Latino Millennials Have an Opportunity to Majorly Impact the 2016 Election

Written By: Jeremy Taylor

Earlier this year I wrote that when it comes to the presidential debates, “There needs to be a new process for America’s biggest popularity contest.” And while I advocated that debates should be policy driven and less theatrical, I conceded by asking if today’s presidential candidates were able to sustain the lengthy discourse needed for today’s complex issues, would the electorate even bother to listen? The answer to this last question is imperative against the backdrop of new research on the Latinos and their participation in elections.

I recently tuned in to Showtime’s new docuseries, The Circusexpecting to find behind-the-scenes portrayals of caricatures I created for each presidential candidate. Instead, true as advertised, I became engrossed in what Showtime says is a series that pulls back the curtain to reveal the “intense, inspiring, and infuriating stories behind the headlines.” Sure, it is reality TV, but of a decidedly more raw variety. The candidates are unscripted, jovial, and even amiable. But is this the side of candidates that most people end up seeing? Especially young, minority voters?

The Pew Research Center published a report in January that found that Millennials make up nearly half (44%) of Latino eligible voters in this year’s presidential election. In descending order, Millennials make up 35% of Black voters, 30% of Asian voters, and 27% of White voters. A record 27.3 million Latinos will be eligible to vote in 2016 with 11.9 million of those being Millennials. As the report notes, there were fewer eligible Latino voters in 2012, but an estimated 3.2 million Latinos turned 18 and over 1 million Latinos became U.S. citizens between the years of 2012-2016. While these numbers depict a seemingly immutable demographic shift, they must be measured against the consequence of their impact.

Millennials make up nearly half of Latino eligible voters in this year’s presidential election.

Turnout remains a problem among Latino voters. In 2012, only 48% of eligible Latinos voted, compared with 64% of Whites and 66% of Blacks. The same holds true for Latino Millennials as just 37.8% voted in 2012 compared to 55% of Black and 47.5% White Millennials. Pinpointing the root causes of this behavior remains a challenge since the Latino bloc of voters is not really a bloc at all. Some are naturalized citizens, some are born in the U.S., some are from Central America and others from South America, and the list could go on. However, as the Center for American Progress explains, immigration remains the single most important issue among Latino voters regardless of education or economic demographic.

Could it be that there have been so many false starts on immigration reform over the past 10-12 years that Latinos have become jaded by the prospects of a solution? Or, maybe the lack of both vision and believability among candidates has Latinos cautious about participation in 2016. A Pew survey from 2013 revealed that there really is no national Latino leader. When asked, “Who is the country’s most important Hispanic leader,” 62% said “don’t know.” An interesting wrinkle in this year’s election is that two candidates, Senator Rubio and Senator Cruz, stand a chance to be the first Latino American president. Why has this not garnered the same attention as President Obama’s identity as the first African-American President? Is it because of the candidates themselves? The fact that an ethnic minority has already been elected president? Because they are Republicans? 

An exchange between GOP hopefuls in the South Carolina debate, however, may have offered some insight. Senator Cruz began lambasting Senator Rubio over an appearance on Univsion, claiming that he would not rescind President Obama’s executive action on immigration. Senator Rubio quickly retorted, “Well, first of all, I don’t know how he knows what I said on Univision because he doesn’t speak Spanish.” Cruz quickly jumped on the opportunity by replying in Spanish, “Ahora mismo, diselo ahora en espanol si quires,” or right now, tell them in Spanish if you want. It was an historic moment in American presidential politics: one candidate speaking Spanish to another on the debate stage. Here’s the twist: there were two candidates on the stage, fluent in Spanish, and Cruz was not one of them. It was Governor Bush and Senator Rubio and both stayed silent. Why? It seemed to be a golden opportunity to connect with Latinos by simply displaying a part of your identify for all to see. Bush is married to a Mexican-American, Rubio is the descendant of Cuban immigrants, but not a word of Spanish was spoken in response.

The Circus is an important piece of documentary storytelling for a few reasons. Not only does it do what it advertises by offering somewhat unfiltered glimpses into each candidate, it also depicts the humanity and individuality of each candidate. I would suggest it actually helps voters to see the candidates for who they really are. But is this lens in which we view the candidates reversible? Are they, in return, able to see candid pockets of voters such as Millennial Latinos?

A recent report in The Economist on the “world’s young,” suggests that “in democracies, young people will someday realize that signing online petitions is no substitute for voting” and “the world will be fairer when they run it.” While it is true that Millennials will someday run the world, the scope of their diversity remains to be seen. The lack of a perceived Latino leader, however, is no excuse for absence at the polls. What if candidates heeded Senator Cruz’s urging to talk to the voters in Spanish? Would Millennial Latinos listen?            

-Jeremy Taylor serves as a public sector strategist for the federal government. He is a Research Fellow with Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP), a Pacific Forum Young Leader with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), and is currently pursuing a PhD in organizational leadership . You can follow him on Twitter @jerdavtay.   Photo courtesy of Erik Hersman.