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For Latino voters, an unhappy choice

By Ruben Navarrette, CNN Contributor
November 5, 2012 -- Updated 2128 GMT (0528 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ruben Navarrette says the media proclaimed this the "year of the Latino voter"
  • He says both parties wound up disappointing Latinos by not addressing issues of importance
  • Navarrette: Neither Obama nor Romney showed they deserve votes of Latinos

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter: @rubennavarrette.

San Diego, California (CNN) -- In this election, Latinos were supposed to play kingmakers. Instead they got crowned. No matter who wins on Tuesday, America's largest minority will be the loser.

As a Latino voter, and part of one of the country's fastest growing demographics, I was supposed to choose the next president. No, really, it was all arranged. This was going to be my year, along with the other 10 million or so Latino voters expected to cast ballots Tuesday.

Everyone said so -- the pundits, the media, and the strategists. In February, Time Magazine had a cover story, with the eye-catching title, "Yo Decido" (I decide) -- explaining how Latinos were going to pick the next president. Newspapers, websites, and television networks -- supported financially by advertisers who wanted to tap into Latino consumers and the $1.2 trillion they spend annually -- did special reports on the power of the Latino vote.

President Barack Obama: My vision for America

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

The concept of Latino voting power was easy to sell. Latinos bought it so they could feel powerful, and non-Latinos bought it because many of them already feel powerless anyway due to changing demographics.

There's only one problem with the storyline: It may not be true. Latino voters could wind up with very little power at all.

I don't mean that their votes won't count, or that they might not help decide the outcome in a few close states -- namely Colorado, Florida and Nevada. That might well happen.

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What I mean is that, in a broader sense, Latinos can be forgiven for feeling utterly powerless this year. It's been a tough campaign for them. They've been insulted, treated like fools, lied to, told they weren't really promised what they thought they had been, talked about behind their backs, and assured the administration is "breaking its neck" to achieve immigration reform -- an issue that, in reality, was put so far on the back burner that it fell off the stove.

So, regardless of what happens on Tuesday, Latinos are limping into the polling booth having been accorded no respect, no influence, no power -- not because of what happens that day, but because of what happened for weeks leading up to that day.

Mitt Romney: My vision for America

Part of the blame falls on the campaigns and the candidates. Neither Republicans nor Democrats made an honest and sincere attempt to convince Latinos that their concerns were being heard and that there was a seat for them at the table.

Obama betting on the Latino vote
Colorado immigrant casts his first vote

At times, both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama seemed annoyed at having to cater to that audience, a group that neither candidate seemed to know much about or relate to. Not that we weren't warned about that. Romney's father, George, was born to American parents living in Mexico, but the governor has never made much of that fact in sharing his biography with voters -- not in Massachusetts and not on the national level. In 2008, Obama was called a "Johnny come lately" to Latino concerns by no less an iconic figure than Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers union who at the time supported Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination.

Then there were the embarassing missteps.

In May, Romney joked with a mostly white crowd at a fundraiser in Boca Raton, Florida, that his road to the White House would have been smoother had he been more identifiable with his father's Mexican roots. He cynically insisted that "it would be helpful to be Latino" and that he would have had "a better shot at winning this."

In September, when asked in an interview with Agencia Efe after an event in Golden, Colorado, about breaking his promise to deliver immigration reform during his first term, Obama denied he ever made the promise in the first place. In fact, in 2008, he told several Latino audiences and Spanish-language interviewers that immigration reform would be a top priority and that it had to be completed by the end of his first term.

But if Latinos have been shortchanged by this election, and they certainly have been, part of the blame for that goes to them. If the polls are correct, Latino voters -- including those in critical battleground states such as Nevada and Colorado -- are about to hand over nearly three-fourths of their votes to the incumbent. A new poll by Latino Decisions puts Latino support for Obama at 73%, compared to just 21% for Romney -- a 52 point gap. And this is despite the fact that the president has an atrocious record on immigration.

5 things to watch in the Latino vote

You're probably thinking: Don't Latinos care about other issues besides immigration? Before this election, I thought so. Voter surveys have consistently found that Latinos list as their top issues: jobs and the economy, education, and health care.

Then came Romney and Obama. Each of them seems to believe that immigration is the top concern for Hispanics. Each is using the issue as a club to bludgeon the other. Obama ads point out Romney's opposition to the DREAM Act, which would have allowed those pursuing an education to earn legal status, and his plan for illegal immigrants to "self-deport." Romney ads remind Latinos that Obama promised them in 2008 that, if elected, he would make immigration reform a top priority. So immigration turned out to be pretty important in this election, in part because the candidates made it so.

That's not good for Obama since he's the one whose administration has deported more than 1.5 million people and divided thousands of families. But it's also not good for Romney since he spent much of the GOP primary election acting and sounding like a hardliner who sees illegal immigrants as interlopers and takers who contribute nothing to society.

So, to recap: Latinos are supposed to choose the next president. But neither of the two major candidates has done much for Latinos and both have behaved badly during the campaign. Also, both expect Latinos to use immigration as the measuring stick, and the choice there comes down to the terrible versus the dreadful.

But, looking at the choices, I can't do it. Not in good conscience. Not without succumbing to what George W. Bush -- the last president to get really "get" Hispanics -- used to call "the soft bigotry of low expectations." So I choose not to pick.

I urge other Latinos to do the same. By all means, go to the polls on Tuesday and vote -- for every office on the ballot except for the one at the top. When you get to the line for president/vice president, instead of settling for the lesser of two evils and excusing the way you've been treated, make a statement. Write-in the name of your choice. Or just leave the item blank.

Let's hear it for the merit system. Neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney deserves the votes of Latinos, and so neither should get them.

Latino vote may top 12 million in 2012

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.

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