CHARLOTTE — Prominent Latinos such as actress Rosario Dawson and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa are sharing a common message at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte this week — that Latino voters represent a rising political force.
It’s a point Republicans like Susana Martinez, the nation’s first Latina governor, also appealed to during last week’s Republican convention in Tampa, and it’s one that resonates in North Carolina.
by the numbers
Increase from 2008 Latino voters
Increase from 2008 black voters
Increase from 2008 white voters
Registered Latino voters in N.C.
The state has added 30,000 people who self-identify as Hispanic voters to its rosters since 2008, according to N.C. Board of Elections data. While Hispanics represent only about 99,000 of 6.4 million registered voters in North Carolina, their ballots could be crucial in a state President Barack Obama won by about 14,000 votes in 2008.
And Latinos’ importance will only increase as young Hispanics born after their parents immigrated in the U.S. grow into voting age, said Greg Weeks, a political science professor at UNC-Charlotte who studies Latino immigration.
Latinos will probably vote Democrat in 2012, Weeks said, but neither party has the group’s loyalty guaranteed in the long run — and as both liberals and conservatives recognize the demographic’s power, they are vying for Hispanics’ allegiance.
“Both parties need to earn the Latino vote,” said Hector Sanchez, executive director of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, during a policy presentation at the convention. “The Latino community will not follow any party or candidate because she is the lesser of two evils.”
The number of Hispanic voters registered in North Carolina grew by 44 percent between December 2008 and Sept. 1, 2012, according to N.C. Board of Elections data, compared to a 4 percent increase in black voters — and just a 0.3 percent increase in white voters.
Though Latinos make up 9 percent of the state’s total population, they account for only about 2 percent of the state’s registered voters, which Weeks said is partly because many older Latinos are undocumented. Of those who are eligible, most were registered by Democrat grassroots campaigns last election, said Tom Jensen of Public Policy Polling, meaning parties must register college-aged Latino voters who have since turned 18 to increase their voting bloc.
“There’s really not that much low-hanging fruit left,” Jensen said.
And young Latinos will become even more important with time, Weeks said.
The median age of Hispanic North Carolinians is just 24, compared to 41 for whites, based on Pew Research Center data. Of Latinos younger than 18, 89 percent are U.S. citizens, according to data compiled by Democracy NC, a Durham-based advocacy group.
“I think the rise in Latino votes, it’s good news for the Democrats in the long term,” Jensen said, explaining that young Latinos voted even more heavily for Barack Obama than older voters in 2010. “For Republicans long-term in North Carolina, they need to find a way to appeal to those voters.”
The Latino vote isn’t locked in for Democrats in this election or in the future, Jensen said.
Many Latino voters are upset that immigration initiatives that Obama promised to throw his support behind, like the DREAM Act, have stalled in Congress. Even more importantly, Latinos are disenchanted with the state of the economy, which is voters’ foremost priority, Weeks said.
“Obama’s challenge is to make sure that people don’t stay home,” he said, explaining that while he expects those who do vote will still largely support the president because many perceive the Republican Party as ethnocentric, they could come out in numbers so small that their importance is diminished.
If Republicans soften their stance on issues like immigration, they might have a chance to capitalize on the share of the vote that Democrats are losing, Jensen said.
“The Romney campaign is doing a far better job in North Carolina than the McCain campaign did in 2008,” Jensen said, explaining that Romney has been reaching out to young voters, including Hispanics, much earlier and more heavily. “When voters are unhappy, it’s a lot easier to be the challenger.”
Peter McClelland, a UNC sophomore and College Republicans member, said he thinks the Republican party realizes the Latino vote is going to become pivotal in North Carolina.
“Like the rest of us, Latino voters are looking at an economy that is not where it should be,” he said. “The Republican Party appeals to a portion of the Latino party that is well-established.”
The College Republicans group isn’t reaching out to Latino voters on campus specifically, he said, because that would conflict with their view of treating voters as individuals.
But Young Democrats President Austin Gilmore, a UNC senior, said his group is working to connect directly with Latino voters by reaching out to groups like Carolina Hispanic Association.
“Everyone knows that Latinos and Hispanics will be a potent force moving forward,” he said, adding that Young Democrats are addressing issues that matter to Latinos, including immigration.
Education and the economy are also major Latino concerns at UNC, said Andrea Alonso, a UNC senior and vice president of CHispA, which she said does not take a partisan stance. The organization plans to put on events to showcase both sides of such issues before November.
Even as the parties and their campus representatives plan for this election and the future, how Latinos vote this year — and whether they vote at all — will depend heavily on how they perceive Obama’s performance to date, Jensen said.
“A lot of Latinos are going to have to decide — has Barack Obama done everything he could?”
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