By Roberto Ramos (HuffPost Latino Voices)
The arrival of the holiday season this year has also brought the not-so-merry and somewhat dizzying kick-off of the 2012 presidential campaign cycle. Debates seem to take place every other week and candidate histrionics at times are better suited for the E! television network. In the meantime, President Obama is trying to maintain his presidential cool as the Republican candidates berate his performance. With a moribund economy for a backdrop, the numbers don’t look good for either party at the start of a heated race to the White House. The Latino vote, prominent after its promising performance in the 2008 elections, has become increasingly buzz-worthy as a potential game-changer.
The buzz is certainly merited, as the recent Census data show Latinos are driving over half of the nation’s population growth. The latest tally puts the Latino population at 50 million, up from over 35 million a decade ago. According to a study by the Pew Center, the number of eligible Latino voters also increased during that timeframe, from 13 to 21 million. The Latino voter growth is all the more important because it’s taking place at an accelerated pace in key battleground states like Florida and Nevada where the Latino boom has given those states added Electoral College votes and provided the group stronger national influence.
Behind this Latino demographic growth are young U.S.-born Latinos, who now comprise a majority of the Latino population. On average, they are ten years younger than the general population. As a result, Latinos have younger voters than any other group and a larger percentage (close to a third) younger than voting age. This latter under-18 segment still presents a formidable base for growth as over 600,000 Latinos turn eighteen annually.
Simply put, Latinos are younger and a larger share of their voter base is young. This is a positive and challenging position for the Latino community. It’s positive because Latino youth represent the new face of a more multicultural electorate as well as the future for both the community and the nation at large. The challenge is that like all young people they are less likely to get out and vote. So unless materialized in the form of action, its power is meaningless.
The transformative part is that political operatives have not traditionally spoken to this young, more acculturated segment. Most of the political conversation until now has been with the older foreign-born U.S. Latinos, and rightfully so as the 40+ age group is still 60% of the electorate and is more proactive about voting. The key point, though, is that this population breakdown is changing rapidly and the 40% of Latino voters that are young and bicultural (18-39) will increasingly set the Latino agenda. A reset is needed immediately.
What this calls for is a more nuanced method for parties and politicians to speak to the Latino constituency. At a base level, it means coming up with two strategies both based on a Latino commitment that also speak to the different identities and needs of the two groups. Given the traditional D.C. focus on foreign-born voters through Spanish-language media campaigns, I will focus on ways to engage the younger portion.
A more youthful political conversation is key for the numerical reasons mentioned above, but also given that the overall Latino community places utmost priority on the progress of its youth. The U.S.-born second generation represents the dreams and sacrifices of Latino immigrants so a youthful approach will be appealing to all Latinos.
Unfortunately the picture for young Latinos is weighed down by the challenges of the current socio-political climate. They are more likely to encounter poverty, lack of education and health care. Latino youth, like all young people, are also facing a strong and disproportionate jobless crisis. Communication to them must address job opportunities.
But despite these challenges, Latino youth,represent the more assimilated face of the immigrant group population and its strongest hope for mainstream representation. And there’s some positive evidence that their parents’ hard work as well as that of committed partners of the Latino community is paying off. A recent study by the Pew Hispanic Center reported all-time highs in the number of Latinos enrolled in college. It’s this Latino base that best represents the future electorate of this country.
The challenge for both parties is to inspire this group out of its youthful political apathy by creating a compelling and urgent narrative that addresses their needs. This means a reset from the traditional foreign-born focus on issues like immigration. A Latino youth approach should instead have as main topic job creation and education. This approach should also be more dynamic and open akin to a conversation that taps into digital and social media. Language used will be mostly English, peppered with Spanish for multigenerational relevancy and impact. The story should leverage this unique moment in their identity-building as Americans of Latino descent.
To tell their story both parties should tap into its rising U.S. born stars such as San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro (D) and U.S. Representative Jaime Berrera Beutler (R). This will show them that they are part of the shaping of a new political agenda. Both parties should also look to include more external partners and influencers including entrepreneurs, celebrities and other figures who reflect the younger composition of the Latino electorate.
The Latino youth boom represents a very powerful opportunity for the overall Latino community and a formidable growth segment for key arenas in American society, including politics. But some rethinking must take place in how to reach them. While inspired by their roots, the U.S.-born Latino voters are clearly not your parent’s electorate.
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