A member of the crowd holds up a "Latinos for Obama" sign during… (Marc Piscotty / Getty Images )
Nearly 24 million Latinos are eligible to vote, bolstering claims about the group’s potential impact in the 2012 presidential election. But if history is any teacher, their turnout in November could lag far behind other groups, including whites and blacks.
That’s the conclusion in a report by the Pew Hispanic Center, which crunched Census Bureau data. The increase in eligible Latino voters since 2008 is dramatic. In that year’s presidential election, 19.5 million Latinos were eligible to vote, or 22% fewer than can vote this year.
The problem, according to Mark Hugo Lopez, associate director at Pew Hispanic and the report’s lead author, is that Latinos rarely turn out to vote in numbers close to their potential. Four years ago, a record 50% of eligible Latinos voted in the presidential election, compared with 65% of eligible African Americans and 66% of whites.
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Analysts said there are several reasons why African Americans, for example, vote at higher rates than Latinos, including the major role black churches play in urging people to register to vote and getting them to the polls.
Lopez said that, conversely, a factor depressing the Latino voter turnout appears to be the comparative youth of the voting bloc. About a third of Latinos in the country are in the 18 to 29 age group, Lopez said. And young people generally tend to vote at much lower rates than older people.
Lopez said another factor that could play a role in keeping Latino turnout rates down could be that about half of the voters are in California and Texas, two states that haven’t been in play for the presidential election.
“They’re not battleground states,” he said. “As a result, Hispanics in those states probably are not getting the same amount of advertising and attention … or the same level of mobilization efforts.”
Latino voter groups expect that the estimated number of Latino voters who will turn in ballots in November — 10 million to 12 million — will break a record. About 9.7 million Latinos voted in the presidential election four years ago.
But either number is a far cry from the potential number that could vote. Lopez said the gulf between the number of Latinos who can vote and those who do is far wider during midterm elections. Also, about 55% of all Latinos in the country are ineligible to vote because of their age or because they aren’t citizens.
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Despite Latino population growth, the overall number of Latinos registering for the first time declined significantly between 2008 and 2010. It’s the first time in more than 20 years that the pace of Latino voter registration declined so sharply. Some analysts cite the effects of the economic recession, as well as dimmed political enthusiasm.
On the flip side, Lopez said, Latino voter registration is up in hotly contested states like Florida, where the presidential race could turn on sliver-thin margins. Latinos make up 11% of the eligible voters nationwide, compared with 9.5% in 2008 and 8.2% in 2004.
Analysts have regularly cited the importance of the Latino vote in the presidential election, with Democrats in particular hoping that it is high because polls suggest more than 60% of Latinos could vote to reelect President Obama. The campaigns of Obama and Republican Mitt Romney have paid considerable attention to Latino voters, and during the Republican and Democratic conventions, speakers made frequent use of Spanish, even though a majority of Latinos primarily speak English.