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What It Will Take to Get Out the Hispanic Vote in 2010

“We are looking for Mr. Lopez. Is he home?” asks soft-voiced Kerry Roebke, a canvasser for Democratic candidates in Texas, as we stand in the doorway.

“¿Qué?” she asks, looking at me for a response.

“¿Está el señor López?…Aquí tenemos información sobre las elecciones en noviembre y el voto democratico,” I tell her. We have some information on November elections and the Democratic vote. A sticker above the door reads, “Aquí somos catholicos y creemos en la Santa Virgen María.” We are Catholic and we believe in the Virgin Mary.

The woman says, “OK. Gracias,” and shuts the door.

“Some days are tougher than others,” says Mary De Santiago, Democratic candidate for Tarrant County County Clerk, as we walk back to the sidewalk about the reactions to civic engagement efforts. “Some people just don’t want to talk to you,” but it’s also hard to overlook the language and cultural barrier when talking about courting Hispanic voters.

Earlier this year, the Tarrant County Democratic Party (TCDP) partnered up with Tejano Democrats of North Texas to start a campaign focused on getting out the Hispanic vote. With a small group of interns, including 20-year-old college student Roebke and a handful of volunteers, the two local organizations have begun a community outreach campaign in which canvass neighborhoods with voters who lean Democratic, undecided voters, and Hispanics around Fort Worth, Texas — sometimes those neighborhoods are heavily Hispanic, sometimes they’re low-income.

The Hispanic vote has become one of the most significant voting blocks in U.S. elections. About 10 million Latinos voted in the 2008 presidential election — a growth of about 2.5 million voters nationwide compared to 2004 and a nearly 4 million increase since 2000. From 2000 to 2008, Latino voter registration grew 54 percent and turnout grew 64 percent.

In Texas, 31 percent of Hispanic eligible voters are 18 to 29 years old. These young Latinos are on their way to becoming the majority demographic overall among Texas Latino voters, a position that is currently held by 30- to 44-year-old Latinos. “Couple these numbers with the fact that Latino voters comprise almost 40 percent of eligible Texas Democratic voters,” wrote Marisa Treviño for Spot On in 2008. “It's an implication that deserves attention.”

Indeed, many think that implication could sway election results. “The Latino vote will prove to be the decisive factor in which party gains the upper hand in American politics in the next generation,” says Frank Sharry, founder and executive director of America’s Voice, an immigration reform advocacy group. “It’s the fastest growing group of new voters. In the next five to ten years, how Latinos vote will be of huge consequence.” Latinos, in fact, are often described as swing voters, and local party affiliations and organizations around the country are taking notice by revamping their efforts to appeal to the Hispanic community.

Face-to-face contact with potential voters, who might otherwise stay home on Election Day, is the most efficient way to communicate with people, says Joe Chavez, president of Tejano Democrats of North Texas, who helps lead the TCDP’s effort to increase voter awareness among Hispanics.

“We have a lack of Hispanic registered voters,” says Chavez. “The ones that are don’t vote enough.” Hispanics in Tarrant Country, one of the most conservative counties in Texas, have a history of not voting.

While Latinos are conservative on social issues and care about bread and butter issues like the economy, one major issue — particularly this year — is immigration. “The striking difference [between Republicans and Democrats] is immigration reform,” says Chavez. “We stand in one place and they stand in another.” That difference might be able to push even conservative Hispanics to vote Democratic this fall. 

A poll late last year indicated that 72 percent of Latino voters would not consider voting for a candidate who was in favor of deporting most of the undocumented population.

“Latinos in America [have become] afraid for their civil rights, for their freedom,” says Lauro Garza, host of America’s only daily conservative Latino talk show,  LatinoTalk Texas. As a Republican, Garza is concerned about his party’s approach to the Latino community. “The radical [conservatives] have driven Latinos away from the Republican Party. For every one Latino that I recruit, these people drive away a hundred.”

