Judging by the numbers, the Latino vote this November looks insignificant. Fifty million Latinos live in the U.S. But nearly 60 percent aren’t eligible to vote because they’re under 18 or non-citizens. Only 52 percent of all eligible voters are registered to vote, and in 2010, 31 percent actually cast a ballot. In the end, that 50 million translated into only 7 million Latinos who went to the polls.
Another factor: Most Latinos reside in places where their votes won’t make a big difference in the outcome – states like California, Texas and New York.
In battleground states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin, “there’s not a Latino vote to speak of,” explained Roberto Suro, former Pew demographer and current director of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute at the University of Southern California who spoke at a New America event this week. “ Where could the Latino vote really shift the election? In relatively few places.” Colorado and Nevada are the only battleground states with more than 10 percent Hispanic voters.
Latinos may not be a decisive voting bloc in November, he said. But they could be in November 2016. Or November 2020.
Right now, he told the crowd, about 92 percent of Latinos under 18 years old will be eligible voters in upcoming races – and the 6.7 million currently between the ages of 16 and 19 will be of voting age by 2016. Looking at the overall U.S. population, he said, about one in three citizens who turn 18 in the next few years will be Latino. “In a very large sense, the discussion of Latino voters is a discussion about the future of politics, not about this cycle,” Suro said. The ultimate question: How will the Latino engagement this election – or lack thereof - influence the next generation of voters - the young people watching from the sidelines?
Although Suro’s numbers paint a picture of an emerging – rather than present - dominance, he acknowledges that Latinos in swing states still may have the power to decide this election, if only by a hair. In a close race, a four to five percent shift in Colorado’s Latino vote, for example, could move the final numbers enough to tip the scales in a particular candidate’s favor.
And that’s why both President Obama and Mitt Romney are ramping up their courtship of Latino voters. Romney is reportedly vetting Cuban-American Florida Sen. Marco Rubio as his running mate, and Obama recently announced an executive order that would excuse certain undocumented immigrants from deportation for two years.
President Obama’s executive order – which looked a lot like the version of the DREAM Act Sen. Rubio proposed earlier this year - was widely popular among Latinos even though it doesn’t carve out a direct path to citizenship or permanent residency. Many are still waiting for comprehensive immigration reform, or a bill that looks more like the original bipartisan DREAM Act. That bill was first introduced in Congress in 2001, and has stalled ever since.
But even if the Latino vote plays a decisive role in the election, it may not lead to a watershed immigration policy shift post-November, argued Schwartz Fellow Tamar Jacoby, another event panelist and president of ImmigrationWorks USA,especially if President Obama and Mitt Romney make immigration a campaign wedge issue, she said. Politicizing immigration policy over the next few months will make it harder to reach a bipartisan solution next year, she contended. Republicans, for example, feel hesitant to support immigration reform because it’s perceived as a Democratic issue. “Even Republicans like Lindsay Graham can’t go there because [it looks like] they are helping the other team,” Jacoby explained.
That’s why Rubio’s Republican-friendly version of the DREAM Act announced earlier this year was a big deal. Some suspect it may have sparked the president’s executive order. “[Rubio] put the White House in a box,” explained Manuel Roig-Franzia, a Washington Post reporter and author of the senator’s biography, The Rise of Marco Rubio. “Ultimately only the president and his advisers would be able to tell you if they came up with that plan because of Marco Rubio, but it seems to be a huge factor.”
For Jacoby, the response to the president’s executive order was striking – and a sign that immigration reform may be best achieved incrementally, rather than with one sweeping bill. “The Obama DREAM order was interesting in how little pushback there was,” she said. “No big Republicans came out and denounced it. They denounced the way he did it, but not the substance.”
With or without a Latino mandate post-November, crafting a bill with substance that appeases both parties won’t be easy.
Roig-Franzia said he found inspiration on how to grapple with contemporary immigration questions in the past. While researching his book, he came across a phonograph recording of Marco Rubio’s grandfather, Pedro Victor Garcia, who was detained at the Miami airport when he immigrated to the U.S. from Cuba after Fidel Castro came to power (Garcia originally emigrated in 1956, but returned to Cuba for three years when he couldn’t find a job). The recording was of a 1959 court hearing, which ruled that Garcia, who had seven daughters and a wife living in the U.S., would not be deported. Listening to the proceedings, “I about fell off of my chair,” Roig-Franzia recalled. “This voice from 50 years ago was telling me to take another look at the way we handle people who come into this country. It was an incredibly emotional experience to listen to it.”
Watch video of the event here.