"You have a perfect storm right now," Martinez says. Super PACs have flooded the airwaves with negative ads, which turn potential voters off, she says. "A lot of resources are going into negative ads and at the end of the day the effect is to decrease participation, not increase participation." And new voters are not the only group that needs attention: The recession and foreclosure crisis have caused people to move around more than usual, meaning registration volunteers are also working to re-register existing voters, rather than focusing on signing up new voters.
"Part of the effort is to make sure we don't slide back. That we continue to add people to the rolls and that people who participated continue to participate," Martinez says.
The non-partisan National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials estimates that 12.2 million Latinos will vote in November, which would make them 8.7 percent of the electorate. But the growth in the number of Latino voters isn't quite keeping pace with their population growth, and voter participation remains low compared to other racial and ethnic groups in America. In 2008, only about half of Latino Americans voted, compared to about 65 percent of white and black Americans.
Sylvia Manzano, project director for the Latino Decisions polling outfit, says she listened in on focus groups with unregistered Latino voters in Texas and California over the past year that shed light on why the rolls stubbornly refuse to budge. People in the focus groups were informed about the presidential candidates and their opinions, but said they were turned off by the negative tenor of the debate, and felt that it wouldn't make a difference in their quality of life which politician was in power. Several people brought up the standstill over the debt ceiling last summer, as well as ignored promises of immigration reform, to explain their aversion to politics.
"How do you bring people into the political process when they find politics itself so distasteful?" Manzano asks. "That's a high bar, that's a tough challenge."
Obama's immigration announcement could make a difference, however. A Latino Decisions poll of 775 registered Latino voters released Sunday found that half of those polled said the announcement made them more enthusiastic about Obama. That finding is key, since a majority of Latino voters said in previous polls that they were less enthusiastic about Obama today than in 2008. But the poll doesn't tell us anything about unregistered Latino voters, whose attitude toward the announcement remains a mystery. Manzano, however, thinks it could help Obama with them, as well.
"This is going to provide a boost to people who are registered voters and maybe were feeling unenthusiastic or left out of the conversation, and potentially to people who are unregistered as well," Manzano says.