Jackie Saavedra, 23, may represent the most important class of voter in the nation next year.
She’s young, Hispanic — and independent.
“I don’t want to say I’m a Democrat,” she said. “I’m definitely not a Republican.”
As such, Saavedra and millions of other young Latino voters will soon find themselves besieged by appeals from parties and candidates. Republicans and Democrats believe Hispanic votes could provide winning margins in several critical states in 2016: Think Nevada, Colorado and Florida. And Arizona. New Mexico. Even North Carolina.
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They also think the ballots of Latinos between 18 and 29 years old may be the most important of all. Their votes, like those of their Anglo- and African-American counterparts, are not yet locked in to a specific party or candidate. That means they may be willing to consider different approaches to a broad range of concerns, from taxes and spending to jobs and the economy.
“This is a very crossroads moment for our Latino youth,” said Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza, the group continuing its Kansas City conference Monday.
Three Democratic presidential candidates — former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont — will attend Monday’s conference at Bartle Hall in an attempt to reach Hispanic voters.
Louis DeSipio, a political science professor specializing in Latino studies at the University of California-Irvine, said both parties know the stakes.
“For Democrats to win, they have to run nontraditional campaigns to win younger minority voters,” he said. “And Republicans know they need to never let Latinos get to the African-American, 90-10 split. If they do that, they’re goners as a party.”
Outside groups are entering the fray. The Libre Initiative, a group affiliated with the conservative Koch brothers, is actively conducting Hispanic outreach in battleground states.
“We are committed to developing a network of Hispanic pro-liberty activists,” its website says.
The Latino Victory Project, founded in part by actress Eva Longoria, is blunt about its mission.
“The Latino community is poised to decide this year’s election,” director Cristóbal J. Alex wrote in July, “and interest groups from across the political spectrum are already vying for our votes.”
Including the candidates coming to Kansas City on Monday.
“Hillary’s team has been deliberately and openly engaging the Latino community,” said an email from Amanda Renteria, Clinton’s national political director.
O’Malley’s director of public engagement, Gabriela Domenzain, said the candidate will discuss his record on immigration and job creation but is not “siloing” Hispanic voters.
“We’re talking about (issues) in English and in Spanish with everyone,” she said.
The Sanders campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
No Republican presidential candidates decided to attend, despite invitations. That’s a disappointment, Murguia said. In a statement to The Star, Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus said his party’s nominee will compete for Hispanic votes in 2016.
“We have had staff on the ground working year-round to build real relationships across the country,” Priebus said. “We are expanding our efforts and reaching voters in different ways.”
Demographics drive the political calculus of both parties.
Nearly 1 in 5 Americans is Latino, Census figures show. Voter turnout in presidential election years is improving but remains mediocre: Hispanic votes accounted for about 10 percent of the ballots cast in 2012.
That’s expected to change dramatically. Hispanics constitute by far the youngest demographic voting group in the country: Each year, nearly 1 million Latinos turn 18. The median age for Latinos is 27 years, compared with 42 years for white non-Hispanics. By 2030, the number of eligible Latino voters will virtually double, the strongest growth of any ethnic group in the nation.
At the same time, polls suggest younger Hispanics are politically active and open to an independent message. In a 2013 Gallup poll, 45 percent of Latinos between 18 and 29 said they were Republican or independent, the highest figure of any age group surveyed.
Immigration remains highly important for those voters. But other issues get a hearing, particularly among Hispanics born in the U.S. of U.S. parents.
“For this latter group, immigration is not as personal, and viewership of Spanish-language media is far lower,” DeSipio said. “So economics and education dominate the issue agenda.”
Andres Rivera, 22, a financial associate at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, leans to the right but hasn’t made a presidential choice. Immigration policy is important, but “the number one reason why people are moving into this country is to get a really good education,” he said.
That willingness to consider issues other than immigration encourages GOP strategists. Yet many were horrified over the past two weeks as businessman Donald Trump dominated the airwaves and headlines with interviews calling some Mexican immigrants murderers and rapists.
The rhetoric may make it harder for the eventual GOP nominee to be heard.
“My party is in a hole with Hispanics,” presidential hopeful Sen. Lindsay Graham said last week. “The first rule of politics when you’re in a hole is stop digging. And somebody needs to take the shovel out of Donald Trump’s hand.”
Trump did not back away from his comments. He also disputed claims that RNC chairman Priebus had asked him to lower the temperature of his remarks.
Yet it’s clear Republicans have been concerned for months that anti-immigrant rhetoric hurts the party’s prospects. In 2012, President Barack Obama won the Latino vote by 44 percent, the largest margin in a generation.
“If Hispanic Americans perceive that a GOP nominee or candidate does not want them in the United States (i.e. self-deportation), they will not pay attention to our next sentence,” Republican officials wrote in 2013 in a study of Mitt Romney’s loss. “It does not matter what we say about education, jobs or the economy; if Hispanics think we do not want them here, they will close their ears to our policies.”
That fear may play a part in Republican enthusiasm for presidential candidates with Hispanic roots: Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, for example, or former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, whose spouse is Latina. Some Republicans think any of them on the 2016 ticket could improve the party’s chances.
Republican presidential politics are likely to be a peripheral concern for Clinton, O’Malley and Sanders Monday. Sanders plans to speak shortly after 10 a.m., while O’Malley and Clinton plan luncheon speeches.
Recent polls show Clinton leading the Democratic field and leading potential GOP opponents. And she remains popular with Hispanics, who supported her 2-to-1 over Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic primaries.
Murguia says attendees will want to hear specific policy ideas. Hispanic voters know they’re important in 2016 and won’t blindly support anyone.
“We want to hear what they have to say,” she said.
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