Latino youth and the 2012 presidential election

Young Latino voters may hold the key to the White House door.

They increased their support for Democrats at a larger rate than any other youth group in 2008. But voting rates among young Latinos continues to be significantly lower than they are for black and white youth.

So if President Obama can hold on to this demographic and boost the turnout among Latino youth in November, his chances of winning re-election will go up.

Recent surveys by Latino Decisions (the leading Latino public opinion polling firm) show that even in states with relatively small numbers of Latinos (such as South Carolina, Ohio and Virginia), the slightest shift in Latino voting patterns could have a significant impact on the 2012 presidential outcome.

However, Obama’s record on issues of particular importance to Latinos has not been stellar. His lack of immigration reform, coupled with the largest number of deportations under his administration than with any other president, might make many Latinos less motivated to vote for him.

On the other hand, the rhetoric coming out of the Republican Party is likely to keep Latinos from pulling the GOP lever. This gives Obama an opportunity.

But his mobilization drive might not be as easy as it was during the 2008 election, when the “Yes We Can/Si Se Puede” slogan seemed to invigorate Latinos — especially Latino youth — to support and campaign for him. Millions felt the urge to make history in 2008. That huge pull is not there this time.

Mobilizing the Latino youth is important not only for the 2012 election but for others down the road.

According to a study conducted through the Pew Research Center, Latinos are much younger than other racial groups. As Latinos get older and as the population of Latinos rises due to increasing birth rates, not immigration, this voting bloc will only become more pivotal.

It behooves the Democrat Party to establish the habit of voting among Latino youth, a majority of whose parents are not U.S. citizens. In many of these families, voting has not yet become a civic ritual. By introducing Latino youth to the ballot, the Democratic Party might set a pattern that could persist for generations.

So far, the Democratic Party’s mobilizing efforts targeting Latino youth have been dismal. Fortunately, one group is doing an excellent job: Voto Latino. It is dedicated to promoting civic engagement, especially among young people, and it provides free music at events where Latino youth can register to vote.

The Latino youth vote is Obama’s for the taking. But he’ll have to court it. He should adopt more humane immigration policies, and, more importantly, he needs to go out and campaign with young Latinos.

Then he may get not only a receptive audience, but also get re-elected.

Claudia Sandoval is a graduate student in political science at the University of Chicago. She can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.

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