter participation, but certain issues and upheavals may also compel people to take a stand at the polls.
DeSipio thinks the barrage of negative campaign ads hitting airwaves is unlikely to have much impact on the presidential race because "people seem pretty set in their opinions."
However, the ads are designed to create confusion in the minds of people who are truly ambivalent, said DeSipio, which can make them effective in state and local races where the candidates may be unfamiliar.
That confusion could discourage people from voting, according to DeSipio, but "that could be counterbalanced by voter outreach."
He said the Obama campaign ran very successful voter outreach efforts in 2008 and "all evidence is that they're gearing up again" for 2012.
Sometimes voter outreach is more effective when it comes from somebody known, like a priest in a church, an employer in the workplace, or somebody who comes to the door and has a claim to be part of the community, like a school board member. Short of that, DeSipio says, more impersonal contact like a robo call or a flier has a positive effect but it’s not as strong.
"It's really 51 state stories rather than a national story," DeSipio said. "It's often too homogenized. Local issues often drive turnout. In New Mexico, churches are important [to voter outreach]. In Nevada, it's unions. It's not too surprising, but it is if it means campaigns have to target people differently."
Voter ID laws
The rise of voter identification laws has also had an impact. Many are still pending in court, but a number of states, including Pennsylvania, have pushed for laws that require photo identification to cast a ballot.
In all, 11 states have passed new voter ID laws since 2011 including Latino-heavy states like Texas, Virginia, and North Carolina.
While most voters support ID laws, according to a Washington Post poll, West says the voting ID laws "discourage certain people from voting because they worry about personal consequences to them. They raise the personal costs of voting and anything that does that decreases voter turnout."
He added that he "thinks it's the wrong way to go. We should be encouraging people to vote."
Barreto also opposes the voter ID laws -- he has served as a witness for the plaintiffs in the Pennsylvania voter ID case.
"If the voter ID laws are implemented, they will absolutely have the effect of decreasing Latino and black turnout," Barreto said.
DeSipio thinks that the voter ID laws will have a "chilling effect" on Latinos in that they are disproportionately more likely to lack the needed ID, and also because it "sends a chilling message about participation."
The states that matter
There has been strong growth in the number of Latino registered voters, which could impact election results. But the critical mass of Latino voters still live in states aren’t considered competitive, thus their votes “matter” less.
In Colorado, Nevada and Florida, in particular, Latino voter turnout is key. If, for example, Latino voter turnout decreases in Colorado, Obama could very well lose his lead. Latino Decisions has flagged those three states as tier one, where Latino influence is most possible. Tier two includes Virginia, North Carolina, and Iowa, followed by Arizona, New Mexico, and Connecticut in tier three.
"Low levels of election turnout could cause troubles for the Obama campaign in New Mexico, Nevada, Virginia and, depending, in North Carolina," DeSipio said
While 18.4 percent of Arizona's registered voters are Hispanic, the Latino electorate there is trending toward Obama more strongly than in any other state. If Latino turnout is higher than expected in November, according to Latino Decisions, the Democrats could stage an upset in a state where Romney currently leads by eight percentage points.
In Arizona, Latinos may feel compelled to vote to change Gov. Jan Brewer’s controversial immigration law. Latino sentiment against Brewer was again inflamed when Brewer denied driver’s licenses to deferred action recipients.
"People who regularly vote need to be reminded," DeSipio said, "but for the breadth of Latinos, they don't fit into that paradigm. So maybe focus on the presidential election or on turnout when something in a state is controversial. There's a need for irregular voters to hear repeated messages that the election is coming and 'Here's what you have to do.'
Arizona and California have seen the biggest increases in Latino voter registration of all states from 2008 to 2012. California is solidly blue and the increase, from 21.9 percent to 26.3 percent of registered voters, is unlikely to impact national election results in that state. The potential impact of Latino voters in Florida has been widely reported, but registration is only up by one point, from 15.7 percent to 16.7 percent.
While overall Latino turnout will matter in the long run, what matters more now is Latino turnout in very specific states and elections.
DeSipio said that in terms of voter registration, he thinks that "where Latinos live works to their disadvantage" because most Latinos live in states are not competitive in national elections -- California, Texas, Illinois, and New York are examples.
"We could see a slowing growth in the rate of Latino voters in those states, which could bring down the national average, but we could see growth in [swing states] like New Mexico, Nevada and Arizona, so there may be fewer numbers of votes, but they're much more important to the outcome."
If there are high levels of Latino turnout, however, Latinos could ensure a solid Obama base in the West and potentially put Arizona into play, although many experts think the latter scenario is unlikely.
While the immigration issue could be a potent force out west, the simmering debate over entitlement programs like Medicare and Medicaid could have an impact in Florida.
Latinos are generally "big-government moderate" or even "big-government conservative," and generally supportive of the economic positions that Democrats have backed. The Ryan choice forces Republicans to confront questions about the appropriate role of government which may open them to criticism from Latino voters who generally support the entitlement programs Ryan’s budget would cut.
DeSipio cites the 1996 presidential race, where traditionally Republican Cuban-Americans backed Democratic contender Bill Clinton after Republican Bob Dole touted the privatization of Social Security.
"That scared a lot of Cubans," DeSipio said, but warned that for Cubans to swing Democratic, "the debate has to not revert back to jobs," which he thinks is unlikely.
But Martinez-De-Castro says not so fast.
She thinks it's too early to tell what impact the Ryan choice – and the Medicare debate -- will have on Latino voters.
"Forty percent say they're not familiar with who Ryan is," she said, "and the budget proposals he's talked about affect programs a lot of communities think are important, including Latinos, but a lot of it depends on how they're communicating on specifics Latinos care about."