January 20, 2016

The Latino Vote and the Race for President: Five Factors to Watch 

By John Rudolph

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Latinos are the epicenter of the swirling, unpredictable 2016 Presidential election campaign – now entering its crucial primary and caucus phase.  From Donald Trump’s polarizing comments about Mexican immigrants to Hillary Clinton’s somewhat clumsy attempts to identify with Latino grandmothers, Latinos are either being blamed for ruining the country, or their votes are being courted as never before.
Last month, Feet in 2 Worlds convened a panel of nationally recognized experts at The New School to analyze the outlook for the Latino vote in 2016.  The discussion produced these five major takeaways:
1. The Latino electorate is growing rapidly.  Because the Latino population is so relatively young (the median age is 27 years old, compared to 42 years old for white non-Hispanics), it’s been estimated that a Latino youth turns 18 – voting age – roughly every 30 seconds.  Add to that the thousands of adult Latin American immigrants who become naturalized U.S. citizens each year, and you get a potential Latino electorate roughly four to six million voters larger this year than it was in 2012.
2. Latinos have a history of very low voter turnout.  Although the Latino vote was important – and some argue, even decisive – in electing President Barack Obama in both 2008 and 2012, it’s also true that Latinos lag significantly behind other Americans in voter registration and participation in elections. 
Panelists offered several explanations.  Sylvia Manzano, a researcher at the polling firm Latino Decisions, suggested that the high concentration of Latino voters in a number of very non-competitive states in national elections – deep “blue” California and intensely “red” Texas, to name two – saps incentives for voting. (A third state with a big Latino population, politically “purple” Florida, is a strongly contested state of a different color.)  Legal and bureaucratic barriers to voter registration are another problem. There’s also the high cost of mounting big voter registration drives; Sindy Benavides, community mobilization director of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), estimated a price-tag of $20 per each new voter.  And the youthful nature of the Hispanic population also works against it; young people of every race and ethnicity simply don’t vote as regularly as older people do.
3. Raising the minimum wage is a key issue for Latinos.  Polls indicate that more than 80% of Latino voters support raising the Federal minimum wage. Panelists suggested that this and other policy proposals aimed at greater economic justice will resonate strongly with Latino voters.
4. A deep sense of alienation from both political parties makes Hispanic voters hard to reach.  Sylvia Manzano of Latino Decisions argued that many Latinos believe neither major party is on their side.  They feel that they’ve been “played like a political toy among Democrats, and with Republicans they feel that the party is openly hostile to them,” she said.  On the other hand, the Koch brothers, who are major financial backers of politically conservative causes and candidates, are currently investing heavily in outreach to Latinos.  That led Gonzalo Ferrer, chair of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly, to characterize the Latino vote as “up for grabs.”
5. Smart phone technology could be key in getting Latinos to vote.  Latinos are the nation’s fastest adopters of smart phones; they’ve been called “digital trailblazers” by marketing researchers. And there’s growing evidence that reaching potential voters via their phones can be effective. Mobile technology can be useful in offering helpful reminders about voter registration deadlines, the location of polling places, or early voting options where they exist. (Feet in 2 Worlds is developing #Voto2016, a mobile phone app intended to provide precisely such messages to Latino voters.) “People opt in,” said Sylvia Manzano about smartphone voter messages. “It’s not the same as spam or a (random) phone call that you can see as intrusive.”

Click here for the full video of The Latino Vote and The 2016 US Presidential Election.

John Rudolph is executive producer of Feet in 2 Worlds, a journalism project of the Center for New York City Affairs that focuses on news by and about immigrants and tells their stories to the rest of America.

Photo by David Sachs.