Latino voters, the nation's fastest growing ethnic group with strong Democratic allegiances, appear significantly less motivated than other voters to participate in the upcoming elections, a new Pew Hispanic Center survey shows.
One-third of Latino registered voters have given the election "quite a lot of thought," compared with half of all U.S. registered voters, according to the study, which was released today. On intent to vote, half of Latinos said they will cast ballots in November while 70 percent of all U.S. registered voters said the same.
Political apathy among Latinos has emerged as a key concern for Democrats weeks before the midterm elections because two-thirds of registered voters favor Democratic congressional candidates over Republicans.
The Obama administration has appeared keenly aware of the growing apathy among the key constituency in recent weeks and has been trying to shore up support.
"Your voice is your vote, man," Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told a gathering of Hispanic leaders last month. "Your vote is the currency this town lives on."
And President Obama recently exhorted members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute not to allow any disappointment in Democrats to cloud their view. "Don't forget who is standing with you, and who is standing against you. Don't ever believe that this election coming up doesn't matter," he said. "Don't forget who your friends are. No se olviden. Don't forget."
The Latino vote could play an influential in California, Texas, Florida and New York; states where the majority of the country's registered Latino voters reside.
In California alone, Latinos compose about 21 percent of the electorate. Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman has even acknowledged that she "cannot win the governor's race without the Latino vote."
The issue of Latinos' political engagement has also flared in Florida and Nevada, where Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid faces a tough reelection battle. Reid said he doesn't understand why any Hispanic would be a Republican, a charge that Hispanic Florida Republican Senate candidate Marco Rubio has sharply refuted, insisting the GOP is the best party for Hispanics.
The Pew study found that about half of all Hispanics believe the Democratic Party has more concern for them than do Republicans.
Latinos rank education, jobs and health care as the top three voting issues this election cycle, according to the survey. Immigration ranks as the fifth most important issue to registered Latino voters.
"Both parties have to pay attention to the Latino vote because of the growing number of Latinos. Every year, we're going to see a half a million Latino voters -- Latino citizens -- turn 18 for the next 20 years," said Laura Vazquez of the National Council of La Raza.
"This is something both parties need to pay attention to and they cannot continue the demagoguery and the scapegoating that we're seeing right now."
Democrats have broadened their appeal among Latino voters in the past decade. In the 2004 presidential election, when Republicans won the largest share of the Latino vote since the 1980s, nearly 60 percent of Latinos supported Democrat John Kerry.
That share grew to 69 percent in 2006, when Latinos strongly favored Democratic congressional candidates over their Republican counterparts.
Sixty-seven percent of Latinos supported Barack Obama to 31 percent for John McCain in 2008.
Pew estimates that 19.3 million Latinos are eligible to vote, making up about 7.4 percent of all voters in 2008. While turnout among those voters has traditionally been lower than the national average, experts say, the overall number of eligible Latino voters is rapidly growing.