Latino Power at the Polls!

Everyone is talking about the impact that Latinos can have on this year’s election—let’s not prove them wrong by staying home in November.

Julian and Joaquin Castro get a lot of attention for being identical twins, but also for being young,  Texan political players with dual Democratic agendas—double the trouble for anyone challenging the ascendance of Latinos onto the  national political stage.

Julian defeated four opponents to become mayor of San Antonio, with 80 percent of the vote in a city two-thirds Hispanic. Now Joaquin is running for Congress. Latino leaders are ecstatic about the duo’s potential to energize the Latino vote.

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Yet when the Pew Hispanic Center analyzed voter turnout for the 2010 elections, they found that Latinos made up just 7 percent of registered voters, even though they are 16.3 percent of the U.S. population. And only 31 percent of those Latinos actually voted (compared to 48.6 percent of non-Hispanic white voters).

Even in Texas, with 9.1 million  Latinos and the energizing Castro brothers, Latinos register in lower numbers than the general population and are less likely to vote.

Mayor Castro has spoken poignantly about the obstacles facing Latinos—a pitched battle over illegal immigration, high dropout rates, poverty and health issues like diabetes and obesity. His message is simple: Latinos who don’t vote, don’t get what they need.

The lack of political participation is alarming when you consider that one of every two people being added to the U.S. population is Latino. A democracy needs its largest minority group to participate in the system that governs it.

As I step out to cover the presidential elections this November, facts like these give me great pause when I assess the significance of the growing Latino population in an election year. I keep asking myself whether Latino electoral power is on the rise? Or maybe not? And what is the price if the answer is not?

My first stop on the campaign trail was on the eve of the Iowa caucuses in Des Moines, Iowa, where I rolled out my new TV show, Starting Point with Soledad O’Brien. On it, I talk to some of the country’s most interesting individuals, engaging in smart and unconventional issues and stories that affect real people. Perhaps I can use my own new national stage to cover stories of Latinos finding their voices.

It starts politically: About 22 million Latinos will be eligible to vote in the 2012 elections. Even the bleakest estimates have 12 million of those going to the polls, potentially playing a role in key states like Florida, Virginia and Nevada. A December poll by  Impremedia showed that 80 percent of Latinos believe the GOP is hostile toward Latinos. But that doesn’t mean the Democrats are in good shape. Just 43 percent said they are certain to vote for Obama, and expressed dissatisfaction with his immigration policies. In the midterm election, 60 percent of Latinos voted Democratic.

Clearly both parties will have to fight for the Latino vote. And that will mean discussing the tough issues  important to the community.

That’s where I come in. That same poll, conducted by Latino Decisions, found that 42 percent of Latinos cared most about immigration, with unemployment second at 23 percent and fixing the economy at 20 percent. Just 1 percent of Latinos named fixing Wall Street as their top concern. That’s stunning considering how the economy’s decline has affected us, with unemployment among Latinos showing little change last December at 11 percent, while the national unemployment rate fell to 8.5 percent.

Perhaps by bringing Latinos into the conversation on the issues they care about, we can help replace voter apathy with action.  Starting Point gives us the chance to get that discussion moving. And, if I don’t get answers in Iowa, I’ll ask them again in New Hampshire, and again until the national dialogue gets some fuel. This election year is about spurring important conversations. So let the questions begin.

Soledad O'Brien writes "Beyond the Numbers," a monthly column in Latina Magazine.