27 Million Potential Hispanic Votes. But What Will They Really Add Up To?

New York Times Magazine. Sunday, September 18, 2016. Cover Story.

Two weeks after Hillary Clinton accepted the Democratic presidential nomination in Philadelphia, beaming through a hail of gigantic balloons, her campaign’s “Latinos con Hillary” program began in five cities in Virginia. One of the kickoff parties took place at Todos Supermarket in Prince William County, in a modest white room where about 40 people gathered around three tables draped in cheap blue cloth to hear a speech by Clinton’s national Latino-vote director, Lorella Praeli. When she was 2, Praeli, now 28, lost one of her legs in a car accident, but with her crutches, she commanded the room more adroitly than any of the speakers who preceded her, moving among the tables as she rallied her troops. Though the party was advertised on Facebook, most of the men and women in attendance were seasoned Democratic politicians, staff members and volunteers.

“I’m not here to make it pretty,” Praeli said. “The work ahead of us, the task and challenge ahead of us for the next what — 96 days — is huge.” She ticked through the efforts needed to register and turn out Latinos: knocking on doors, hosting phone-bank parties, convincing friends, haunting markets, teaching Spanish-speakers the how and the when and the where of voting. In her speech, the job sounded herculean. Near the end of her pitch, she asked everyone to stand and feel the energy in the room while they said, in Spanish, “We will be the difference.”

“I want you to say it and to believe it,” Praeli instructed. “I want you to say it and to commit yourself.” She smiled, but these were marching orders. “If we don’t believe it, other people won’t believe,” Praeli said in Spanish. “If we don’t believe it in this room, we won’t be the difference in November.”

Latinos have been hearing that they will be the difference for decades. In Spanish-language media this year, the rhetoric around the election has often gone so far as to imply that Latinos will decide the result on their own. Telemundo’s election coverage runs under the slogan “Yo Decido,” “I Decide.” The Univision news anchor Jorge Ramos told The Times last year that “the new rule in American politics is that no one can make it to the White House without the Hispanic vote.”

It’s true enough that 800,000 Latinos turn 18 every year, and both parties burn millions of dollars trying to woo Hispanic voters. This year, 27 million will be eligible to vote. But the idea of a fearsome Latino political power remains more myth than reality. Journalists have been writing about the so-called “sleeping giant” of Hispanic voters since at least the 1970s, but the fact is that voter turnout among Latinos remains dismal. It can run almost 20 percentage points lower than that of African-Americans and non-Hispanic whites. Exactly the same percentage of eligible Latinos, 48 percent, showed up for Romney versus Obama in 2012 as turned out for Bush versus Dukakis in 1988. While the raw number of Latino ballots cast has tripled since 1998, so has the number of Latino citizens who don’t vote. Only once in the past 28 years, during the 1992 match among George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot that spurred a jump in overall turnout, has Latino turnout exceeded 50 percent. More often than not, “Yo Decido” to stay home.

This year, the new spin on the old dream is that Donald Trump will finally shake the giant awake. He opened his campaign last summer by calling Mexican immigrants “rapists,” has repeatedly proclaimed that he will build a wall between Mexico and the United States and, until recently, has made the deportation of 11 million undocumented immigrants a cornerstone of his platform. As early as September 2015, Javier Palomarez, the president and chief executive of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, told Politico: “I think the greatest thing to ever happen to the Hispanic electorate is a gentleman named Donald Trump. He has crystallized the angst and anger of the Hispanic community.” He added, “I think we can all rest assured that Hispanics can turn out in record numbers.”

Perhaps. But achieving record turnout for a demographic with a lackluster voting history isn’t so simple as watching them take themselves to the polls. In June, Mi Familia Vota and the National Council of La Raza, two nonprofit groups devoted to organizing Latinos, warned that they needed more cash to match their voter registration numbers from 2012. In July, the Pew Research Center notedthat “Hispanic voters lag all registered voters on several measures of engagement” — they aren’t paying attention to election news as closely as other citizens and they aren’t thinking about the election as much. At a conference on the Hispanic vote held in New York City in January, the big unanswered question was “Why have Latinos never really turned out in force?”

Looking for answers, I spent six months interviewing scores of Latinos in Virginia, a battleground state where the Latino share of the population has more than tripled since 1990. I met with Latino Catholics, Pentecostals and Mormons, with legal residents, citizens and undocumented immigrants. I frequented a church and a community center, soccer fields and a dance club. I lurked around Republican and Democratic events and a skateboard park. I interviewed custodians and construction workers, lawyers and real estate agents, restaurant owners and community organizers, college students and political staffers. In all, I spoke with more than 100 Virginians of various ethnic backgrounds.

For all the energy that activists, especially on the Democratic side, have put into turning out the Latino vote, I met strikingly few Latinos outside the upper-middle class who talked about voting as if it were something they did regularly. The exceptions tended to be people like Lucía Rodriguez, 61, who cleans houses and has voted regularly for more than a decade — even in 2008 after she and her husband, a custodian, saw all their savings vanish in the mortgage crisis. For years afterward, they scrambled to keep their family afloat, working every available hour. Yet she kept on voting. Why? “It’s a civic duty,” she said. Rodriguez explained that in Bolivia, where she had been an accountant, she learned the habit of voting because nonvoters could be penalized with fines. In her Mormon church in the United States, she was surrounded by friends who voted. To pass her citizenship test, she had to study American government and learn English. Her voting behavior entailed years of effort and experience. Through all my conversations, I began to fear that the real roots of political engagement, which lie not in quadrennial outreach programs but around dinner tables and in churches and classrooms, are far more absent from Latino life in America than most people understand...

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