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Hispanics Certain To Back Obama, But In What Numbers?

Four years ago, then-presidential candidate Barack Obama was greeted warmly at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute's awards gala in Washington, D.C. Polls show Obama retains strong Hispanic support this year, but also that many who are eligible don't plan to vote.
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Four years ago, then-presidential candidate Barack Obama was greeted warmly at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute's awards gala in Washington, D.C. Polls show Obama retains strong Hispanic support this year, but also that many who are eligible don't plan to vote.

There appears to be no question that President Obama will win the lion's share of Hispanic support. But there are still very big questions to be answered about how many votes such support will translate into.

"What we know is that we don't know," says Ruy Teixeira, a political analyst at the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank.

"If you're the Obama campaign, there's cause for concern, because at least so far, [Hispanic support] is not translating into encouraging data on the turnout front," he says.

Both Obama and Mitt Romney, his Republican challenger, are actively wooing Hispanic voters this week. Romney spoke before the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce on Monday, giving an interview to Telemundo, a Spanish-language TV network, that same day.

Speaking at a forum Wednesday sponsored by Univision, another Spanish-language network, Romney promised that as president, "We're not going to round up people around the country and deport them." He also pledged to come up with a "permanent solution" to the issue of young illegal immigrants who had been brought to this country as children, although he was not specific about his plans.

Obama appears on the same network Thursday.

It's no wonder both men want to court Hispanics. They make up the fastest-growing slice of the electorate and will doubtless play a role in determining the outcome in swing states such as Colorado, Florida and Nevada.

Obama leads among Hispanics by at least a 2-to-1 margin, according to recent polls. That's a big advantage, but Hispanics have always hit below their weight in terms of turning out to vote.

Hispanics made up just 7 percent of the electorate in 2010, despite comprising 16 percent of the U.S. population at the time. In part, that's because Hispanics are disproportionately made up of young people, who tend not to vote as regularly as those who are older. Also, a sizable segment of the Latino population is made up of noncitizens, who of course are not eligible to vote.

According to Mark Hugo Lopez, associate director of the Pew Hispanic Center, 43 percent of the Hispanic population is at least 18 and made up of citizens, compared with 70 percent among non-Hispanic whites.

"Every characteristic this group has is associated with lower registration and lower turnout," says Michael O'Neil, a pollster based in Arizona.

If the demographic profile of Hispanics suggest that they are less likely on the whole to vote than whites or African-Americans, there have been questions all year about how excited they will be about this election in particular.

Granted, not all Hispanics care about the same issues. Many are motivated by issues of concern to other ethnic groups, such as health care and the economy.

But immigration issues are crucial. Romney's low levels of support stem largely from the hard line he has taken regarding illegal immigrants. But Hispanics have also been disappointed throughout Obama's presidency by his failure to enact changes in immigration law.

Obama's executive order in June to allow young people brought to this country illegally to apply for deportation deferrals, however, has helped his cause with Latinos for whom immigration is a key issue.

"The waiver of deportations has swept across the psyches of Latinos across the United States," says Henry Cisneros, a former San Antonio mayor who served in President Bill Clinton's Cabinet. "Latinos are fired up."

Some Latino voter-registration and advocacy groups say they are seeing an uptick in registrations and excitement about the election among Hispanics. So far, though, that sentiment is not showing up in public opinion surveys.

According to Gallup, 67 percent of Hispanics who are registered say they will definitely vote in November — well below the 83 percent figure for both whites and African-Americans. A poll released last week by Latino Decisions found that Hispanics were actually slightly less excited about voting after persistent wooing from both parties at their national conventions.

"You have to say that isn't a good sign, if enthusiasm isn't rising after Labor Day and the conventions," says Teixeira, the Center for American Progress senior fellow.

Nevertheless, even if turnout rates aren't likely to spike, the Hispanic share of the vote is expected to increase over previous years, because of rapid population growth. More than 23 million Hispanics are citizens and at least 18 years of age, according to Lopez — representing a jump of nearly 4 million from just four years ago.

Some 60,000 Hispanics are turning 18 every month — 98 percent of whom are native-born.

That all points to Hispanic voters becoming an even bigger factor in years to come. The Hispanic population is gradually becoming older, with better education and higher incomes — all factors associated with higher turnout rates.

So, even if Hispanics don't turn out in huge numbers for Obama, their incremental growth as a share of the electorate will offer huge advantages to Democrats in the future, unless Republicans find more effective ways of appealing to them.

"With the whole immigration game, I think Republicans got short-term gain and long-term suicide," says O'Neil, the Tempe, Ariz.-based pollster. "You just pissed off the fastest-voting bloc in America. It's still small, still underperforming, but long term, they're going to regret that one."

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Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.
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