DENVER - 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.
Here in Denver, Ben Monterosso, the executive director of Mi Familia Vota, or My Family Votes, a national group that helps Latinos become citizens and register to vote, gathered organizers around a table in his office and recited census data demonstrating the lack of Latino participation.
“Our potential at the ballot box is not being maximized,’’ Monterosso told them.
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 Pew Hispanic Center study.
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, a political research organization.
Although Latinos do not turn up at the polls in the same numbers, relative to their population, as other ethnic groups, their overall numbers are growing so rapidly that they are nevertheless on the verge of becoming the powerful force in US politics.
Officials in both parties have long anticipated such a trend, which would only be magnified as Hispanic people begin to match the voting percentages of other ethnic groups.
Obama’s campaign has seized on that as a central part of his reelection strategy, with an early burst of three Spanish-language television advertisements in four swing states, including Colorado, and voter registration drives in Latino neighborhoods.
This segment of the US electorate is by any measure sprawling, with near-explosive population growth in places like California and Texas and growing numbers in swing states like Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Nevada, and New Mexico. Their presence in such politically important states has only fed the frustration of Latino organizers over their underrepresentation at the polls.
Matt A. Barreto, an associate professor of political science at the University of Washington and head of Latino Decisions, said the population growth had produced a higher Latino vote in every presidential election over the last decade, a number that had the effect of masking the political apathy of many Latino voters.
“The population growth has driven increases in the Latino vote every year,’’ he said. “But we still need to confront a registration gap that is quite significant.’’
Jim Messina, Obama’s campaign manager, said Latino voters are a critical factor in the president’s reelection 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 Romney’s campaign asserted that he would cut into 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 website 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, Romney’s coalitions director. “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.’ ’’
Latino voters overwhelmingly support Obama over Romney, according to recent polls. The anger at Republicans for supporting tough immigration laws, like the one passed in Arizona last year, is powerful and potentially damaging to Romney after a Republican primary in which the candidates largely rallied behind that law.
Yet interviews suggest lingering concerns with what many see as Obama’s failure to deliver on promises to change the immigration system, as well as distress about his stewardship of the economy. Together, those forces appear to be producing a general wariness of government.
“They promise, ‘Oh, we’re going to do this for the Hispanic community, we’re going to do that,’ and we never get even half of the things they promise,’’ said Derkis Sanchez, 51, of Miami.