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Esther J. Cepeda: If the Latino vote keeps being taken for granted, the sleeping giant will never wake

First Published      Last Updated Sep 27 2016 12:28 pm

CHICAGO • News stories are starting to trickle out citing "deep concern" about whether Hispanics — who, polls show, prefer Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump — will head to polls in the numbers the Democrats need in order to win.

But a better question is: Why should Latinos be expected to turn out to vote when so little attention is paid to them? They seem to matter only to journalists hot to publish overly simplistic reports proclaiming that Hispanics will either be decisive or again fail to punch their weight on Election Day.

To put this in perspective, here's what a new weekly poll — a collaboration among the Hispanic polling firm Latino Decisions, Telemundo News and the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) — has to say about what Latino outreach looks like in the weeks before the election:




While more than 91 percent of polled Latino registered voters stated they would more than likely cast ballots this year, more than 60 percent reported that they had not been contacted by a campaign, political party or organization.

For all the talk about "The Sleeping Giant" and demography-as-destiny, the major political campaigns are effectively making assumptions about what Hispanics will do come November and then leaving it all to chance.

Why? Because Latinos happen to be concentrated in a few key states and when those states are written off as a lock for a particular candidate, no resources for voter education or turnout are invested in them, setting up a lose-lose situation.

"What it is is a lazy, cynical approach to waging national politics that focuses on a handful of states that are perceived to be battleground states while ignoring those states that are perceived to be already decided," said Arturo Vargas, the executive director of the California-based NALEO Educational Fund. "But Latinos are a 50-state community and, in addition to the injury of not being contacted, then [organizations and candidates] insult us by lamenting that Latinos underperform in elections even though they spent no time and no resources engaging us."

Vargas told me that he has warned top leaders in the Clinton campaign that they cannot travel to the west side of Los Angeles to fundraise and then never bother to cross into the east side of town to engage with the Hispanics that make up one out of every three Latino voters in the state.

Worse, when you take whole constituencies for granted in one geographic region, it ripples outward in a vicious cycle that has the effect of suppressing voter turnout.

"Right now is the last minute before the election, and money to engage Latinos is being dumped into the hands of non-Latino-led organizations in Florida, Nevada, Colorado and a few other places where the races are supposed to be competitive. California has already turned blue, so the money being spent there is virtually nonexistent, even though there are major down-ballot races, like the fight for Barbara Boxer's Senate seat, plus 53 congressional district seats and 17 ballot propositions," Vargas said.

"And then it gets worse: Often Latinos are mobilized, or manipulated, used for specific election outcomes and then left for dead with no infrastructure in place to hold these elected officials accountable. Basically, for each election you're riling Latinos up, telling them, 'This is the most important election of your lifetime,' but when promises are broken and nothing changes, they get disillusioned. And then we blame these same people for not coming out to vote next time! This is what happened in the last two presidential elections with immigration reform, and all Latino political animals need to start calling it out for what it is."

As with all other major movements, infrastructure building is key. The Latino vote will never live up to its potential if it has to practically start from scratch every new election cycle.

I've asked the heads of many Latino advocacy organizations how best to create long-term change and the answer is always more money — but timing is just as important.

"In a perfect world we'd start concentrating on the 2032 election now," Vargas said. "Foundations and grant makers need to develop a long-term vision of Latino electoral participation that targets the 7 million Latino children sitting in daycare and classrooms today. We cannot wait until our young people are 18 to start talking to them about civic participation. We need to start right now."

Esther Cepeda's email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.

 

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