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'Sleeping giant' Latino vote yet to awaken

By Dave Schechter, CNN Senior National Editor
May 31, 2012 -- Updated 1409 GMT (2209 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Latinos are the fastest-growing U.S. voter bloc
  • But 2012 turnout could be less than expected due to reduced voter registration, engagement
  • The foreclosure crisis may also have an impact on Latino voting

Editor's note: As President Barack Obama and GOP candidate Mitt Romney court the Latino vote, CNN takes an in-depth look at this complex and diverse community, what matters most to Latino voters, and how their vote will influence the November elections.

Washington (CNN) -- The first Latino president of the United States already has been born.

Henry Cisneros, the former San Antonio mayor who was secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development in the Clinton administration, made the suggestion three years ago in an interview with the Spanish-language news service EFE.

"I don't know if he or she's in elementary school or in law school or is already elected ... to public office, but I believe that that person is already alive, and we're 20 years or less away from having a Latino or Latina president," said Cisneros, whose own path to higher office may have been derailed by personal scandal and who today is executive chairman of CityView, an urban development investment firm.

When the day comes that Cisneros predicted, the man or woman behind the resolute desk in the Oval Office will represent an ever-increasing segment of the population. Latinos (or Hispanics, the official government term) made up 15.5% of the U.S. population in 2010, but by 2050 they're projected to approach 25% of the population.

The American, the online magazine of the American Enterprise Institute, calls the Hispanic electorate a "sleeping giant" yet to wake.

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Whether or not Latinos' percentage in the electorate has kept pace with their growth in the population -- and the data indicates that at present it has not -- it may one day be enough to sway elections from the statehouse to the White House and stops in between.

Not one 'Latino vote'

Conventional wisdom lumps together "the Latino vote." But that community includes millions of people claiming dozens of countries of origin, speaking more than just Spanish. It is not now -- nor in the future -- likely to be anything so homogenous.

Juan Guillermo Tornoe, owner of Hispanic Trending Inc., a marketing and advertising firm in Austin, Texas, and author of the Hispanic Trending blog, is "counting the days" until he is eligible to become a U.S. citizen in a couple of years and vote in a presidential election.

For several years, Tornoe, a Guatemala native who came to the United States 10 years ago and now has permanent resident status, has talked about the nuances of the Latino community, the kinds of things companies marketing products (and political parties marketing candidates) need to know.

"There is not one Latino Vote; there is a multitude of Latino votes and candidates, society, and the media need to fully understand this if they are ever going to connect with the different parts of the Hispanic community," he advised.

Tornoe cringes "every time someone refers to Latinos as a unified voting bloc or as a homogeneous market segment. We are way too diverse for this."

"There are many differences between Hispanics, depending upon the person's country of origin or heritage: Food and music preferences as well as the holidays they celebrate are some of the most obvious," Tornoe says. "The actual words they use to describe persons, places, actions and things can vary immensely as well. There is also a lot of ideological baggage that comes along with one's country of origin/heritage."

Black beans vs. kidney beans

To illustrate the matter of food preferences, Frank Unanue Jr., an executive with one of the nation's largest Hispanic food companies, notes the differences within the ethnic population in his state of Florida: Black beans and rice are big with the Cuban community in Miami, "But up north, we sell more kidney beans, rice, fruit nectars and fruit juices. They all move well," said Unanue, president of Goya Foods Florida.

Gabriel Sanchez, an associate professor of political science at the University of New Mexico and research director for the group Latino Decisions, explains self-identification: "In short, although more Latinos prefer to use national origin to identify themselves, Latino pan-ethnic identity is highly relevant to the political behavior of the Latino population and will only increase in salience as long as the political debates surrounding immigration policy is perceived to be hostile to the Latino community among the Hispanic population."

As for generational differences, Tornoe said: "It is a completely different worldview depending how far away generationally Hispanics are from their country of origin/heritage.

"First-generation (foreign-born) Latinos have experienced life outside the U.S., have gone through the immigration experience, and to different degrees, have embraced or become acquainted with living in America. Second-generation Latinos encounter a mixed experience, being born and growing up in the United States, but brought up by immigrants and thus heavily exposed and influenced by their parents' culture.

"Finally, Latinos who are third generation and beyond are the sons and daughters of U.S.-born parents. They are very much influenced by the general market but still connect to their roots through the values, traditions and culture passed on by their parents and grandparents."

When it comes to citizenship, Tornoe, who hopes to be officially an American in three years, is clear.

