CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The facts, the figures and the story of America’s “sleeping giant” are, by now, well known.
The nation’s 50 million Latinos make up the largest minority group and the fastest growing segment of the American electorate. Both President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are clamoring for Latino voters. So when America Ferrera, American-born actress of Honduran heritage and public ambassador for Voto Latino, downplayed Hispanic America’s political influence during a Democratic National Convention forum this week, there were murmurs from the back of the room.
"It is incredibly dangerous to take for granted that because Latinos are growing in number in this country this is going to equal political engagement and political resolve,” said Fererra. “One doesn’t automatically lead to the other."
Fererra, a celebrity with a cause, isn’t wrong, some political analysts and longtime activists said. Unless population growth is channeled into the political process -- with voter registration, Election Day balloting and participation in government -- there can be no awakened giant.
“All the data we have indicates that there will be good growth, but not spectacular growth in the Latino vote this year,” said Antonio Gonzalez, president of the William C. Velasquez Institute and the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project. The Southwest Voter Registration Education Project developed the slogan, Su Voto es Su Voz (Your Vote Is Your Voice), a phrase often repeated by politicians and activists at campaign rallies targeting Latino voters.
“Will Obama benefit from the Latino vote?,” Gonzalez asked. “Yes, in those states that really matter. Will the Latino vote have a great performance, incredible new turnout, overall in 2012? The answer is no.”
Latino voter registration is climbing. But it will not likely hit the 12.2 million peak that many analysts have predicted, said Gonzalez. Instead, the Latino electorate that numbered 11.6 million people in 2008 will likely decline to just over 11 million this year.
Right now about 10.9 million Latinos are registered to vote, Gonzalez said. About 10 million more are eligible but unregistered.
Foreclosures and unemployment mean millions of Latinos must register at new addresses in order to vote, Gonzalez said. In 2008, the economic crisis, wars, and Obama's historically significant presence on the ballot helped drive voters of all races to the polls.
The other problem is tactical. In the years before Obama’s first run for president, political parties, private foundations, wealthy individuals and presidential campaigns pumped money into outside organizations that worked to identify and register voters. Scandals involving The Association of Community Organization for Reform Now, better known as ACORN, changed everything, said Gonzalez.
“The campaigns are really doing things differently now, it’s more of a command and control approach,” said Gonzalez. “They control everything, including the aspects of the ground game, the door-knocking and the efforts to register voters that they used to essentially outsource to groups that were interested in expanding the Latino electorate, not winning elections.”
Half the nation’s eligible Latino voters live in Texas, a solidly red state, and California, a solidly blue one. This year, most of the campaigns’ voter registration efforts are in eight battleground states: North Carolina, Nevada, Colorado, Iowa, New Hampshire, Ohio , Florida and Virginia. They aren’t working to register voters in the remaining 42, Gonzalez said.
The strategy will boost Latino voter turnout in swing states, but won’t likely expand Latino political power or engage more Hispanic voters.
All the stories about the surging influence of Latino voters may leave many people with the impression that the Obama and Romney campaigns can win the Latino vote with consultants, market research, TV ads and mailers, said Dolores Huerta, a revered civil rights activist who co-founded the United Farm Workers labor union with the late Cesar Chavez.
"We don't need more ads. We don't need more money for consultants," Huerta said this week in Charlotte.
Huerta was waiting for a Latino Leaders Network event, where most of the attendees were Democratic faithful. But a sizable share of people milling around, snapping photos of Huerta and waiting to pose with her or shake her hand, were political consultants or operatives who specialize in turning out the Latino vote.
"We need resources for on-the-ground, door-to-door organizers, Huerta said. "We need resources for the people who know how to talk to people about what is on the line. … That's what we need to turn out the Latino vote. That's what works."
And it needs to happen in Texas and California as much as it does in Virginia, Nevada and Colorado, Huerta said.