If there ever was a year in which Hispanics are going to make their presence felt on Election Day, it would seem to be this year.
The 2008 presidential race offers the right mix of candidates and issues to inspire a historically elusive subset of potential voters to mobilize in unprecedented numbers, according to political strategists familiar with the Hispanic market.
Traditionally, Hispanics have lagged behind both non-Hispanic whites and blacks in voting. About 47 percent of all eligible Hispanics voted in the past two presidential elections - the George Bush vs. Al Gore contest in 2000 and the Bush vs. John Kerry election in 2004.
Furthermore, the percentage of Hispanic voters who participated in those elections remained stagnant, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In comparison, the percentages of eligible non-Hispanic whites and blacks who voted increased from 2000 to 2004.
"It's a sad record," said Roberto Reveles, past president of Somos America, a Phoenix coalition of community organizations, labor unions, political leaders and students associations that supports comprehensive immigration reform.
The 2008 race could alter the pattern of low Hispanic voter turnout, though, he said. Among the compelling factors:
Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a well-known figure among Hispanics nationwide and one of the national leaders on immigration issues.
Republican vice presidential candidate Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska, a strong woman figure. "In many ways, while we're considered a macho society, women are very influential in the Latino culture," Reveles said.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, the first minority to head a major party ticket.
The border security and immigration issues remain unresolved.
In addition, kitchen-table issues such as small-business taxes, military and veterans affairs, and education play to Hispanic families and voters.
Reveles said, "All conditions are in place for us to see a significant increase in voter turnout among Latinos like there hasn't been in the past."
If that should happen though, it will come without the participation of Tempe residents Anthony Molina and Britteny Carles. Neither is registered to vote, and neither has plans to register before Oct. 6, the deadline for the Nov. 4 election.
"I have other things I have to do, and it's not one of the things on my mind really," said Molina, 26, a movie theater worker.
The 2008 slate of candidates has done nothing to pique his interest. "I just see a colored man in the race. That's about all I have to say about that," he said outside a QuikTrip convenience store Saturday.
Carles said it would be nice to see someone of color elected president, but she has no plans to vote for Obama nor anyone else.
"I just try to live life. And that politics stuff, I don't know, it's not one of my things," said the 19-year-old discount store sales clerk.
The reasons behind the traditionally low voter turnout rates among Hispanics overall are tough to pinpoint, but Reveles believes at least part of it stems from a history of intimidation at the polls.
"I remember in the late '50s and '60s when elections rolled around, one of the political parties would announce publicly that they had requested the presence of federal law enforcement at the polls to ensure that only legal residents voted. That was enough to keep people from the minority community away," he said.
The Hispanic community's institutional memory of the pre-civil rights era intimidation, coupled with the current anti-illegal immigrant sentiment may be at play, he said.
Political strategist Jaime Molera said his read is that voter turnout is closely associated with education level. In general, as Hispanics narrow the education gap, the voter participation gap will shrink as well.
This year in particular could be a turning point, because both the McCain and Obama campaigns are actively seeking Hispanic votes, said Molera, a partner with The Molera Alverez Group, a Phoenix lobbying and consulting firm that usually works with Republicans.
The Democratic Party took Hispanics for granted in 2000 and 2004, while the Bush campaign aggressively and specifically targeted them, Molera said. "I give Bush a lot of credit. Bush, as far as his campaign, really understood that could be a major thing," he said.
Republicans and Democrats alike followed Bush's lead and stepped up their efforts this year, which is certain to produce a huge upsurge in Hispanic voter turnout in November, he said. "Really for the first time - you're seeing both political parties really dumping in significant amounts of money specifically targeted toward Latinos," he said.
Eliseo Medina, a labor organizer and treasurer of an 11-state voter registration drive called Mi Familia Vota, similarly said Hispanics are more driven than ever to participate in the political process, largely because the political race has come to them.
Several states across the Southwest, plus Florida, have emerged as battleground states, giving Hispanics a particularly decisive role in shaping the country's political future.
"Sheer growth coupled with the community's ever-increasing political will are converging to deliver a powerful punch," Medina said when the campaign rolled out last year.