As the 2012 presidential election approaches, no ethnic group is more coveted than Latinos. But the real press for this potential political force will likely take place in the next decade, as the relatively young Latino population ages into the electorate, a noted demographic policy analyst says.
"The discussion of the Latino voter is the discussion of the future of politics, not about this [election] cycle," Robert Suro, a professor of journalism and public policy at the University of Southern California, told a small assembly on Monday in Washington. "Where this cycle can have a big difference," he said, is how it "casts trajectories into the future."
Understanding the future impact of the growing Latino electorate continues to be of great interest to think tanks, analysts, and the political parties. On Tuesday at the New America Foundation headquarters in Washington, Michele Salcedo, president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, moderated an event titled "2012 (Veinte Doce): The Latino Election?" Suro was on a lineup that also included Alexandra Starr and Tamar Jacoby, both New America fellows focused on immigration issues, and political journalist Manuel Roig-Franzia, author of The Marco Rubio Effect.
According to the foundation, an estimated 50,000 Latinos turn 18 each month. The white population, on the other hand, has remained stagnant in terms of size and population growth, Suro said.
Part of the Latino growth, Suro said, is attributed to a high fertility rate and immigration. But the numbers don't necessarily translate into November votes, in part, because this group is relatively young.
"Schoolchildren don't vote. They only depend on voters," Suro said. "A child takes 18 years to become a voter. There's no way around that."
About 58 percent of the Latino population in the U.S. is not eligible to vote, either because they are too young or because they are not U.S. citizens.
"On Election Day, they have no role to play," Suro said, addressing current demographics. "They have no voice in our civic affairs."
That's not to downplay the potential effect of the Latino vote during this presidential election. In some battleground states, including Florida, Colorado, and Nevada, Latinos made up more than 10 percent of the voters in 2008.
In the "big" battleground states, including Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, "there's not a (significant) Latino vote to speak of," Suro said. Yet each is a state where a few hundred votes could make a difference in the outcome.
A scattered or undermotivated Hispanic electorate in those states "makes it difficult way to run a large-scale political mobilization," he explained.
The two-hour event generated insights into other issues relevant to the Hispanic/Latino population. Among the highlights:
- No such thing as a cohesive Hispanic voting bloc. The voting Latino population is diverse in many states, particularly Florida. The established Cuban population, new arrivals from Puerto Rico and New York, as well from South America, ensure an extra level of complexity. Addressing "a whole hodgepodge" presents challenges for political strategists.
- Winning by a whisker. In Colorado and Nevada, where a few hundred votes can swing an election, the Hispanic vote is crucial. "You're talking about whether a 4 or 5 percent shift of Latino vote in Colorado will produce a .2 percent or .3 percent difference in the total vote," Suro said. "That might actually make a difference."
- Walking on a tightrope. There's an expectation that Latino politicians desire an open immigration policy, Roig-Franzia said, but that is a bit too clear cut. Rubio, for example, favored the Arizona "show me your paper" law, opposes in-state tuition for undocumented immigrant students, and cosponsored E-Verify. At the same time, Rubio has advocated his alternative Dream Act that would appeal to Latino voters and the GOP's base. "He's not just on a tightrope--he's on a tightrope 100 stories high," Roig-Franzia said.
- Election backfire. Making immigration a political wedge issue can potentially make it harder to find a solution, Jacoby said. You can't pass immigration reform without Republicans and Democrats, she said. Even when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress, no immigration reform passed. Republicans are also split. "The trick with immigration reform is putting together a package that appeals to enough people from both parties to get across the finish line."