Garza says that a few — mostly the radical right — have damaged the reputation of the Republican Party among Latinos. “I have to tell Latinos, ‘Those aren’t real Republicans,’ because why would they want to go to a party that hates them? They’ll go to Democrats because at least Democrats aren’t jumping in their faces and saying, “you’re nothing but dirty Mexicans.’”

But Republicans, too, are slowly courting Hispanic voters. The Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, an organization working with the Latino community to promote conservative values that did not respond to an interview request, has garnered widespread attention for its efforts. On a state level, conservatives have been trying to do their part, too. The Republican Party of Texas released its first Spanish-language ad earlier this summer.

Still, it’s no secret Democrats have been pushing for the Latino vote at a much more consistent, stronger pace than Republicans. Garza says Republican candidates have been apathetic about getting the Latino vote. “I don’t think the Republicans are doing a good job at recruiting Latinos,” he says. “They’re not doing any job of recruiting Latinos. Do they seem to care? I don’t know. I don’t really think so. I wish I could make them care. That’s my mission. And to make them treat us with some damn respect.”

In 2004, George W. Bush and Karl Rove made significant impact with Latino voters. Bush won 48 percent of Spanish-dominant voters, says Sharry. But in 2008, there was a dramatic change. McCain won only 25 percent of Latino votes. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, Hispanics voted for Democrats Barack Obama and Joe Biden over Republicans John McCain and Sarah Palin by a margin of more than two-to-one in the 2008 presidential election. Latino youth, just as all youth nationwide, supported Obama over McCain by an even wider margin: 76 percent versus 19 percent.

“It was inescapable for more Latino voters to understand that most Republicans hate them and don’t want them here,” says Sharry. “No wonder there was such a shift.”

“If the Republican Party continues to espouse a hard-line opposition to comprehensive immigration reform, embrace Arizona’s anti-immigrant law and show hostility to Latino workers and families, I think it’s going to drive Latinos to the polls and into the arms of the Democrats,” says Sharry, who believes there will be the debate on immigration and Arizona’s SB 1070 will increase voter turnout this year.

An America’s Voice report from earlier this year points to key states where  the Hispanic vote will be particularly significant in determining House and Senate races. “If you have states with large Latino populations and competitive races, the Latino vote could be crucial: [In] the governors’ race in Texas and California, the Latino vote will be a huge factor in determining who will win,” Sharry says. “In Nevada and Colorado, he says, the senate race will be tight and Latino vote will matter.”

“There’s a reason that Rick Perry has said an Arizona-style law will not come to Texas,” says Sharry. “There’s a reason why Harry Reid in Nevada is a strong proponent of immigration reform. It’s because they know they need the Latino vote.”

The TCDP is currently campaigning for Mary De Santiago, a Democratic candidate who stands to be the first Hispanic Tarrant County official. Her Republican opponent is also a Latina. Santiago, like many local political candidates, canvasses neighborhoods at least twice a week with the interns.

“It’s good that they see us out there,” says Chavez. “We let know that their vote is very important.”

At one point while canvassing, Chavez approaches a Hispanic man who walks ahead and closes the gate in front of Chavez as he is speaking, putting a gate between the man and Chavez. He grabs the plastic bag filled with pamphlets and says “Gracias.”

Though Keith Annis, executive director of the Tarrant County Democratic Party, says neighborhood reception to canvassing has been positive and friendly, intern Kerry Roebke has been seen difficult situations. Sometimes people aren’t aware of elections, sometimes they don’t know English, and even the little things — like fences — can get in the way of communicating with Latinos. None of that, though, has stopped them from trying.

“Our goal is to get a Hispanic into a county seat,” says Annis. “I think everyone can agree that we can increase voter turnout among Hispanics … [they] can have a huge impact on elections."

Julissa Treviño is a staff writer for Campus Progress. She graduated from Ithaca College in 2009.

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