Ever since the growth of the Latino population caught the eye of the political machinery, pundits and the media turn their attention each election cycle to the growing Latino vote and make predictions about how it will (or won’t) shape outcomes across the country. There are usually two competing narratives: one that blames Latinos for not exercising their full civic might (only 27 percent of Latino eligible voters cast their ballot in 2014), and another that promises that this will be the year Latinos finally become the force their demographic size would suggest.
As a group, Latinos represent 18 percent of the population and 12.9 percent of the eligible electorate. As such, Latinos have the potential to sway the outcome of many elections at the municipal, state, and national levels, and demographics point to an increasing ability to do so far into the future. Every year nearly a million Latinos turn 18 and become eligible to vote — that’s 4 million newly eligible voters since the last midterm election in 2014. More than any other ethnic group, though, Latinos have failed to exercise that right to its full potential, with just 48 percent of eligible voters casting ballots in the 2016 presidential election.
There are many valid reasons for the poor engagement. Lack of civic education in schools, mistrust of the political system, lack of sufficient and sustained efforts to engage the community, and barriers to voting are chief among them.
Both parties have demonstrated underinvestment in get out the vote, or GOTV, efforts aimed at Latinos, as have funders and community organizations. There is chronic underinvestment in GOTV efforts in Latino-led organizations — those with boots on the ground in communities and with the greatest potential to reach Latinos with messages that resonate with them. With investments in civic engagement trailing the growth of the population for years, it should be no surprise that turnout is low. The Latinos and Society Program released a report called Unleashing Latino Civic Potential: 2016 and Beyond, which makes concrete and actionable recommendations for addressing the biggest challenges preventing greater civic engagement by the country’s largest growing ethnic group.
The parties have also generally failed to realize that issues other than immigration are important to most Latinos, such as affordable health care, quality jobs/the economy, and education. What’s more, Latinos skew very young relative to the rest of the population, and young Americans are less likely to vote regardless of ethnic background. According to a NALEO Education Fund Poll with Latino Decisions a week before the election, 50 percent of Latinos polled reported not being reached out to by a campaign, a political party, or community organization.
Despite all of the above obstacles and barriers, this year’s midterms seem to be different. Polls in the lead into the election and early indicators show that more Latinos as a total and as a share of voters were finally motivated to exercise their political will at the ballot box.
According to Latino Decisions midterm eve polling, the negative rhetoric espoused by the Trump administration is not sitting well with Latinos, and this may have been a factor in motivating them to contribute to the blue wave in the House of Representatives. Seventy-three percent of Latino voters polled by Latino Decisions said they voted for a Democrat, and 73 percent said that they were angered by something Trump has said. Seventy-seven percent said that they encouraged a friend or family member to vote, demonstrating self-mobilizing despite low levels of outreach and investment by parties.
It’s important to note that Latinos are not monolithic, and many Latinos hold conservative values. Reagan once said, “Latinos are Republicans. They just don’t know it yet.” He might have been onto something, but if Republicans want to recapture this demographic, they will have to change their tone.
Pew Hispanic reported in the lead-up to the election that Hispanic voters were more engaged than in previous midterms, noting that 52 percent of Latino registered voter reported that they were more enthusiastic to vote and that both Democratic and Republican Latinos said they had given a lot of thought to the midterms.
A record 42 Latinos were elected to Congress on Tuesday. All of this points to a move in the right direction. Now let’s hope that having experienced their ability to influence the political process firsthand will help to sustain the momentum of Latino participation in the political process well into the future, and encourage both parties to invest adequate resourses into continuing to engage and mobilize this important political force. With Latinos on a path to becoming one-third of the population by 2060, our democracy depends on it.