With the Latino population growing a fast clip, harnessing a message that inspires young Hispanics to vote is vital if Republicans want to win the White House not only this year, but in decades to come.
"If we don't get this right, we go the way of the Whigs," says Bill Greener, partner with Republican political consulting firm Greener and Hook, who believes that demographic shifts can mean voting shifts. By Greener's calculations, if John McCain—popular among non-Hispanic whites—had run in 1976, when non-Hispanic whites made up a far larger share of the population, he would have won the presidency. In the 2008 presidential race, Hispanics voted 2-to-1 in favor of President Obama.
Greener is looking at a Latino population that is quickly coming of voting age. This week, the Census Bureau reported that non-Hispanic whites are now a minority of Americans under the age of 1, paving the way for a majority-minority country. Hispanics are leading that shift, with growth at 3.1 percent since 2010. And while around 17 percent of Americans are Hispanic or Latino, according to the Census Bureau's American Community Survey, a larger share of people under 18—nearly one-quarter—are Hispanic.
As those kids turn 18, they could be prime targets for Republicans hoping to shift voting patterns.
Appealing to these voters is a challenge for both parties, and one strategist says all politicians are behind the times when it comes to leveraging the new demographics in their favor.
"I don't think the political organizations, either the parties or organizations, are truly understanding that the growth of population of Latinos in this country is not because there's a large immigration influence," says Luis Alvarado, managing director of Republican political consulting firm Latino Political Consulting.
Latinos' recent voting tendencies, alongside discussions from some conservatives about controversial immigration-related topics like "anchor babies," gives Democrats the advantage for now, says Chris Arterton, professor of political management at George Washington University. But he says that Republicans have moved away from some outdated strategies.
"[The 2004 Bush campaign] understood, for example, that second-generation Hispanic voters wanted to be talked to in English," he says. "It wasn't enough to just take your standard ad that you are doing and translate it into Spanish and put it on a Spanish-language television network and hope that it was going to do the trick."
Instead of focusing on immigration or making Spanish-language ads, it may serve politicians well this year to craft ethnicity-specific messages on the top election issue: the economy. The unemployment rate for Latinos is 10.3 percent, far higher than the national rate.
Reaching out to any minority group will mean speaking not only to jobless rates but to the factors that make them higher for some groups, says Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP Washington bureau and senior vice president for advocacy and policy.
For example, high school dropout rates are higher for African-Americans and Latinos than for non-Hispanic whites. Addressing issues that disproportionately affect minorities will be key to winning elections in coming decades, says Shelton.
Arterton believes that this could be one effective avenue for the GOP.
"[Latinos] have exhibited lots of entrepreneurial get-up-and-go and are interested in the education and social progress of their children, and I think that there is a good reason to believe that Republicans could appeal to them on those issues," he says.
Of course, Latinos are not a monolithic voting bloc. While they are united by ethnicity and tend to vote Democratic, they have many internal divisions. Not only do both parties have vastly differing attitudes toward addressing particular Latino communities; they differ in how they address Latinos as a group.
Democrats are paying attention to the details, reaching out to the different nationalities within the Latino community. A spokesperson for the Obama campaign points to ads from the DNC with a Mexican-accented voiceover on the Nevada and Colorado ads and Puerto Rican on the Florida ads. In contrast, she says, the Romney campaign has no Spanish-language website.
The Romney campaign, however, believes that messaging for separate constituencies is a sign of weakness. A Romney spokesperson notes that the Obama campaign emphasizes healthcare reform in ads targeting Latino voters.
"Unlike President Obama, who has to divide voters and send them mixed messages, our message is going to be consistent," says Romney spokesman Alberto Martinez. "President Obama can't talk effectively about the number-one issue affecting Hispanics because he has a terrible record on the economy." The Romney campaign declined to discuss the specifics of strategy.
Gaining the younger Latino votes may simply be a matter of understanding that the growing wave of those voters is, well, young. Reaching young voters of any skin color means turning to media that political campaigns aren't currently using to their advantage.
"[Young voters] don't watch TV anymore, and they don't read newspapers in particular ways. If it has to be an electronic game, [campaigns] are just not quite sure what works," says Jan Leighley, professor in American University's government department.
Facebook status updates and Tweets may be a strength for Republicans going forward, says Greener, who applauds their recent efforts.
"I would give the current Republican National Committee some pretty high marks for being sensitive in terms of recognizing the power and strength of young voters," he says. "If you want to be talking to voters or Americans—15, 16 [years old] to 24, 25—and you're not attentive to social media, you're just kidding yourself."
Danielle Kurtzleben is a business and economics reporter for U.S. News & World Report. Connect with her on Twitter at @titonka or via E-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.