Latino voters have captured the imagination of many a presidential candidate. Winning the allegiance of these voters, whose numbers have swelled to a projected 27 million in 2016, is now perceived as essential to cobbling together a winning coalition to take the White House.
That’s partially why Republican leaders have been touting the candidacies of Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, whose Cuban backgrounds, they hope, endear them to Latinos looking for candidates like them in the race.
There’s good reason for this investment. In 2012, 11.2 million Latinos turned out to vote. That was a record number, and it made up 10 percent of the entire electorate. That record is due to be shattered again later this year, according to a new report from the Pew Research Center, which projects Latinos will grow to about 11.9 percent of voters in the 2016 elections.
Their share of the electorate is certainly notable — it will mean that after this election, Latinos will pull nearly even with black voters, who are projected to make up about 12.4 percent of the 2016 electorate.
These voters hold obvious importance for the Democratic Party. In past elections, Latinos have voted overwhelmingly for Democrats, with 71 percent voting for President Barack Obama’s reelection in 2012. Stripping Latino support away from the Democratic Party is an obvious priority for Republicans, as it threatens the Democrats’ thin electoral advantage.
The Latino vote, though influential, is much less prominent than it could be.
Latinos turn out in far lower numbers than people in most other racial groups. In 2012, about 48 percent of Hispanic eligible voters cast ballots — compared with about 64 percent of white voters and 66 percent of black voters.
Though the number of eligible Latino voters had reached an all-time high, the participation rate was actually down from 2008, when just under 50 percent went to the polls. In 2014 — a midterm year, which naturally attracts fewer voters — Latino turnout dropped to 27 percent.
This means that while the share of Latinos who vote in elections is expanding, the share who don’t vote is growing even faster.
Undergirding these numbers is a growing concern that Latinos might be stuck in a cycle of disengagement. Pew’s latest study offers several potential reasons why.
Latinos are disproportionately young — and young people don’t vote
Between the 2012 and 2016 elections, about 3.2 million Latino voters will become newly eligible to cast ballots – skewing the Hispanic voting population very young. About 44 percent of the total Hispanic electorate is under the age of 35.
By contrast, voters under the age of 35 represent 27 percent of white voters and 35 percent of black voters, respectively.
That presents a double whammy for the Latino voting bloc: A disproportionate share of its electorate is young, and young people are known to punch below their weight. In 2012, only about 45 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds cast ballots, and the turnout among Latino young voters fell below the average.
Young Latinos also register to vote at a lower frequency than white or black voters, ensuring that fewer will head to the polls.
Most Latinos don’t live in competitive states
Simply put, few of the typical battleground states have large Latino populations. More than half of all Latinos living in the US, about 52 percent, reside in California, New York, or Texas — none of which is a state presidential candidates focus on.
As a result, fewer Latinos will be exposed to the workings of a campaign — they are much more likely to see fewer political ads and come into contact with staffers seeking their votes. Get-out-the-vote efforts, understandably, are much weaker in noncompetitive states.
The only competitive states where Latinos make up a significant portion of the population are Colorado, Florida, and Nevada. In all three states, Latinos make up more than 14 percent of the electorate.
A lot of Latinos living in the US legally aren’t becoming citizens
When we think of Latino immigration to the US, we often think about the 11 million people who have come to the US without authorization.
But what many people don’t realize is that even among Latinos who are living in the US legally, many never go through the process of becoming naturalized US citizens. That means that right now, 5.4 million Latinos are living and working in the US, but they are not becoming eligible to vote.
That’s a loss for the Latino voting bloc, as naturalized citizens are significantly more likely to participate in elections than Latinos born in the US, according to Pew.
Experts believe this large chunk of people aren’t going through the naturalization process because, relative to the huge benefits afforded to them by a green card, the gains of naturalization are relatively small.
Permanent residents can work in the US and benefit from its laws and programs. By gaining citizenship, they gain the right to vote and protection against deportation if they commit a crime — which most permanent residents won’t.
Moreover, the cost of naturalization is high: Simply filing a naturalization form costs $680, to say nothing of the lawyer fees many applicants pay to usher them through the process. That price tag simply doesn’t seem worth it for the benefits citizenship carries.
There is much to be gained by boosting Latino voter participation — or by suppressing it
Democrats have long linked the future success of their party to a swelling Latino population. But even if Latinos continue to vote overwhelmingly for Democrats, their growing ranks won’t matter if so many Latinos continue to stay home on Election Day.
Republicans, more than Democrats, appear to have absorbed this lesson. Across the country, Republican leaders (some more intentionally than others) have been employing tactics to limit the sway of the Latino vote, from gerrymandering large Latino communities inside isolated districts to passing strict voter identification laws.
These tactics, according to an account by Jim Rutenberg in the New York Times Magazine, have done more than just limit the influence of the Latino vote. They’ve instilled a sense of fear among individual Latinos.
‘‘I have a lot of Spanish friends, and their parents were like, ‘What is the form going to ask me?’ ’’ Del Toro’s daughter Wendy, 25, a juvenile-probation officer, told me over the phone in November. ‘‘The word they used was ‘intimidated.’ ’’ A common question, she said, was whether they were going to be asked about their citizenship status; even though they were citizens, they were apprehensive about being seen as ‘‘illegals.’’ Their children were almost as uneasy. ‘‘They didn’t know what you need — they were like, ‘I can’t vote because I don’t have a driver’s license,’ small things like that.’’
But as long as Republicans continue to suppress Latino votes rather than trying to win them, there will continue to exist an inclination for Latinos to sympathize more with Democratic politicians.
If Democrats want to continue to rely on Latino voters, or if Republicans want to win them as a voting bloc outright, they must begin to pay attention to the patterns laid out in Pew’s report, and counteract the forces that are deterring so many Latinos from coming out to the polls.