Edgar Vanegas was the one who cast his ballot for President Obama last Tuesday—but it’s really Edgar’s mother that the re-elected president ought to thank. It was the Colorado mom, after all, who hounded her son to register to vote, and then urged him to follow through. “I wasn’t really planning on voting because I never voted before,” Vanegas, a 21-year-od Aurora resident, said over the phone. “This year my mom kept on telling me to vote and she convinced me and well, yeah, I did.”
Vanegas’ mom didn’t vote, though, because both his parents are undocumented. “She probably would have been the first one in line,” if she had been able to vote, Vanegas said. Instead, his single vote would have to do for their whole family.
Vanegas’ vote came together with an outpouring of support from a multiracial coalition of voters, and from women of color in particular, to keep Obama in office. Asian American voters supported Obama by a wide margin; a solid 73 percent backed the president. While record numbers of black voters turned out in Florida and Ohio to back Obama despite suppressive voter ID laws, giving him strength in those crucial states. So while Obama’s overall support from white voters across the country declined, he held onto key battleground states like Virginia, Nevada and Vanegas’ home state of Colorado because demographic shifts in the last handful of years made up the difference.
But in the swirl of post-election analysis, one point of agreement has gelled: Voters like Edgar Vanegas—young, Latino, with immigrant parents—are the face of the nation’s fastest-growing electorate, one that is now crucial to winning the White House. Latino and immigrant advocacy organizations have been predicting this moment for years, but 2012 will go down as the year that Latino voters made it unequivocally clear that they are a guiding force of the nation’s future.
As a newly eligible voter, Vanegas’ story is not unlike that of many Latino voters in the 2012 elections; between 2008 and 2012 the U.S. gained some 4 million Latino voters, a 22 percent growth, the Pew Hispanic Research Center found. That’s the product of a rapidly materializing new demographic reality. It’s estimated that for the next 20 years, 50,000 Latinos will turn 18 in the U.S. every month.
Exact turnout numbers are as yet unavailable, but it’s clear the counties where Latino growth has been centered are also counties where Obama won more support. In Colorado’s Jefferson County, for instance, the Latino population has increased 46 percent in the last 12 years, and led to a more than 32,000-vote shift blueward in the same span of time, the Denver Post reported. Larimar County’s Latino population grew by 52 percent in 12 years, and in that same stretch of years Democratic presidential candidates took away more than 25,000 votes from Republican candidates. In 2008, Latinos made up 7.4 percent of the electorate, and based on the earliest projections, Latino voters this time around were 10 percent of those who turned out. Every election cycle is seeing historic levels of participation by Latino voters, and it’s a trend that shows signs only of strengthening.
“Latinos are not only a permanent political element of the U.S. system, they will continue to grow,” said Arturo Vargas, the executive director of NALEO, the National Association of Latino Elected Officials.
But it was about more than demographics; Latino voters were just plainly more enthusiastic about Obama in 2012 than they were in 2008. According to the New York Times, Obama upped his support among Latino voters 8 percentage points from 2008. Pew Hispanic Research Center estimates that 71 percent of Latino voters supported Obama, against 27 percent who voted for Romney. In Colorado, Obama won 74 percent of the Latino vote, a whopping 13-point increase from 2008. It was his largest gain among Latino voters anywhere in the country.
A Latino Decisions poll conducted on Election Eve showed that Latino voters rank concerns about the economy and jobs as their chief concerns about the country. But immigration is the mobilizing issue, Latino Decisions pollster Gary Segura says. Obama’s “deferred action” initiative, which blocked deportation for a select portion of the nation’s undocumented youth, strengthened Latino enthusiasm for the president, Latino Decisions found. And Romney’s disparaging, tone-deaf comments—encouraging the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants to “self-deport” and then waffling on whether or not he’d hold onto deferred action if elected—alienated Latino voters. Some 60 percent of Latino voters know someone in their own life who is undocumented, Latino Decisions found. It makes remarks like Romney’s very personal.
