Latino voting population doubles in Iowa, but will it matter?

Maria Bribriesco calls registered Latino voters in Scott county
LULAC Deputy State Director Maria Bribriesco calls registered Latino voters in Scott county to encourage them to caucus in Iowa (Raquel Zaldivar/MEDILL).

By Raquel Zaldivar

DAVENPORT, Iowa – With the number of registered Latino voters in Iowa doubling since 2008, nonpartisan organizers are pushing Latinos to make their voices heard as never before in Monday night’s presidential caucuses.

Latino Vote Iowa, the first such project in the state, is knocking on  doors and making thousands of phone calls in hopes of mobilizing at least 10,000 caucus goers, a force large enough to make a difference.

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Joe Enriquez Henry, national vice president of the League of United Latin Americans, or LULAC, says it’s working.

“I’m surprised,” Henry said. “Not only are we getting people who want to go to the Democratic caucus, we’re getting people who want to go to the Republican caucus.”

Henry said the sharp rise in Latino voters is driving the effort. Last summer, LULAC identified 50,000 registered voters in Iowa, a state where barely five percent of voters identify as Latino, according to the U.S. Census. In 2012, the figure was 35,000. In 2008, when Barack Obama outdueled Hillary Clinton here,  it was 23,000.

Since the launch of the Latino Vote Iowa project, the organization has encouraged thousands of voters to caucus by showing them how caucuses work and how to find their caucusing location. LULAC, which is nonpartisan, provides voters with information on both ends of the political spectrum.

Monday night’s results will show whether the effort had an effect, ultimately influencing the candidates’ messages and helping to determine who wins the Democratic and Republican nominations.

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Why are the caucuses important?

Winning in Iowa is all about perception. Candidates both put in time, effort and money into making sure they lead in the caucuses. The national media pay a lot of attention to Iowa, making those results all the more important. Candidates know that if they are successful in Iowa, they get increased media coverage, which gives them momentum. Candidates who under perform are pressured to drop out as media coverage and funding drop.

Despite Iowa’s influence, several factors make it less than a perfect proving ground.  One of those factors: the demographics of Iowa’s population and caucus-goers are very different from the rest of the United States.

Voters who caucused for the Republican party in 2012 were overwhelmingly whiter, older and more prosperous, according to the Iowa Caucus Project. Fifty-seven percent were male in an Iowa population that is only 49.5 percent male. Minorities, women and people with lower incomes were not present in the same proportions that the statewide population would indicate.

Data for the 2012 Democratic caucuses is largely unavailable because incumbent president Barack Obama was unchallenged, but caucus goers in 2008 more closely mirrored statewide demographics. While this suggests that the Democratic caucus winner is probably a more accurate representation of Iowa wishes than the Republican one, these numbers still don’t align with those of the United States’ voter population.

Time is also an important factor. Caucusing requires the Iowans who participate to dedicate a few hours on Feb. 1. People who don’t have that kind of time simply end up not participating. Turnout is typically  lower than 50 percent, sometimes significantly so.

Where do Latinos fit in?

Why, then, is Latino representation important at the caucuses? Latinos in Iowa generally have a median income lower than Iowans as a whole. The poverty rate for the Latino community in Iowa, which numbered 173,594 in 2014, is at 21.3 percent, compared with the statewide average of 12.2 percent. Latino voters who earn less and have fewer savings than the average caucus goer generally choose not to participate, limiting the influence of Latinos.

This is where LULAC’s efforts come in. Its goal is to change the dynamic – making sure that Latinos in Iowa increasingly make their voices heard, starting with the Monday night’s caucus.

LULAC found that young, college-age voters are one of the largest groups of Latino voters in the state. Henry reports that these young people are concerned about their earning power and their ability to pay off student loans. The need for comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to legalization and citizenship, also continues to be a critical issue within the Latino community. This is true nationally and in Iowa, where 37 percent of the Latino population is foreign-born.

“A lot of young people who are citizens have parents who are immigrants and friends who are ‘dreamers,’ so it’s a very important issue,” Henry said, referring to young immigrants who were brought into the country illegally by their parents and know only the United States as their home.

Republican front-runner Donald Trump has “exposed the amount of hate that still exists in our country,” Henry said. “It’s clear to us that we need to engage and let the majority community know that we are important and we are part of the political process. We will be voting.”

Henry said a success for LULAC project would be at least 10,000 Latinos showing up to caucus. No matter what happens, he said there is still a lot of work to be done between now and the November general election.

“If we can do it in Iowa, we can do it throughout the country,” Henry said. “If we can amplify our voice here with a small percentage, then [every other state] can do it, too.”

Photo at top: LULAC Deputy State Director Maria Bribriesco calls registered Latino voters in Scott county to encourage them to caucus in Iowa (Raquel Zaldivar/MEDILL).