"Being a U.S.-born citizen puts you in a completely different frame of mind than that of a naturalized U.S. citizen, someone who's a permanent resident (who could be counting the days to becoming a citizen or simply choosing to never become one), someone here on a temporary work visa or an undocumented alien," he said. "All of these are part of the Latino population, but only a percentage of them are able to vote.

"Then, among the latter, it is not the same to be able to vote, than to be a registered voter and actually cast your vote. Lack of participation in the democratic process is one of the major problems among the Hispanic community."

Population does not equal electoral influence -- not yet anyway. As a Houston Chronicle headline noted in April -- "Idea of Hispanic voter surge fading this year" -- Hispanic voter registration and turnout might fall below estimates.

Still, the fast-growing population should not be completely dismissed. An article from the AEI's The American looked at the lag between population and turnout.

"Hispanics have been the 'sleeping giant' of American politics for decades. Each election season, we see more and more articles about how important this group of Americans is, and how their impact will be outsized and ever-growing. Yet for some reason, the 'giant' never quite seems to wake up."

There are an estimated 31.8 million Hispanics of voting age (18 and older) in the United States, but only 10.9 million -- 51.6% -- are registered to vote, compared with 62.8% for eligible African-Americans and 68.2% for what the government calls non-Hispanic whites, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Voters not re-registering

"We believe that the recession and mortgage foreclosure crisis explains this decline," Antonio Gonzalez, director of the William C. Velasquez Institute, based in San Antonio, told the Houston Chronicle. "It hit blacks and Latinos and the lower middle-class people first.

"When people lose their jobs or homes, they usually have to move elsewhere. When you move, you have to re-register, and we suspect that didn't happen in 2009-10. ... The law of unintended consequences is at work here. This administration, like the last one, didn't have an answer for home foreclosures. The unintended consequence is a dampening of Latino voter turnout."

Academic experts and advocates agree that increasing registration is the key to taking advantage of the opportunities available to influence the outcome of the 2012 election, perhaps more on Capitol Hill than at the White House.

Gonzalez, who also heads the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, said that while just 15% of the Latino vote is in so-called battleground states for the presidential race, this year offers numerous opportunities for Latinos to increase their ranks on Capitol Hill.

At the top of Gonzalez' list was the newly created 33rd Congressional District, near Dallas, a seat reflecting the rise in Texas' population, an increase due in large part to the state's growing Latino population.

The Houston Chronicle noted that while the Hispanic population in Texas grew by 2.8 million in the past decade, the number of registered Hispanic voters declined by 100,000 between 2008-2010.

The 33rd District reflects the changing demographics of the Dallas area, Gonzalez said. "Big D" is becoming more Latino, and the population in the 33rd is nearly two-thirds Latino.

The University of Washington's Matt Barreto calls the problem a "registration deficit," pointing to such states as North Carolina and Virginia, where the shortfall threatens or, at least, delays Latino impact from reaching its potential.

Barreto, also the co-founder of the research firm Latino Decisions, estimates that 70% of Latino voters back President Barack Obama despite disappointment over the failure to see immigration reform legislation enacted. But again, he said, the issue is turnout, which begins with registration.

As for immigration, which conventional wisdom often sees as the issue of greatest importance to Latinos, Barreto said that it falls behind the economy and jobs, not to mention education and health care, for most Latinos.

In the end, the issue comes down to what can be done to increase Latino registration and voter turnout.

Gustavo Razzetti, chief strategy and engagement officer at Grupo Gallegos, based in Los Angeles, said that fear and apathy may be dampening turnout.

"The most obvious answer is lack of information," said Razzetti, who has more than 20 years' experience in U.S. and Latin American markets. "Not understanding how the system works and the fear to take time off of work appear on top of the list. Yet when reviewing other reasons (legal residents who haven't become U.S. citizens or feel that their votes don't count), it seems that one of the most important factors is that Latinos don't care. And I'm not saying it in a negative way; it's simply that if they don't believe that their vote will impact their everyday life, why care to vote or to get the citizenship?"

Razzetti offers this advice: "Candidates and parties need to make a strong effort to engage Latinos. They need to understand that educating Latinos is important but only the first step."

Razzetti suggested such unlikely ideas as "voto trucks," modeled after food trucks, or "voting empanada/tamale stands outside markets" or working voting into the plots of Spanish-language telenovelas to spur interest, registration and, ultimately, voting.

"There's room for a true leader who can inspire Latinos to take a more active civic role as well as community support. Political participation needs to be encouraged at home, school and in the community in general," he said. "Family and friends play a critical role in encouraging other family and friends to vote. Organizations need to consider this as part of their outreach strategy."

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