Latino Millennials Have The Power, So Why Don't They Use It?

"Everyone wants to know when this really large voting group is going to punch its weight."

01/22/2016 10:12 am ET | Updated Jan 22, 2016

Millennials make up a huge share of eligible Latino voters, much more than their peers do among their black and white counterparts, according to the Pew Research Center.

Latino voters born since 1981 make up 44 percent of the 27.3 million Hispanics eligible to choose the next president. Then there are the 3.2 million Latinos who reached voting age since Obama's reelection in 2012, according to Pew. That sounds like an exciting opportunity to get new voters to the polls. But what's more likely is that Latino millennials won't exert anything close to their full power on Election Day, analysts said, and that will dilute the overall Latino vote.

"Everyone wants to know when this really large voting group is going to punch its weight," said Jens Manuel Krogstad, a co-author of Pew's recent report on Latino voting trends. "A big part of the story is that the Latino electorate is young."

The growing numbers of young Latinos eligible to vote don't surprise academics or pollsters who track voting demographics, What's tougher to grasp is why they're underrepresented among people who actually vote. 

Millennials don't vote much in general, but the problem is more acute among Hispanics because they make up a larger share of the overall Latino vote than do black and white millennials in their respective racial groups. Hispanic millennials also vote at lower levels than their African American and white counterparts. 

In 2012, only 37.5 percent of Latino millennials voted, compared to 47.5 percent of whites and 55 percent of African Americans in the same age group. That lack of participation drags down the overall Latino turnout rate 

Pew Research Center

There are several reasons why Hispanic millennials are discouraged from maximizing their clout at the voting booths.

Latinos concentrated in uncompetitive states.

Why bother voting if it's unlikely to matter in your state's outcome? More than half of all eligible Latinos live in California, Texas and New York, according to Pew. California and New York reliably vote for the Democratic presidential nominee and Texas is a deeply red state. Candidates don't spend much time in those states because they favor possible swing areas. Florida, Nevada and Colorado are the only battleground states with sizable Latino populations, according to Pew. With the outcome in Texas, California and New York virtually declared already, Krogstad said it's not surprising that young Latinos might not see any reason to get involved. 

Cultural divide.

"Latinos have rather large cultural and language barriers that keep the voter turnout rate down," Krogstad said. Bilingual voting materials are generally available, but that doesn't mean it will be easy to exercise the right to vote.

Spanish speakers will probably see and hear less advertising targeting them and thus not get as excited about voting either.

The lack of voting interest could be a holdover too, if the voter was born abroad or has a family connection to a Spanish speaking country that didn't inspire democratic participation either, so they or their parents didn't vote before naturalizing in the U.S. 

The Washington Post via Getty Images
Soraya Marquez, the state coordinator for Mi Familia Vota and her crew hit a Puerto Rican neighborhood trying to get Latinos to register to vote in the 2016 presidential election on July 24.

Millennials make up 44% of eligible Latino voters, a bigger share than any other age group.

Politicians don't interact well with Latinos

Candidates' half-hearted attempts at peppering speeches with a few basic words of Spanish don't work on Latinos, who report receiving less interaction from candidates and their campaigns than black and white voters do, according Matt Barreto, a UCLA professor who does polling on Hispanics for Hillary Clinton's campaign.

"You have to feel like the candidate depends on your vote," he said. "People ask 'Why aren't these Latinos voting?' The question should be 'Why isn't the political establishment investing the same amount?'"

Latinos overall vote less on average.

The behavior of Latino millennials is hardly unprecedented. In some ways, they're following a general pattern of the previous generations. Older, eligible Latinos don't vote as much as their white and black counterparts either. In 2012, during Obama's reelection, only 48 percent of eligible Latinos voted compared to 64 percent of whites and 65 percent of blacks, Pew's data shows. 

If Donald Trump becomes the Republican presidential nominee, will his anti-immigrant vitriol motivate Latinos to vote above average?

Wild card: the Trump factor.

If Donald Trump becomes the GOP presidential nominee, will Latinos turn out in higher than expected numbers to try and defeat someone who has vilified immigrants, especially people from Mexico? Not necessarily, which is why Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders' campaigns have tried cultivating Latinos. "You can't count on the bogeyman on the other side [to motivate Latino voters]," Barreto said. "You've got to have engagement. Outreach is happening, but nothing is going to automatically materialize if Trump wins."

Wild card #2: the Cruz and Rubio factor.

There's yet another question that could upset the equation. What happens if a Cuban-American like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) or Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) becomes the nominee? It's hard to say, according to Krogstad, because Latinos have reliably supported the Democratic party. In 2012, Obama won 71 percent of the Hispanic vote. Presumably that number would be much lower if a Hispanic candidate has the chance to move into the White House, but so far Latinos haven't embraced Cruz or Rubio. Part of the reason, is that many identify with their country of origin, such as Mexico, Colombia or Cuba, rather than under the umbrella category of Latino.

Their connection to the Democratic party might hold up, according to Cornell professor Sergio Garcia-Rios. "I don't think they're up for grabs," he said. "Latinos favor a lot of policies that Republicans are against," such as looser immigration controls and expanded healthcare programs. 

Bright spots: Children of Latino immigrants.

Though polling results indicate low turnout for Latino millennials, it doesn't mean they're politically off the grid. Other research shows that children of immigrants get involved in other ways that could lay the foundation for strong voting power, according to Garcia-Rios. Children from a young age who speak English often help their non-native speaking parents fill out forms or translate when dealing with authorities, such as school officials. These interactions with officials and institutions might make voting feel natural for the sons and daughters of immigrants.  "They're used to being involved in these activities from a young age," Garcia-Rios said. 

Bright spots: More educated, more motivated.

Another reason for optimism is eligible Latino voters are much more educated now. In the 2000 election, only 24 percent had a two-year degree orsome college schooling and just 11 percent had earned a bachelor's degree. This year, Pew projects that 30 percent will have a two-year degree or some college schooling, while 18 percent will have graduated from a university. The proportion who dropped out before finishing high school fell from 32 percent in the George W. Bush v Al Gore election to a projected 20 percent this fall.

Then there are the so-called Dreamers. Researchers believe that these children, brought to the U.S. without documentation by their parents and whom Obama granted amnesty, might become highly active in the political arena. "My sense…is that naturalized dreamers are more prone to participate in politics [and vote] than older, naturalized Latinos," said University of Connecticut professor Charles Venator-Santiago. 

So when will Latino millennials make their voices heard? 

Not till they're older. Experts said that passage of time will probably have a bigger effect than any outreach effort from the traditional parties. Older age groups simply vote more. As the huge number of millennials mature, they'll show up at the polls. 

Barreto, who does polling for Clinton's campaign, looks at the data with a lot of optimism. 

"It’s the best of both worlds," he said. "You have all of the existing Latino voters and now you have a very, very large percent who are younger so it means you even have more potential."

Also on HuffPost:

Suggest a correction