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The Quest for the Latino Vote: Not Just Message, But Substance

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Maribel Hastings is a Senior Advisor at America’s Voice:

CHARLOTTE, North Carolina—In close elections like this one, the Latino vote can be decisive not just in traditionally Hispanic-heavy states, but in other states where a few thousand votes can tip the balance and determine whether there’s a change of occupant in the White House. For both campaigns, mobilization is the key—and the most effective way to mobilize, experts concluded this week, is to communicate directly with voters using specific proposals rather than rhetorical symbols.

Of the nearly 52 million Latinos living in the United States, 23 million are eligible to vote—and it’s estimated that at least 12.2 million will show up at the polls on November 6th. Compared to the 10 million Latino voters in the 2008 election, it would be a 26% increase from four years ago.

The number of eligible voters certainly exceeds the number of people who will actually turn out, said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO). Motivating voters is certainly a work in progress, but what’s known for sure is that thousands of Latinos are in a position to determine electoral outcomes in their states.

In states with traditionally large Hispanic populations, like Florida, and some less traditional ones—like Virginia and North Carolina—the Latino vote can tip the balance one way or the other.

Obama won Florida in 2008, becoming the first Democrat to do so since 1996. The race in the state is close, and Latino voter mobilization could be key. It will be interesting, Vargas says, to see the effect that Republican Senator Marco Rubio has in mobilizing some Latino voters to support his party’s presidential candidate, Mitt Romney.

So far in the campaign, polls have shown that President Barack Obama has a substantial advantage over Romney with Latino voters at the national level. But it’s no secret that enthusiasm among Latino voters is at 50%–sharply down from the 80% of the historic 2008 election.

Monica Lozano, executive director of impreMedia, pointed out that while 64% of Latinos intend to vote for Obama while only 30% (at most) plan to vote for Romney, one finding of the most recent tracking poll conducted by impreMedia and polling firm Latino Decisions is that a significant percentage of Latino voters identify as independent or decline to select one candidate or the other. In theory, this means they could be persuaded to swing Republican (although it remains to be seen if that will happen in reality). But “it’s not just mobilization, but the message that candidates are offering,” Lozano added.

The candidates, she continued, have to speak “directly to Latino votes”—and Spanish-language media is crucial in reaching them. After all, naturalized citizens have higher rates of voter participation than Hispanics born in the United States.

But out of a combined $414 million the campaigns intend to spend on advertising, only $6 million is being spent on Spanish-language media, Lozano explained.

After the Republican convention, the impreMedia/Latino Decisions tracking poll shows, Romney appears to have gained a bit of ground among Latino voters—especially on the economy. The question is whether his campaign will be able to capitalize on this, and whether Democrats will also benefit from the traditional “convention bump” after theirs is concluded this week.

That said, as Lozano pointed out, there’s an enormous gap between how Latinos perceive the performance of the two parties: 55% of Latinos say that Democrats are doing a good job of reaching out to Latinos, while only 17% say Republicans are doing the same.

Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), agreed that the substance of a candidate’s message is important: “people are hungry for substance, knowing who the person is, what their position is on the issues.” She thinks that the ads Romney is currently running in Spanish “don’t seem to me to offer that substance.” As far as Obama is concerned, she added, he needs to tell Latino voters what he will do if re-elected.

The choice Latinos face in 2012 is bittersweet. On one side, they have a party (the Democrats) that has left its promises unkept—most importantly on immigration—but is asking for another opportunity to finish the job. On the other side, they have a party (Republicans) that has promoted an anti-immigrant agenda, ignoring that immigration is a defining issue for these voters. “(Immigration) isn’t an abstract issue for Latino voters. It’s personal,” Lozano affirmed.

Ben Monterroso, executive director of Mi Familia Vota, said that it’s true that, among Latino voters, some elections turn into an exercise in picking the lesser of two evils, “but not voting is not an option.

Murguia agreed. Voting isn’t just about a single election, but about establishing long-term electoral power.

“If we keep it up, we can be the strongest, most influential voting bloc in the country,” Murguia concluded.