Hispanic Votes Won't Be a Gamechanger in the 2012 Election

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Although they represent a growing share of the U.S. population, Hispanic voter registration and enthusiasm about Obama are both low.

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If your family hails from Latin America and you live in a battleground state, brace yourself: politicians have finally woken up to the importance of your vote. President Obama's reelection, pundits say, may depend on an outpouring of support from the barrios of the West and Southwest.

Yet attracting Hispanic votes may require more investment, in more places, than either party anticipates. For all the hype about the Hispanic vote in 2012, the aftershocks of the recession may have created a logistical barrier in many states for voter registration.

New numbers suggest that previous predictions of between 11 and 12 million Hispanic citizens voting in 2012 might be overly optimistic, said Antonio Gonzalez, president of the William C. Velasquez Institute and the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project. Barring a major investment in registration, turnout, or both, that's about 10.5 million votes cast.

Gonzalez dug into the U.S. Census Bureau's Current Population Survey and found that Hispanic voter registration dropped from 11.6 million to 10.9 million in 2010. Voter registration typically speeds up in presidential election years and slows down in "off-year cycles," he says, but for over half a million voters to drop off the rolls is a big interruption of a 20-year trend of rising Hispanic voter registration.

"What we think is happening is that the recession, and in particular the housing and foreclosure crisis really knocked the heck out of the Latino community," Gonzalez said. Unemployment and foreclosures caused a big spike in mobility, he said, as Hispanics moved to find work or a new home -- an activity that causes a loss of voter registration.

It's hard to tease out voter registration data, experts say, because many states don't ask citizens to declare their ethnicity when they register. The Census' Current Population Survey relies on self-reporting, which can lead to inaccuracies. It's also hard to infer why registration levels might have fallen.

But an anomaly in a pattern the survey has been tracking for decades deserves attention, said Ricardo Ramírez, a political scientist at Notre Dame University.

Given demographic pressures, "There shouldn't be a drop, there shouldn't even be a stabilization, there should be continued growth" in voter registration, Ramírez said. He said that mobility compelled by the recession is the likeliest explanation for the drop, although tougher voter-registration regulations could also have had an effect.

The impact on the presidential race shouldn't be huge, experts and advocates say. Seventy-two percent of Hispanic voters say they voted for Barack Obama in 2008, according to polling agency Latino Decisions, and the Obama for America campaign has made it clear that it will fight for this crucial constituency.

But a drop in Hispanic voter registration could impact downballot races, or make the Obama campaign's task more difficult, Gonzalez said. And it certainly makes life harder for advocates working in states, like California and Texas, that aren't competitive on a national level but are where about half of America's Hispanics actually live.

"Remember, the battleground states only represent about one in five Hispanic voters," Gonzalez said. "You can't just depend on presidential campaigns to reverse this trend." Eight states with big Latino populations experienced "significant declines" in the number of registered Latino voters between 2009-2010, Gonzalez found: California, Texas, Nevada, Florida, Washington, New Mexico, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

Florida lost 141,000 registered Latino voters, according to his analysis. California lost 238,000. Texas, New Jersey and New Mexico lost about 100,000 voters apiece.

Voter registration advocates say they're already struggling to close the massive gap between Hispanic citizens eligible to vote and Hispanic citizens who are registered to vote. In a year when political action committees are raking in millions of dollars of donations, advocates say interest in funding basic voter registration work seems lower than ever.

Recent years have brought "a devastating, and I mean devastating, decline in the interest to fund voter-registration drives," said Lydia Camarillo, vice president of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project.

Ben Monterroso, national executive director of Mi Familia Vota Education Fund, said he's hopeful that his organization will attract more funding as Election Day nears. But he, like other advocates, emphasized the size of the need, and said that new voter registration laws in states like Texas and Florida have made it harder for many groups to operate.

More than half a million Hispanics become eligible to vote each year, according to Latino Decisions. Many of them will be teenagers turning 18. While 9.7 million Hispanic citizens voted in 2008, another 7.9 million were eligible to vote but didn't register to do so, according to the Census Bureau. Eighty percent of registered Hispanics cast a vote in 2008, according to the Census.

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Sophie Quinton is a staff reporter for National Journal.

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