The Untapped Potential of the Latino Vote

Erika Reyes sits with her seven-month-old daughter on Main Street, Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2012, in West Liberty, Iowa.Charlie Neibergall/AP Photo
Erika Reyes sits with her seven-month-old daughter on Main Street, Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2012, in West Liberty, Iowa. Political strategists and a prominent advocacy group say Iowa's growing Latino population could play a more powerful role in this year's presidential campaign.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Latino voters will play their most influential role ever in this election, but there is a nagging sense of the community's untapped political potential.

Leaders of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) said Tuesday they expect Latino turnout to significantly increase in this election. The organization is standing by its estimate that 12.2 million Latinos will vote in November, up 26 percent from 2008, executive director Arturo Vargas said at a media briefing.

They also expect more Latinos to serve in Congress, 31, up from 27 that currently hold office. There could be two more Latinos in the Senate; Texas Republican Ted Cruz is virtually guaranteed to win in November and Democrat Richard Carmona could pull an upset in traditionally-red Arizona. Should both win, that would double the amount who currently serve in the upper chamber.

Latino voters are indeed poised to play a powerful role in this presidential election. The amount of voters has increased in key battleground states like Colorado, Nevada, and Florida, as well as Virginia and North Carolina. President Obama currently holds a wide lead over Mitt Romney, although the Republican nominee received a slight post-convention bump among Latino voters.

But there are clear signs that Latino's political potential isn't everything it could be.

Despite expectations of record turnout, NALEO expects millions of eligible Latino voters to sit this election out. Vargas predicted there will be 23 million eligible Latino voters by the time Election Day rolls around.

Monica Lozano, CEO of Spanish-language publisher impreMedia, said that outreach to Latino voters is more sophisticated than ever, from grassroots contact, social media engagement, voter targeting, and advertising strategies.

But the proportion of money being spent on Spanish-language ads is slightly down from four years ago despite increased voter participation. Out of the $460 million spent on paid media in this election, less than $6 million has been spent on Spanish-language ads, according to tracker Kantar Media. In 2008, 4.09 percent of all money spent on political advertising was spent on Spanish outlets, but that percentage has dipped slightly to 3.9 percent.

Around 80 percent of that money has been spent by the Obama campaign, but Romney allies have said they are prepared to spend much more on Spanish-language advertising as the campaign enters its final stretch.

But in order for those ads to be effective and actually impact voters, both campaigns will have to include more detail about their plans for the country.

"In the end, people are hungry for substance," said Janet Murguia, CEO and president of the National Council of La Raza. "They want to know who the candidate is."

Observers note that Latino enthusiasm about voting this election is down from where it was in 2008. One participant asked panelists why Latinos should vote, given that Obama has failed to deliver on campaign promises such as immigration reform and Romney and Republicans have alienated Latinos with their rhetoric on the immigration issue.

Murguia said that should be even more reason to engage, adding that Latinos shouldn't expect everything to change for them politically as the result of one election.

"We're not going to transform ourselves overnight or in one election, but we have to have a mindset of working toward the long term. If we represent the leverage over the course of the next five, 10, 15 years, we will see a major transformation in clout and in the outcomes of the policies we want to see implemented," she said. "Less about immediate gratification and more about the long haul."