Why Reaching a Record 27 Million Eligible Voters Will Be an Empty Victory for Latinos

The latest Pew study predicts the largest and youngest bloc of eligible Latino voters ever, but persistent low voter turnout may detract from this historic achievement.

Promise Arizona in Action volunteers cheer as they as they leave their headquarters to canvass a neighborhood in Phoenix for voter registration. In 2016, Latinos are predicted to make up about 12 percent of eligible voters. (Ross D. Franklin/AP)

Each election cycle, we hear about the growing Latino vote and how important it is. The 2016 election will set the latest record for eligible Latino voters, but as in years past, the rising Latino vote will be tempered, and its biggest impact will likely be limited to the Democratic primaries.

The Pew Research Center on Tuesday released a study that says the number of eligible Latino voters for 2016 will reach a record 27.3 million. Most importantly, nearly half of those voters will be millennials, the largest share of youth voters for any racial group (black millennials equal 35 percent, Asians 30, whites 27). Latino millennial voters still make up a much smaller number than white millennials, but every year more than 800,000 Latinos turn 18 and become eligible to vote, which may forecast their growing importance in elections.

The largest gains came from second-generation Latinos, or those born to at least one immigrant parent. Another huge contribution came from Latinos who immigrated legally and have become naturalized voting-eligible citizens. The other gains came from Puerto Ricans leaving the island. Since 2012, the U.S. has seen a net increase of 130,000 Puerto Ricans, all eligible to vote, who have mostly settled in Florida.

For all this growth, the Latino vote’s impact will likely be limited, once again.

In 2016, Latinos are predicted to make up about 12 percent of eligible voters, nearly equal with black voters. But poor turnout stills diminishes the Latino influence at the ballot box.

This has led to a paradox of sorts. The Latino population is growing so fast that in nearly every election cycle it has a record voter turnout. But the percentage of Latino nonvoters actually increased from 2008 to 2012, when fewer than half of eligible voters made it to the polls—the worst turnout of any racial group.

The reason for this phenomenon likely lies in age.

Latino voters with the highest turnout were the oldest (71 or older), which is common among most racial groups. Younger voters tend to have the worst turnout. And because Latinos are such a young population, that could explain the disparity. Even so, Latinos have a lower turnout than millennials in any other demographic.

Another reason the Latino vote might be blunted this election is that the states where they live don’t carry as much weight. And for the states that do matter, Latinos have too small a presence.

California and Texas have the largest populations of Latino voters (45 percent of all Latino voters when combined). A Democrat will most likely win California. A Republican will likely win Texas. The “tossup states” that could decide the next president, according to the Pew study, which cited a Cook Political Report projection, are Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin. And while Latinos make up a sizable and growing population in Florida, Nevada, and Colorado, in the other states that are important to deciding the next president, Latino voters make up 5 percent or less of all eligible voters.

Many in the GOP are concerned about doing damage control with Latino voters, especially after Donald Trump’s calls to ban, deport, or build a wall. One poll found that, in fact, it was not too late for Republican candidates to win over some Latino voters. But despite the possibility that Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz could be the first Latino president, a last name is likely not enough to sway some Latino voters. Even more, Rubio and Cruz are of Cuban descent, which might not be particularly helpful in a country where the biggest share of Latinos are of Mexican descent.

This is why Latinos will likely have their biggest influence in the Democratic primaries, in which their huge numbers in Texas and California will help decide a win for Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton.

The Latino vote has been predicted to one day remake the American electorate. It has also been called an "Awakened Giant" that “punches below its weight.” By 2030, it’s projected to double in size. By then, candidates from both sides will, without doubt, be forced to reckon with it. But for all its growth, its impact in 2016 remains in question.