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The Latino Vote In 2016: Here Are 5 Takeaways

Mark Herring, Alexandria

ALEXANDRIA, VA - JUNE 11: Two women cast their vote in the Democratic Primary at Matthew Maury Elementary School in Alexandria, Virginia on June 11, 2013. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/The Washington Post via Getty Images) Maddie Meyer / The Washington Post/Getty Images

New York, N.Y.— Latinos are a growing force in American politics, but their influence in 2016 has to take into account geographic and demographic realities.

Reporters, pollsters and strategists, professors and a former governor and United Nations ambassador gathered for a day-long conference Friday at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism to discuss Latino voters and their diverse demographics months in advance of the 2016 presidential election.

The conference, titled "The Latino Vote: Myth vs. Reality," was the official kick off of a new partnership between Columbia Journalism School and Telemundo (a division of NBCUniversal) and their #YODECIDO elections coverage campaign. Here are five takeaways from panelists and participants:

Latino political power is in its young stages. Immigration and age are factors. Of the nearly 57 million Latinos living in the United States, about 27 million are eligible to vote, said Roberto Suro, a public policy and journalism and professor at the University of California, citing a recent Pew Research Center Study. “This has been a chronic issue,” Suro said, adding that a lot of Latinos in the United States won’t be able to vote in the 2016 presidential election because they’re either too young or they’re not citizens.

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As Suzanne Gamboa, senior writer for NBCNews.com, pointed out, “any increase in the Latino vote this election will be incremental. …We are not only a young population, but we're young in organizing." Gamboa said she has seen increased activism among Latino youth and spoke of the work being done by organizations such as Mi Familia Vota and League of United Latin American Citizens, whose members are teaching the basics about voting and civic engagement.

Increasing engagement and political participation among Latino youth is key, said Elizabeth Llorente, the political and immigration editor at Fox News Latino. “We’re also talking about a generation that’s sitting at one table with five or six different devices competing for their attention,” Llorente said of millenials. “They’re watching the debate and texting at the same time. How do we capture their attention and teach them to think in depth?”

The possibility of a Donald Trump presidency may motivate Latinos to vote. Thomas Edsall, a Columbia Journalism School professor and New York Times op-ed columnist, said that the Trump factor is “the best thing for Hispanic political mobilization. … If he was nominated, you’d see a substantial boost in turnout. Anger and fear are driving motivators.”

When he announced his presidential bid last summer, Trump said Mexicans coming to the United States are "bringing drugs, they're bringing crime. They're rapists and some, I assume, are good people, but I speak to border guards and they're telling us what we're getting." He has also made building a wall - that he says Mexico will pay for - one of the centerpieces of his immigration strategy.

Trump has made controversial remarks about other minority groups and about women. Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who also served as a United Nations ambassador, said, “Trump has done this country a lot of damage, especially in our community. … He’s gone out of his way not just to insult us but to drag us through the ground.” Republicans, he said, are “doomed” with the Latino vote because voters will remember what Trump has said and that perception may carry over to whomever will be on the Republican presidential ticket.

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Daniel Garza, the executive director of the LIBRE Initiative and former deputy director of external and intergovernmental affairs at the U.S. Department of Interior under President George W. Bush, said Latinos are inherently conservative on economic and social issues and have supported Republican candidates who have actively sought Hispanic support, such as Colorado GOP Sen. Cory Gardner and president George W. Bush. “The difference is outreach,” Garza said, also saying it's important for the Republican party to reach across the aisle on immigration reform, like George W. Bush had.

Keeping Latinos in Hispanic heavy districts preserves incumbency, suppresses voting. Redistricting, when states redraw boundaries of their congressional districts to account for population changes every decade (after the U.S. census is taken), has limited the political power of the growing Latino demographic, said Roberto Suro. By packing Latinos into heavily Hispanic districts, it has preserved the incumbency of current legislators and suppressed voting power. The way districts are drawn ensures those who are elected continue to hold seats. “Incumbents rarely face significant challenges. The general tendency and the way that Congressional districts have been drawn has not increased the number of Latino representatives,” Suro said. Hispanic elected officials, he added, have not made it a priority to increase the number of young Latino voters.

Even though immigration ranks fourth or fifth as a top priority issue, it is still key in shaping how Hispanic voters see the two parties. Education and economic opportunities trump immigration as priority issues, but the latter is still important in shaping how Latino voters see the two parties, Edsall said. “(President) George W. Bush was in favor of immigration reform … but the hostility toward immigration in the Republican Party in the House (of Representatives) goes beyond immigration and goes to the Hispanic influx” in this country, he said. “The Republican party has done itself a real disservice,” he said.

There are some myths about Latinos that are also being purported by reporters, Suro said. Most Americans, he said, indentify illegal immigration with Latinos. “That’s going down in history as one of the failures of the American media.” Armando García, 25, who most recently was a correspondent for Univision in California, purposefully avoids covering immigration because he doesn’t want to be perceived as biased. “Immigration is an important issue, but we also care about other world issues," said Garcia. "I want to report that to the Latino audience,” saying he has covered topics like the Syrian refugee crisis.

Latinos are not monolithic, parties should know their nuances. Parties are missing an opportunity to target the distinct diversity within the country's growing Hispanic community. Garza said the GOP should be harnessing the dissatisfaction among Latinos on immigration reform or union rights issues, and said GOP elected officials and supporters represent a range of ages and nationalities and should showcase its diversity. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s humble beginnings– his father was a bartender, his mother was a housekeeper –resonates with voters. “He shares our American experience. Once you connect on narrative, then you connect on policy,” Garza said.

Richardson, a Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for president in 2008, said Latino voters care about issues like income inequality and public safety. Parties are missing an opportunity, especially the GOP. “If the Republicans get over their bias against immigration and talk about small business… we’re going to be in trouble, we (Democrats) will have to come up with other agenda items.”

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