Tomo for Al Jazeera America

Battle of the ages: More hinges on older Latino voters come November

Whether longtime citizens or newly naturalized, Hispanics 45 or older are likely to affect the midterm elections

Senior Citizens

Editor’s note: This is the third in a three-part series examining the Latino vote in the 2014 elections. Part 1 looks at the wave of Latino millennials coming of voting age who are proving to be a tough group for political campaigns to target. Part 2 looks at how a religious shift from Catholic to more socially conservative churches is fueling a wave of activism among Latino voters.

LOS ANGELES — Jennifer Martinez remembers that as soon as her Mexican-born father was sworn in as a U.S. citizen a few years ago, he was thrown smack in the middle of American politics.

As he and other new citizens filed out waving their miniature American flags, they were greeted by Democratic and Republican party representatives poised to pounce on this fresh batch of American voters.

“It was weird,” said Martinez, 21, a college student from Bell Gardens, California.

Nothing weird about it in the political reality of America’s changing demographics.

Winning the votes of the more than 23 million Latinos who are citizens of voting age can make or break elections in states and districts with large Hispanic populations. And because older voters and naturalized citizens — whether they’re 48 or 78 — are more likely to show up at the polls, they are important segments of the electorate.

Over 43 percent of Latinos age 65 or up who are U.S. citizens are naturalized, said Mark Hugo Lopez, director of Hispanic research at the Pew Research Center. “That number has gone up, and they’re a bigger share of eligible older voters.”

So while campaigns are chasing the surge in young Latino voters, they’re also furiously wooing older Latinos — both longtime and new American citizens.

Older men play checkers in MacArthur Park. The percentage of senior Latinos who are naturalized U.S. citizens — and eligible voters — has been increasing.
Tomo for Al Jazeera America

Because of the large number of Latino youths and noncitizens, only 44 percent of Hispanics in the United States are eligible to vote, compared with 52 percent of Asians, 69 percent of blacks and almost 79 percent of whites.

Although a record 11.2 million Hispanics voted in the 2012 presidential election, voter turnout among Latinos continued to lag other groups significantly, according to Pew. That year 48.0 percent of eligible — but not necessarily registered — Latino voters cast ballots, down from 49.9 percent in 2008. By contrast, the 2012 turnout rate for black voters was 66.6 percent and 64.1 percent for whites. More than 12 million eligible Hispanics did not vote.

However, 87 percent of all older Latinos (45 and up) who were registered cast a vote. Of the 11.2 million Hispanics who voted, 5 million were 45 or older. More than 1.5 million were 65 or older.

“Participation rate for younger voters across all groups is lower than for older voters,’’ said Loren McArthur, deputy director of civic engagement for the National Council of La Raza, the nation’s largest Hispanic civil rights and advocacy group. “Outreach is a big factor, and the Hispanic community is undermobilized in general.”

The gap between young and old Hispanic voters is likely to widen this election season, since younger voters cast ballots at much lower rates in midterms. That means there may be more riding on the older Latino vote come November.


“Even among the Cuban voters in Florida, you see real stark generational differences,” said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa. “Older voters are more drawn to foreign policy issues than domestic policies.”

Younger Latinos are more likely than older Latinos to say abortion should be legal, according to Pew. More than half of Latinos ages 18 to 29 support abortion rights. By contrast, a majority of Latinos over 30 say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases.

Attitudes toward gays and lesbians also differ by age as well as by length of time in the U.S. Nearly 70 percent of 18-to-29-year-old Hispanics say homosexuality should be accepted by society, as do 60 percent of Hispanics ages 30 to 49 and 54 percent of Hispanics ages 50 to 64. By contrast, only 41 percent of Hispanics 65 or older say homosexuality should be accepted by society — a reflection of generational differences on the issue in the country at large.

Meanwhile, just over half (53 percent) of immigrant Hispanics say homosexuality should be accepted. Among second-generation Hispanics, that share rises to 68 percent.

Rodrigo Calvo, 64, is an immigrant from Costa Rica who has been a U.S. citizen for 15 years.

The Granada Hills, California, resident works in retail construction, and he votes. He said that youths have changed the immigration movement and have helped galvanize Latinos of all ages.

“Basically, for Latino voters right now, immigration reform has to happen,” Calvo said.

But according to MacManus, who is writing the book “Minority Trailblazers in Florida Politics,” how long Latinos have been in the U.S. and how long they have been citizens influence their views on immigration. There is support among Latinos of all age groups for immigration reform, but immigrants who arrived in the U.S. legally may not feel as sympathetic to the plight of the undocumented.

“The longer they’ve been assimilated, the more they tend to have traditional views about the citizenship issue,” she said. “Many of them had to go through all the hoops to get here.”

A man lunches in MacArthur Park. While young and old Latinos disagree on many issues, they both lean Democratic.
Tomo for Al Jazeera America

Education, however, is an issue that carries equal weight among young and old Latino voters. “When Florida proposed giving in-state tuition to the children of undocumented [immigrants], there was really strong support among all age groups,” said MacManus. The law was passed with support from a Republican legislature and Republican governor.

“Even recently, when you see some of the polls, the priority of immigration reform doesn’t show up nearly as high as education,” she added. “There is a very strong feeling that America has long been a place where anyone can get an education.”

Young and old Latinos may not see eye to eye on many issues, but that doesn’t mean they gravitate to different political parties.

“One of the things we see in our survey,” said Lopez of the Pew Research Center, “is that those 65 and older and those 18 to 29 share very similar attitudes in party affiliations — affiliated with Democrats and leaning Democrat.”

Country of origin also plays a significant role in how older Latinos cast their votes. About 60 percent of older Hispanics (45 and up) who voted in 2012 were born in the U.S., and about 40 percent were naturalized.

“Foreign-born Hispanics are more likely than native-born Hispanics to describe their political views as conservative — 35 percent versus 28 percent,” Pew reports. “Meanwhile, native-born Hispanics are more likely than immigrant Hispanics to describe their political views as ‘very liberal’ or ‘liberal’ — 34 percent versus 27 percent.”

Young or old, Hispanics come from different countries, which can split the Latino vote along origin lines in a state such as Florida, where the Cuban vote has long dominated.

“There are Caribbean blacks who don’t like to be called African-Americans. Haitians and groups emerging from Venezuela, Colombia and Puerto Rico [are] huge. And you have immigrants from Mexico,” McManus said. “Now you’re starting to see down in South Florida Nicaraguans emerging … [These groups] have become very competitive, and they don’t always agree.”

Those who share a country of origin may not agree either.

“There is a diversity of origins, a diversity of opinions,” Lopez said. “Even a Mexican in California is not the same as a Mexican in Texas.”