Within three days of arriving on campus at Harvard College in August, Erick Torres-Gonzalez, a first-year student, was registered to vote.
A student group called the Harvard Votes Challenge helped him fill out a new-voter form for Wisconsin, his home state. Volunteers walked him through the US presidential election process during an orientation program Torres-Gonzalez attended for new students from low-income and minority backgrounds.
Many students there were the first in their families to attend college. In November, Torres-Gonzalez, who is 19, will also be the first in his family to vote.
Like others his age, he worries about climate change, access to higher education and criminal justice. His other big concern, immigration, is more specific to growing up as a young Latino in the US. Many of his friends are undocumented. He has vivid memories of his grandmother in tears on election night in 2016 when Donald Trump won the presidency. An immigrant from Mexico, she spoke no English and feared Trump’s promises to crack down on immigrants.
The fact that Torres-Gonzalez is part of one of the nation’s youngest and fastest-growing minority groups gives him hope, he said.
“Young Latinos and Latinas are now coming at that age where we can vote,” Torres-Gonzalez said. “Once you really see that — we are the one demographic that has to be looked out for.”
A record 32 million people who identify as Latino will be eligible to vote in the 2020 presidential election, according to Pew Research Center. That’s just over 13% of the electorate — surpassing eligible black voters for the first time and making Latinos the nation’s largest voter group after whites.
With those demographics, 2020 presents a historic opportunity for Latinos to make their mark on national politics, experts say. Their sheer numbers give them power to swing the vote in several key states, from Arizona to Pennsylvania. That could help either party. Latino voters, an incredibly diverse group, are not a monolith: Though they have leaned toward the Democratic Party in presidential elections for decades, roughly a third tend to vote Republican.
Latinos’ massive growth as a voting bloc is largely driven by youth coming of age. Approximately every 30 seconds, a Latino in the US turns 18 and becomes eligible to vote. That’s nearly 75,000 potential new voters each month and some 900,000 each year, according to The World’s analysis of Census Bureau data. Since the 2016 elections, some 3.6 million Latinos will have turned 18 in time to vote this November.
“It matters. It underscores the point that no one who runs for president can afford to ignore this audience,” said Danny Friedman, managing director of Voto Latino, a Washington, DC-based nonpartisan civic engagement group targeting Latino youth. “There’s a whole generation of people who will now have the opportunity to vote who are Latinx, and we have a president who has gone out of his way to make issues related to Latinx people front and center — whether it’s family separations, whether it’s his ‘shithole countries’ comments, whether it’s his Mexicans-are-rapists stuff.”
Latino voters tend to be younger than American voters overall.
The challenge for candidates up and down the ballot will be convincing Latinos to turn out on Election Day. Turnout rates among eligible Latino voters tend to be low, significantly below those of other groups. About 48% of Latinos voted in the 2016 presidential election, compared to the national rate of about 61%. And younger voters, no matter their backgrounds, tend to be the least likely to show up at the polls. (Latino turnout skyrocketed in the 2018 midterms, however, which might be a sign higher numbers of them will vote in 2020 as well.)
“There’s a storyline that Latinos are apathetic when it comes to voting,” said Clarissa Martínez de Castro, deputy vice president of policy and advocacy for UnidosUS, the nation’s largest Latino civil rights and advocacy organization. “That’s not true. They are unconvinced.”
Part of that, she said, is due to candidates’ history of overlooking Latino voters or taking them for granted. It takes about 13 points of contact — such as door knocks, text messages and phone calls — to get a non-voter to the ballot box, according to Latino Decisions, a research and polling firm. Running Spanish-language ads or translating a campaign website into Spanish often isn’t enough.
“If you look at the last two election cycles, more than 60% of highly-likely-to-vote Latinos — meaning, registered — had not been reached out to by parties and candidates,” Martínez de Castro said. “That tells you not only is there little investment in closing voter registration gaps, but even those who are registered don’t get courted by candidates and parties.”
