Here’s the reality of Latino political power today: It’s not what it could be.
Even though 27 million Latinos will be eligible to cast a ballot in November — an increase of 17 percent since 2012 — the Latino population is becoming more distant from the American political process, according to a new report from the Pew Research Center.
Most Latinos who could vote in the last three national elections chose not to. Turnout was just under 50 percent in 2008, and fell to 48 percent in 2012. It dropped to 27 percent in the 2014 midterms, the lowest rate ever recorded for Latinos.
Another low yield may define 2016 as well.
“We’re seeing the number of people who could vote growing at a faster pace than those who do vote,” said Mark Hugo Lopez, director of Hispanic research at Pew Research Center. “There were more nonvoters than voters in the last election, and those nonvoter numbers are rising.”
The lack of engagement is not new; Latino voter turnout has lagged behind that of whites and blacks for decades. Asian-American voter turnout has also been below black and white turnout since at least 1992; it was even with Latino voter turnout in 2012.
But among Latino leaders and social scientists, there is a growing recognition, and increasing concern, that Latinos are punching beneath their weight, and may be stuck in a cycle of disconnection. The question is: Why?
Pew argues it’s at least partly a matter of demographics. Around 55 million Latinos live in the United States, a group that includes citizens, green-card holders and a rough estimate of 8.5 million undocumented immigrants (according to figures from the Migration Policy Institute). In all, that’s about 17 percent of the population (Asian-Americans are about 5.5 percent of the population), but the Latino electorate skews young. Millennials make up a larger share of the Hispanic vote, at 44 percent, than the white (27 percent), black (35 percent) and Asian-American (30 percent) electorates.
Young people are less likely to vote regardless of background. And even among millennials, Hispanic turnout is weaker than that of other groups. Pew researchers found that just 37.8 percent of Latino millennials voted in 2012, compared with 47.5 percent of white millennials and 55 percent of black millennials. Only Asian-American millennials, a smaller group, voted in lower proportion, at 37.3 percent.
Latinos are also concentrated in states that are not heavily contested in presidential elections, making it harder to spur political engagement. Three states — California, New York and Texas — account for 52 percent of all eligible Latino voters, according to Pew. California and New York reliably swing Democratic, and Texas goes Republican in national elections. One exception, Florida, with a large and growing Hispanic population, could prove crucial as a battleground state.
Still, a large number of Latinos, especially in states that are not up for grabs, say they are not convinced their participation matters, or is worth the time and effort.
When I spent the spring and summer of 2014 exploring how immigrants were changing the middle of the country along Interstate 35, I often encountered young Latinos who were born in the United States, and could vote, but did not because, they said, they didn’t feel that it would do them any good. Even in communities where they complained about discrimination, as in Farmers Branch, Tex., there was little faith in the system and their ability to have an impact through voting.
Voting rights advocates have argued that this is partly by design: In Texas and elsewhere, tactics to suppress minority voting have been flourishing, from voter identification laws to the way that City Council districts are drawn. A result, for many, tends to be a shrugging cynicism about how the political system works.
Julián Castro, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and a former mayor of San Antonio, said both political parties deserve some of the blame for failing to reach out to Latino voters in sophisticated ways that reflect their needs, desires and different backgrounds.
“The approach has not evolved that much,” Mr. Castro said during a recent discussion at The New York Times. “It’s generally just been, ‘Say a few words in Spanish, with a message about family.’ ”
Hillary Clinton’s campaign last month created a list titled “7 things Hillary Clinton has in common with your abuela,” which was immediately pilloried by Latinos on social media as tone-deaf “hispandering.”
Even with two Latinos running for the Republican nomination — Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, who are Cuban-American — the focus on Latino voters has been infrequent, except in the context of immigration.
Nonetheless, Mr. Castro, who is often mentioned as a possible running mate for Mrs. Clinton, said he was convinced that Latinos would eventually play a larger role. The community is large but young.
Many Latino voters are just barely over 18, Mr. Castro said, and they are often the first ones in their families who can vote, with parents coming from countries that have struggled with democracy. Eventually, he said, the younger generations will come to see the value of participating.
But it will take work and time. “Both parties can learn to be more savvy,” he said. “Both in politics and in business, there is not a lot of sophistication about the Latino community.”