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Young Voters Show the Potential, Uncertainty of Latino Millennial Vote

Voto Latino shirts Suzanne Gamboa / NBC News

LAS VEGAS - Nineteen-year-old Gabriela Torres is a Latina millennial who brings up the Glass-Stegall Act when she talks about voting for the next president.

Michelle Galeano, also 19, is a Latina millennial who says she hasn't paid enough attention to know who she wants in the White House.

Together Torres and Galeano are a snapshot of nearly half of the nation's Latino electorate - young, growing and full of potential and uncertainty.

Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders arrived this weekend in Nevada, a state where Latinos are 17.2 percent of all eligible voters and more than a quarter of the population.

They arrived amidst a tight and intensifying race for the nomination. Here they are facing for the first time an electorate with a substantial Latino population. The Democratic caucus is Feb. 20 and the GOP's Feb. 23.

Image: Sen. Bernie Sanders waves after arriving for a canvass kick-off event
Jane Sanders watches as her husband, Sen. Bernie Sanders, waves after arriving for a canvass kick-off event at the Reno Sparks Convention Center on Saturday in Reno, Nev. Evan Vucci / AP

Thus far, Sanders has won the millennial vote. But the question to be answered in the state's caucuses next Saturday is whether that support is as strong among Latino and other youth from communities of color. Do they "Feel the Bern"? Or are they con "La Hillary?"

Torres, who has worked in elections since she was 16 but gets to caucus and vote for a president for the first time this year.

"I actually am leaning toward Hillary Clinton," Torres said. "This is going to sound really dorky, I love the Glass-Steagall Act. Franklin Delano Roosevelt created it. I thought he was a great president and I think it's definitely something we need to instate and Hillary Clinton has stated she wants to do that."

Clinton's position on Glass-Stegall, a Depression Era bank and investment regulation bill, is a bit more complicated. But few voters, even those older than Torres, are familiar with the law, much less the candidates' view on it.

Torres acknowledged she is under pressure from friends to switch her loyalties to Sanders. But she said many Sanders backers only hear "free college" and are going to be disappointed when he's unable to come through with his promises. Yet many of her friends are excited about Sanders and have mobilized around his campaign.

"I think a lot of people are voting because it's cool. I'm happy it's cool to vote, but they also seem a little uninformed," Torres said while waiting to see actor America Ferrera.

Ferrera had come to the College of Southern Nevada Cheyenne campus as part of a Voto Latino event to rally young Latino voters to the caucuses.

But Torres' and some of her friends' eagerness to participate in the political process isn't representative of a majority of the millennial Latinos who are eligible to vote.

Image: Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton greets students from a beauty school in Las Vegas
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton greets students from a beauty school in Las Vegas, Nevada February 13, 2016. REUTERS/David Becker DAVID BECKER / Reuters

Just 38 percent of the 18 to 33 year olds voted in 2012, according to Pew Research Center. Black millennials led their peers with a 55 percent turnout, followed by white millennials with 47.5 percent. Asian American millennials fared the worst, 37.3 percent.

So even though millennials are 44 percent of the entire Latino electorate, their poor showings at election time limit the community's political influence. There are some expectations that Latino turnout for the caucuses will be low.

Groups like Voto Latino and Mi Familia Vota are trying to boost the involvement of Latino youth now, because with the mean age of U.S. born Latinos being 19, a persistent poor showing at the polls could leave the community out of political decision making for decades.

Galeano, a computer science major, had stationed herself in an overstuffed chair near the Voto Latino event that had just wrapped up. She was unaware a major Hollywood actress had just been there.

She was hesitant to talk politics when approached by NBC News Latino and had no preference for Clinton or Sanders.

"I just haven't paid enough attention," she said.

But she hasn't been completely disinterested, particularly since seeing a report on Spanish language television on GOP frontrunner Donald Trump's statements throughout the campaign.

"I wouldn't vote for him," she said.

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