That amounts to leaving Latino votes on the table — which is “political malpractice” in a year like 2020, Martínez de Castro said.
Early polls show the leading Democratic candidate among Latinos is Bernie Sanders. The 78-year-old white senator represents Vermont, the state with the lowest Latino population in the country. But he has built his national campaign strategy around attracting younger voters and people of color — particularly in Iowa, Nevada and California, states with early primaries and caucuses. His campaign is investing millions in getting first-time and historically neglected voter groups, especially Latinos, to the polls. Some Latinos affectionately call him “Tío Bernie.”
Because Latino voters overall are unusually young, candidates must make themselves relevant not only to Millennials, but to their younger counterparts, Generation Z, or those born after the mid-1990s. This November will be the first time many older members of Gen Z will vote. As a whole, Gen Z is the most diverse and well-educated generation in history.
Gen Z youth often mirror Millennials on a variety of issues: They tend to believe climate change is happening due to human activity and have little faith in Trump. They are a generation of youth who get much of their news from social media and may go through the entire presidential campaign season never seeing a television ad.
“I get all my news from Twitter,” said Torres-Gonzalez, the Harvard first-year student. “In college, most people don’t have TVs, so you can’t just turn on the TV and watch the news. We get everything from social media.”
The youngest Latino voters tend to be a generation — or two, or three — removed from the immigrant experience. The usual campaign trail talking points for older Latinos won’t always resonate.
In addition, though many speak Spanish at home, English is becoming more dominant.
So how can candidates reach the youngest Latino voters? Groups like Voto Latino, which has thousands of volunteers in battleground states, are betting on a mix of standard civic engagement and voter registration efforts — alongside less traditional strategies.
The group’s Twitter and Instagram feeds are a mix of informational and humorous posts that explain everything from the latest news to how elections work. Before the Feb. 3 Iowa caucus, Voto Latino released a social video headlined, “What the Hell is a Caucus?” using varieties of tacos as stand-ins for presidential candidates. (The lucky winner? Tacos al pastor.)
One innovative get-out-the-vote effort comes from Jolt, a progressive and youth-focused civic engagement nonprofit in Texas with offices in Austin, Dallas and Houston. Last May, Jolt began joining forces with teenage girls celebrating their fifteenth birthdays with quinceañeras, a coming-of-age tradition among some Latinos and Latin Americans. Jolt runs voter registration tables at the parties — complete with a free photo booth and #PoderQuince Snapchat filter.
“The purpose of Poder Quince was to harness the power of Latino culture to create a new tradition that combines our heritage and political power, and we are using the voices of young Latinas to lead this effort,” said Jolt’s interim director Antonio Arellano. The group estimates 5,000 quinceañeras are celebrated across Texas annually — a major opportunity to find first-time voters. Jolt volunteers have attended more than 40 parties so far, Arellano said.
Texas is one state that Democrats hope to turn blue within a generation or two — and much of that effort could be driven by harnessing the Latino vote. Half of all Texans under age 18 are Latinos.
Nearly 60 million Latinos live in the United States, comprising about 18% of the nation’s population. Only about half of US Latinos are eligible to vote in 2020, the smallest share of any ethnic or racial group. That’s partly because Latinos as a group are still so young, and also because millions of Latino adults are non-citizens who can’t vote — many because they are undocumented.
Changing demographics — along with a backlash against Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies, many of which have targeted Latinos — could present an opportunity for Democrats to take back the White House this fall.
Latinos tend to prefer Democrats by a 2-to-1 margin. A recent study by Pew Research Center found that 68% of Latino registered voters disapprove of the way Trump is handling his job, and 67% are dissatisfied with the country’s direction.
But to change where it’s going, Democrats will need to invest more heavily in courting Latinos and getting them registered to vote. At this stage, most Democratic presidential candidates are concentrating their efforts on early caucus and primary states such as Iowa and New Hampshire, which happen to be overwhelmingly white.
Several Latino officials told The World that while candidate interest in Latinos is finally picking up, it’s not enough.
