The New York Times:
The nation’s rapidly growing Latino population is one of the most powerful forces working in President Obama’s favor in many of the states that will determine his contest with Mitt Romney. But Latinos are not registering or voting in numbers that fully reflect their potential strength, leaving Hispanic leaders frustrated and Democrats worried as they increase efforts to rally Latino support.
Interviews with Latino voters across the country suggested a range of reasons for what has become, over a decade, an entrenched pattern of nonparticipation, ranging from a distrust of government to a fear of what many see as an intimidating effort by law enforcement and political leaders to crack down on immigrants, legal or not.
(...) More than 21 million Latinos will be eligible to vote this November, clustered in pockets from Colorado to Florida, as well as in less obvious states like Illinois, Iowa, North Carolina and Virginia. Yet just over 10 million of them are registered, and even fewer turn out to vote.
In the 2008 presidential election, when a record 10 million Latinos showed up at the polls nationwide, that amounted to just half of the eligible voters. By contrast, 66 percent of eligible whites and 65 percent of eligible blacks voted, according to a study by the Pew Hispanic Center.
That disparity is echoed in swing states across the country. In Nevada, 42 percent of eligible Hispanics are registered, while just 35 percent are registered in Virginia, according to Latino Decisions, which studies Latino voting trends.
(...) Jim Messina, Mr. Obama’s campaign manager, said Latino voters were a critical factor in the president’s re-election hopes. “Look, if we do our job right and have a good ground game, I absolutely believe that Latino voters can be one of the big reasons we win this election,” he said.
Officials in Mr. Romney’s campaign argued that he would cut into Mr. Obama’s Latino support by challenging his record on the economy, and how, they said, it had been particularly harmful to Latinos. Last week, the Romney campaign posted a Spanish-language advertisement on its Web site pointing to rising unemployment among Latinos.
“Understand the dynamic of this election: it’s about the economy and it’s about jobs,” said Joshua Baca, who is responsible for the Romney campaign’s Hispanic outreach. “Whatever the Obama campaign wants to do with regards to targeting Hispanic voters, that’s fine. Our message is going to be, ‘It doesn’t matter if you are Hispanic, if you’re a woman, if you’re African-American: it’s the economy.’ ”
(...) Evidence of the lack of participation can be found across the West, and particularly in Colorado, a state that could be one of the most contested in November. In 2010, 114,000 of the 455,000 Latinos eligible to vote in the state turned out, a study by Latino Decisions found; 47 percent of eligible voters are registered today.
The number of Latinos eligible to vote nationally may overstate their actual influence. Of the 21 million, nearly 10 million live in California or Texas, which are unlikely to be in play in November.
And while an influx of younger voters is helping to push up the overall number, younger voters have historically been disproportionately uninterested in politics, a particular challenge in Colorado given that the Latino population is younger than the overall population. A Pew study found that one-third of the nation’s eligible Hispanic voters are between 18 and 29; but they make up just 22 percent of the overall population.