New data reveals how Hispanic voters could decide the next American president
Multi-generational Latino family (Shutterstock)

Clarissa Martínez-de-Castro thought she knew right away that this article would say what a bunch of journalists say every four years: Latino voters won’t matter much. She was only half-right: Latino voters probably won’t decide the next president – but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t.

And Martínez-de-Castro, the deputy vice-president of the National Council of La Raza (a nonpartisan advocacy group for Latinos), also knows what the data suggests: not that Hispanics in America don’t wield any political power, but that, increasingly, they do.

I have to admit that Martínez-de-Castro, who is the deputy vice-president of the National Council of La Raza (a nonpartisan advocacy group for Latinos) isn’t wrong.

A report released from the Pew Research Center this week shows that the number of eligible Hispanic voters has grown to a record 27.3 million, meaning that one in nine potential voters in America is Hispanic. That’s not particularly headline-worthy: that Hispanics are a fast-growing share of the US population is a well known fact. What’s interesting is Pew shows that 44% of those would-be voters are millennials (adults age 18 to 35).

That’s the first clue about why Hispanics are punching below their electoral weight. In every election since 1964 , the youngest American adults have been the least likely to cast votes. In the 2012 presidential election, only 45% of 18- to 29-year-olds voted, compared to 68% of 45- to 64-year-olds. With Hispanics specifically, turnout rates are even lower – just 38% of Hispanic millennials voted in 2012.

Martínez-de-Castro has spent the past 20 years trying to increase engagement among these young Hispanic voters. She explains that part of the problem is the administrative barriers young people face: “They’re sometimes the first voters in the family, so learning the process can be tough.”

In some cases, though, older family members will be the ones voting for the first time: 1.2 million immigrant Hispanics have become US citizens since 2012. When those adults look at a ballot for the first time, it’s often after years of feeling alienated by the political class.

Martínez-de-Castro can identify – as a naturalized US citizen herself, she wasn’t able to vote until she was in her 30s. Unless others feel as confident as she does that voting makes a difference, turnout will stay stagnant in 2016.

Unfortunately, Martínez-de-Castro says, predictions about low Hispanic turnout have turned into a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Low expectations make it easier for candidates to ignore potential voters … making more potential voters (understandably) feel ignored.

Talking about her early career, Martínez-de-Castro described knocking on doors to talk to Hispanics. “The thing that we heard over and over was ‘nobody has ever come to talk to me about voting.’”

Perhaps politicians have also been looking at the numbers on Hispanic voting power. Here’s how Congress might look under two very different scenarios for the last national election (both assuming that 71% of Hispanics support the Democratic party – as was the case in 2012):

  • If not one Hispanic American had voted, the Democrats would have beaten the Republicans by 283 electoral votes to 255.
  • If every single Hispanic American had voted, the Democrats would have beaten the Republicans by 358 electoral votes to 180.

As it happened, 48% of Hispanic Americans voted in 2012 and the Democrats won 332 electoral votes. The numbers above show just how much wider or narrower that win might have been, but they don’t change the fact of a win. Those numbers also represent also wildly unrealistic scenarios: Hispanic turnout is unlikely to move by more than 5%, either up or down.

But there’s another, often overlooked reason why politicians aren’t visiting Hispanic families: those homes aren’t where the fight is.

In seven of the 10 states where the race was most closely fought, Hispanics make up less than 5% of eligible voters. The geographic distribution of these Americans works against their political power.

There are several clear exceptions. In Florida, where nearly one in five eligible voters is Hispanic, Obama won by less than 1% in 2012 (that’s why the NCLR devoted so many resources to making sure that 55,000 Hispanics in Florida would be able to check a box in November 2012). In Colorado, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico, eligible Hispanic voters make up a much bigger percentage of all voters than the winning party’s margin of victory in 2012.

In other words, Hispanics could change America’s political map. So, what would it take for them to do so?

Politicians would need to engage with these potential voters about the issue they care most about. That’s not immigration. In 2012, the National Survey of Latinos asked registered Hispanic voters what they considered “extremely important”: 55% said education, 54% said jobs and the economy, 50% said healthcare and just 34% said immigration.

That’s not to say immigration doesn’t matter. Even though many Hispanics won’t be directly affected by immigration policy, politicians’ rhetoric about immigration might be a proxy for how they feel about Hispanic people. That might explain why 79% of Hispanics describe Republican candidate Donald Trump’s rhetoric as “offensive”, according to a Univision poll conducted in June 2015.

But the biggest single thing that Hispanics can do to increase their political power is register to vote. It’s their reluctance to do so that explains why Martínez-de-Castro’s assumption about this article is basically correct – Hispanic Americans probably won’t radically change outcomes in 2016. She’s touched on one of the few certainties of electoral politics: if someone isn’t registered to vote, they won’t. © Guardian News and Media 2016