Outreach strategies to Latinos of all ages will have to cater to the needs of all of them. After all, Latino voters do not vote as a bloc. Terms like Hispanic and Latino/Latina/Latinx are umbrella terms for a group that is culturally, ideologically and linguistically diverse, said G. Cristina Mora, a sociology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of “Making Hispanics: How Activists, Bureaucrats, and Media Constructed a New American.”
That means candidates need to better tailor their messages to reach them, she said.
“You have different generational statuses, different ethnicities, different languages. So it’s almost like you need to have various strategies on blast all at once,” she added. “You have to make sure your message is in Spanish, but you have to make sure you’re using proper terminology. It’s going to vary if you’re targeting Cubans or if you’re targeting Mexicans.”
The issues candidates raise must go beyond immigration, too, said David Cruz, communications director at the League of United Latin American Citizens, the oldest Latino civil rights organization in the US.
“If you ask a Latino voter, ‘What are your top three issues?’ they’re not going to say immigration three times,” Cruz said. “That’s one issue, but they’re also going to say the economy and health care and education.”
A recent Telemundo poll showed Trump is on track to capture about a quarter of the Latino vote in 2020. Last year, his campaign launched a target effort called “Latinos for Trump” and held a rally in New Mexico, a state where Latinos comprise 43% of eligible voters — the highest share in the nation. The goal for Trump may be to peel off enough votes from Democrats to reach the 270 electoral college votes needed to win the White House.
“Trump is not going to necessarily win any more of the Latino vote,” said Matt Barreto, cofounder of Latino Decisions, the polling firm. “The Democrats are going to win back Arizona and Nevada again, and if they’re going to win in 2020 it’s going to be by increasing voter turnout. It’s going to be mobilizing likely Democratic voters — and making them feel included in the process. They need to connect with those people and make them included and welcomed and wanted.”
Two-thirds of Latino eligible voters live in five states: California, which is home to a quarter of the nation’s Latino electorate; Texas; Florida; New York and Arizona. Latinos make up 43% of eligible voters in New Mexico — the highest rate in the nation.
In nine states, the number of Latinos who are Gen Z — thus likeliest to be voting for the first time — is greater than the margin by which either presidential candidate won in 2016. Hillary Clinton won three of those states: Nevada, New Mexico and New Hampshire. Trump won the rest: Arizona, Texas, Wisconsin, Florida, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
“Eligible voters” are defined as US citizens aged 18 and older.
“Every 30 seconds, a Latino turns 18 and becomes eligible to vote” is an estimation based on analysis of data from the US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (IPUMS) 2018 five-year estimates. Data show that in 2018, there were 3.6 million Latino citizens aged 16 to 19. These are the people who would turn 18 or become citizen during the period from 2016 to 2020. This translates into 1.71 persons every 30 seconds during the same period.
Chart on racial & ethnic breakdown of eligible voters: Figures from 2001 to 2018 are from American Community Survey (IPUMS), US Census Bureau, while 2020 figures are a projection by Pew Research Center. Figures do not add up to 100% because other single-race and multiracial groups are not shown. Whites, blacks and Asians are single-race non-Hispanics.
Chart on turnout rates: Figures are from the US Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey Voting and Registration Supplements 1994-2018.
Chart on age distribution of eligible voters: Figures are from the US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (IPUMS) 2018 five-year estimates. *Sixteen-year-olds are included as they are eligible to vote in 2020.
Chart on eligible Latino voters born in US: Figures are from the US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (IPUMS) 2017 five-year estimates. *Fifteen-year-olds are included as they are eligible to vote in 2020.
Chart on language spoken at home by eligible Latino voters: Figures are from the US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (IPUMS) 2017 five-year estimates. Figures do not add up to 100% because other languages are not shown. *Fifteen-year-olds are included as they are eligible to vote in 2020.
Map on eligible Latino voters in each state: Latino voter data are from the US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (IPUMS) 2018 five-year estimates. Election result data are from MIT Election Data and Science Lab.