For Latinos, turnout is the thing
CHICAGO Well, folks, I’ve analyzed the trends, stuck my finger in the wind and waded through a sea of writings, attempting to predict the upcoming presidential elections. Now I’ll rock your world with a groundbreaking insight into Hispanic voters: As an electorate, they are—drum roll, please—pretty much just like all other voters.
I know it hardly seems possible, what with years of overhyped news about how Hispanics would soon become the largest minority in the U.S. and then single-handedly shape electoral politics. Just this past spring, Time magazine declared to America—in Spanish, no less—that Latinos will decide who gets the White House this November.
What’s happened since is what I believe to be the most honest, down-to-earth and stereotype-free analysis of the growing Hispanic electorate I’ve seen, along with rigorous investigations of the getting-thornier-every-day question of whether Hispanics will actually show up on Election Day.
In stark contrast to years past, recent reporting on Hispanic voters has gone out of its way to note that Hispanics neither follow the Democratic Party like love-sick puppies nor represent a monolithic socially conservative voting bloc whose No. 1 concern is immigration.
Also, based on the types of outreach and messaging both presidential candidates are targeting Hispanics with, it seems to have finally started sinking in that the so-called Latino vote speaks English. As the Pew Hispanic Center reported last month, about two-thirds of all U.S. Hispanics ages 5 and older either speak only English at home or speak English very well.
Politically, the most recent evidence that Latinos aren’t lemmings when it comes to party identification came earlier this month by way of a USA Today/Gallup poll that said that half of the Hispanics polled identified themselves as political independents. This actually surpasses by 11 percentage points the trend among all U.S. adults.
When Gallup looked only at Hispanic registered voters, the percentage of independents went down but the percent identifying with the Republican Party went up. Now, it is also true that when the independent Hispanic registered voters were pressed to make a choice, 60 percent leaned toward Democrats, but a healthy 27 percent leaned Republican, indicating a far more courtable electorate than has been portrayed in the recent past.
But what does any of it mean if Hispanics don’t turn out in November? Very little. News stories weaving the narrative of an unenthused, recession-battered population that isn’t registering in nearly the numbers previously hoped for have Hispanic leaders rattled.
According to a recent Center for American Progress estimate, 12.1 million unregistered but potentially eligible Latino adults could—if they all registered and voted—turn top red states into swing states. Considering that by the end of 2008’s extremely hope-filled campaign, only 59 percent of eligible Hispanic voters registered and barely half of that eligible population—9.7 million—actually cast a ballot, swinging over states seems to be very difficult.
Latino leaders’ increasingly stressed calls for Hispanics to register and vote are getting more eye-popping. My favorite so far is from Jose Cruz, editor of OurTiempo.com, who wrote on the Being Latino blog, “If by now you haven’t registered to vote and can, sorry but you’re a loser (yeah I said it). Here’s a solution: come December, why don’t we round up and deport all the Latinos who didn’t vote and legalize all the undocumented who have been begging to become part of our country so they can vote. We can start in Arizona and work our way through all the swing states.”
During a recent HuffPost Live roundtable chat about how low voter participation will restrain Hispanic political power, several Latino activists weighed in about what’s ailing potential Hispanic voters. The issues ranged from civic participation not being an ingrained part of Latino culture to politics not being a topic of discussion in daily facets of life. Also mentioned was the perennial belief that voters don’t want to waste time registering and casting a ballot, thinking that their one vote won’t count.
These are the same lamentations I’ve heard about the wildcard proposition of increasing general voter turnout and about getting young people, blacks, women, and various other demographic slices of voters to show up on Election Day.
In other words, potential Hispanic voters are much like most others: smack dab in the mainstream of a sorely apathetic American electorate.
Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.