Looking back on this year, people may remember May 2011 as the month when President Barack Obama decisively – if only briefly – helped unify the nation by dealing a symbolic blow to the world’s most feared terrorist organization. And the May 1 raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan may be cited as one of his most important political actions, if he is re-elected in 2012.
Only a month ago, Obama’s hold on a key constituency – Latinos – was in serious question, largely because he had failed to take action on reforms he had promised. April is the cruelest month – the price we pay for rebirth, renewal, and resetting priorities. And it was a tough month for Obama’s Latino marketing strategy. But the question remains: Will May matter more than April?
Let’s look back on April. First we heard that although the President continues to enjoy high approval ratings among Latinos – he won 67 percent of the Latino vote in 2008 – voters could sit out the next election if they felt little progress was made on immigration. Then we heard – this time from the Pew Hispanic Center – that even though Latinos showed up in record numbers for the 2010 election – one million more Latinos voted in 2010 than in 2006 – a record margin of Latinos actually did not vote. And in the middle of all the pessimistic number crunching, Obama exposed himself to criticism – from friends and foes alike – for seeking the advice of Latino celebrities on what to do about immigration, the number-one umbrella issue for many Latino voters today. The President’s PR flub obscured the news that he had met earlier in the month with a group of most non-celebrity policy experts to discuss the same issue. Sometimes you can’t win.
Few doubt that Obama cannot regain momentum with Latino voters as the 2012 election cycle begins to unfold. And it wouldn’t surprise many people if the President enjoys a big lift in popularity among Latinos after the May Day raid on the Osama bin Laden compound; Latinos have played an enormously important role in the military and the experience of 9/11 still has the power to unify people across the political spectrum.
But the negative buzz last month revealed a surprising lack of preparedness on the part of the Obama administration. Latinos are expected to play a huge role in the next presidential election, but we see little evidence that the President and his team are responding to the new voter realities. In other words the playbook appears to be missing. Rather than wait for it to appear, I thought I’d take the liberty of outlining what the President might need to do to meet the Latino challenge for 2012.
More than ever, it’s about youth. The Pew study revealed a number of interesting trends. Naturalized, foreign-born Latinos are more likely to vote than native-born Latinos (37 percent versus 29 percent). Latino college graduates turn out to vote in greater numbers. But the biggest surprise – for some – were stats on young Latino voters: only 17.6 percent of eligible young Latinos voted in the 2010 elections, versus 37.4 percent of Latinos ages 30 and older. Why is this so important? Well, first you need to understand that while the number of Latino voters is going up each election cycle, a lot of these voters are Latinos reaching voting age. If the percentage of these folks who actually vote is actually low, there’s a huge opportunity. Second, only 42.7 percent of the nation’s Latino population is eligible to vote; that’s a quite small proportion compared to other groups (77 percent of whites, and 67 percent for blacks). Why? For one thing, 22.4 percent of Latinos in the United States are of voting age, but cannot vote because they are not citizens. Another 35 percent cannot vote because they are under the age of 18. As a result, political candidates need to court eligible young Latino voters. Not at the expense of courting other Latino voters, of course, but this is a huge opportunity that will play a decisive factor in 2012 and beyond. Many more young Latinos will reach voting age from now until 2050.
More than ever, it’s about immigration. It’s not the only issue that matters to many Latinos – a “metatribe” with diverse political interests. But it’s one of the few that have in fact emerged as an umbrella issue. Obama’s tentative response to immigration reform – after making campaign promises to make reform a priority in his first year in office – has created a big political liability which he must now seek to erase. That helps to explain the April meetings with celebrity and non-celebrity roundtables. But it’s going to take more than roundtables to turn this around – and it’s going to require youth. In the meantime, Obama has identified another umbrella issue for Latinos old and young: education. In an announcement that got little play in comparison to the Latino celebrity roundtable, the Obama administration signaled its commitment to improving the rate at which Latinos enter community colleges and vocational schools, often a stepping-stone to four-year colleges, if not just better jobs. There may also be a long-term voter-recruitment element to Obama’s education strategy. As noted earlier, the April Pew study found that better educated Latinos voted in greater numbers (50.3 percent).
More than ever, it’s about social. But social has changed. Of course, education matters to many young Latinos. And so does immigration, as evidenced by the remarkable number of young Latinos mobilized by the Dream Act, proposed legislation that would grant permanent residency to the U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants. Passage of the measure failed in the lame-duck session in Congress late last year, but plans to reintroduce it this year are in motion. But for the President to engage the young Latinos who have been carrying the flag for the Dream Act, it will require that he show some of the digital ingenuity that distinguished the 2008 campaign. Since that time, the cutting edge of digital has evolved, from a practice that was more about conversation (social media) to a practice that is almost equally about action (the bigger promise of social technology). In recent months, reporters and bloggers have begun to pick up on this, chronicling stories of how Dreamers have patched together an ad hoc network that can be used to help Latinos targeted for deportation. (See this story.)
At a time when the President is being urged to at least use his executive powers to selectively halt the number of deportations that are happening on his watch – a record number – the modus operandi of his administration seems oddly out of sync with that of the most politically potent Latino social movement today. At the celebrity roundtable, Obama urged that Latino leaders to engage in “a constructive national conversation on this important issue. To win the young Latino vote and “win the future” – the emerging Obama slogan for 2012 – might require that we stop talking and start doing, and social has in fact evolved to facilitate that.
As the May Day raid demonstrated, the President is capable of taking action. The only question is, can he commit to taking action on behalf of a constituency that could re-elect him in 2012.