“We’re not stupid,” Eliseo Medina, secretary treasurer for SEIU, said of Latino voters. “We heard loud and clear in [Romney’s] policies and we decided he is not for us.”
Edgar Vanegas said he voted for Obama is because he appreciated Obama’s stances on healthcare and support for working class families. But when asked what one thing Obama could do to make his own life better, Vanegas said without any hesitation: “To give my parents papers. That’s about it. I don’t want to have to worry about my mom getting pulled over and then going to jail because she don’t got a license and then bailing her out. It’s just a little bit hard when your parents don’t got papers.”
“I don’t want them to get deported,” he said.
Parsing the Vote Among Women
Miriam Yeung tells a story not unlike Vanegas’ about how voter mobilization in her own family happens. “On the day of the election, I wanted my dad to vote, so I called my mom,” said Yeung, the executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum says, while laughing. But she’s not joking. “That’s how families work. That’s how households work.”
Women of color play an integral role in their communities that extends far beyond elections, and that informs their political outlook. Immigrant women tend to be the ones who initiate a family’s naturalization process, for instance, or who deal with healthcare and education decisions, Yeung said, giving them a clear view of the ways in which the larger political conversation impacts their lives.
Consequently, the Republican Party’s tripping over itself to make hate-laced comments about rape and women’s bodies did not go unnoticed. And when the Republican Party translated that misogyny into actual policy, for instance by slashing public funding for family planning services throughout Texas, it was women of color who felt the brunt of the closures. The changes were drastic, said Jessica González-Rojas, the executive director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health. “There was a clinic one day and they didn’t have the clinic the next day. Latinas are suffering the consequences of the political banter happening about them.” Those sorts of immediate impacts made the choice in the voting booth an easy one.
According to CNN exit polls, 55 percent of women overall voted for Obama, but just 42 percent of white women did so. It was women of color who stood by Obama by the largest proportions. Some 71 percent of all Latino voters backed Obama, but 76 percent of Latinas voted for Obama, compared to 65 percent of Latino men. Ninety-six percent of black women voted for Obama compared to 87 percent of black men.
So how’d Obama pull off his win the second time around? By getting out of the way of a Republican Party so intent on alienating the fastest growing and most politically engaged segments of the electorate. And by once again engaging the most politically active among them in an intense mobilization effort.
Alejandra Caballero is a newly minted adult. Fresh off her 18th birthday and headed for graduation from Westminster High School in June, the Denver, Colorado teen knew she wanted to vote because a close friend of hers is an undocumented youth organizer with Together Colorado, which set about registering and mobilizing tens of thousands of voters this year. Caballero was an easy get for them.
“I was already very motivated to vote,” Caballero said. She registered to vote back in May when Together Colorado organized a voter registration drive at her high school. “I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to register and I just did it there.”
In order to ensure that the Latino community’s voices were truly heard, national advocacy organizations like NALEO, NCLR and media groups like Univision banded together to support initiatives like Mi Familia Vota, which dedicated itself to registering and mobilizing Latino voters for the 2012 elections. The Obama campaign outspent the Romney camp in Spanish language ads two to one in Nevada, Florida and Colorado, where reaching out to Latino voters was given top priority, the New York Times reported.
But the organizing was not limited to national advocacy groups. Undocumented activists in Colorado played a big role. Together Colorado set a goal for itself of reaching out to 23,000 households with a message for Latino voters to support DREAMers who could not vote themselves. Caballero said she voted because she is looking out for her own educational future, and is passionate about women’s reproductive rights and marriage equality—but it was her undocumented friends who helped her register to vote.
It’s exactly these kinds of third-party voter registration efforts that Republicans sought to limit this year with laws that prohibited third-party voter registration. But, says Clayton Rosa, the Campaigns and Strategy Program Manager at NALEO, third-party voter registration efforts are the “premier register point for communities of color that are underrepresented in the electoral process.”
As for Edgar Vanegas, he plans on voting in the next election. He had a great introduction this year. “I feel great because the guy I voted for won,” Vanegas said, adding that his mom was ecstatic about Obama’s win as well. “She was probably happier than me.”