February 15, 2008

Young Latinos for Obama or Nada

By Louis E.V. Nevaer
New America Media


Barack Obama may be attracting many young Latino first-time voters – but if he doesn’t win his party’s nomination, they may not vote a second time.

More than four out of five Latino first-time voters under the age of 30 who voted for Barack Obama on Super Tuesday say that if the Democrats nominate Hillary Clinton, they will not vote at all in the presidential election in November.

“It’s like rooting for your team during the playoffs,” said one 20-something first-time voter, a New York Puerto Rican male. “If my team doesn’t make it to the Super Bowl, yeah, I’ll watch the game, but my heart’s not in it.”

For the majority of urban Latino youth, if Obama doesn’t make it to the November election, they’ll watch the returns on television that night, but they won’t bother to vote.

The week after Super Tuesday, my company, Hispanic Economics, was hired by the Obama campaign to conduct surveys of 655 Latino voters under the age of 30 who supported Obama in New York, New Jersey, Illinois and Arizona. Rather than asking whom they would vote for in a hypothetical race between Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama and John McCain, voters were asked, “If Obama is not nominated, and in November it is Hillary Clinton versus John McCain, are you likely to bother to vote at all?”

When phrased this way, more than 80 percent of Latino first-time voters under the age of 30 who support Obama said, “No.”

This bodes well for the Republicans, since the nomination of Hillary Clinton, described by some of these Latino males under 30 as “unappealing,” “establishment,” “prehistoric,” and “bigoted,” could compel the much-vaunted “youth” vote to stay home on Nov. 8.

Public Interest Research Groups, known as PIRGs, have made tremendous efforts in mobilizing young voters through the Student PIRG’s New Voters Project. The results of this and other “get out the youth vote” campaigns have been impressive. What happened in Florida is typical of what is happening across the nation: Youth voters have more than tripled this year.

CNN exit polls and Federal Election Commission (FEC) figures confirm that the number of voters in the Florida primary aged 18-29 tripled among Republicans, rising from 41,970 in 2000 to 134,425 in 2008. For Democrats – the enthusiasm Barack Obama has generated is the driving force – the rise in voter turnout is more impressive: Democratic voters aged 18-29 in the Sunshine State catapulted from 38,639 in 2000 to 151,595 this year.

But it is not clear that young voters will be the “tipping” point for the Democrats in key battleground states, such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida come November – if Barack Obama is not on the ballot.

The prevailing attitude among young Latino male voters reflects a sports mentality: If your team is out, your interest drops off dramatically until the “next season.” Latinas, meanwhile, compared voting to jury duty – “Do it now and you won’t have to bother in November.” In both cases, these attitudes undermine the notion advanced by Latino pundits heralding the emergence of “Latino power.”

Three factors undermine the ability of Hispanics to impact national elections in the United States. First, a large number of Hispanics are actually Latin American immigrants who are not citizens, and ineligible to vote. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that two thirds of Latin American immigrants are here illegally, and the immigration reform crisis has slowed down the pace of naturalization since Sept. 11, 2001.

Second, the surge in the Hispanic population in the United States is fueled by Latinos’ higher birth rates: One third of all Latino population growth since 2000 is a result of new births. Although U.S. citizens by birth, the Census Bureau reports that about 80 percent of Latinos will be too young to vote come November.

The third, and perhaps more instructive insight, is a lack of understanding of the political process. The electoral process, with its caucuses and primaries, delegates and superdele-gates, is confusing enough for veteran voters. For first-time voters, it is even harder to understand.

“The Latino presence is more and more visible on our streets and in our neighborhoods, but less visible in the political process,” Roberto Suro, former director of the Pew Hispanic Center, explained. “Because of a combination of lack of citizenship, a big youth population and voter apathy, only one-fifth of Hispanics went to the polls in 2004. In other words, it took five Latino residents to produce one voter.”

And what if that voter is not interested in showing up if his or her candidate isn’t on the ballot?

“I’m for Obama all the way. It’s about time we got some color in that too-White-House,” one respondent said. “But if it’s a choice between Hillary and McCain, then I don’t care – they both look too damn clammy for me.”

For the “Obama or Nada” Latino youth, if he’s not the Democratic nominee, far too many are prepared to sit this one out, and wait for the 2012 season.

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