Will Hispanic voters punch at their rightful political weight?

The “Latino vote” has been a political object of desire for the past few election cycles. It has not, however, been taken seriously as a long-term investment.

This should be evident in Latinos’ consistently poor showing at the polls. The Census Bureau calculated that fewer than half of all eligible Hispanics turned out to vote in 2012. By comparison, about two-thirds of eligible whites and blacks voted.

That year, despite President Obama’s late-in-the-game announcement of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which allowed certain young undocumented immigrants to be exempted from deportation and become eligible for work permits, the percentage of Latinos casting ballots went down to 48 percent, from 49.9 percent in 2008.

As we hurtle toward the 2016 elections — during which the Senate will be up for grabs with 34 seats contested — America’s Voice, the immigration reform advocacy group, and the Latino Decisions polling organization estimate that more than 13 million Latino voters will have the opportunity to make an impact next November.

But will they?

“There is a lot of under-mobilization and under-voting relative to population, with hundreds of thousands of votes left on the table because Latinos are simply not participating in the process,” said David F. Damore, Latino Decisions’ senior analyst and an associate professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

At this point, with several of the Republicans tripping over themselves to project anti-immigrant views — and the Democrats apparently hoping that they’ll simply look better to Latino voters in comparison — it’s unclear whether Latinos will be motivated to turn out next November.

What is clear is that, at least according to Damore, one major reason Latino voters are so unengaged is that efforts at wooing them have been mild and sporadic.

“In our research, we have found that most of the efforts to mobilize Latino voters have been very strategic and candidate-specific, but not sustained cycle after cycle,” Damore said. “Latinos came out for Obama, but when he was not on the ballot, like in 2014, no one picked up on outreach to Latinos. That lack of sustained effort, and Latinos being so tired of the promises on immigration, contributed to [the] 2014 drop-off in participation.

“Can that be overcome in 2016, when there is practically no chance of comprehensive immigration reform, given [the current deadlock in] the Senate? We’ve seen Latino voters come out when a candidate put in the time and the money to do the outreach.”

Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, concurred with Damore’s assessment: “Every community wants to be engaged with and by candidates and parties. But as a close observer of the infrastructure of mobilizing voters, I’ve seen strong investments in particular races, in particular states — but it’s kind of instrumental, late, not sustained and doesn’t allow for robust growth toward a more permanent registration and mobilization program.”

Sharry suggested that the Republicans’ seemingly tacit approval of recent vitriol against immigrants might jolt Latino voters into action. “After Pete Wilson supported Proposition 187,” a 1994 ballot initiative to prohibit illegal immigrants in California from using non-emergency health care, public education and other government services, “it turned out to be a mobilizing program of historic proportions. Hispanics turned a once-purple state very blue. But it’s unclear whether a Donald Trump nomination … might have the same effect.”

According to Damore, Hispanic turnout isn’t a lock — or a certain lost opportunity — for either party. “Latinos are not monolithic Democrats, they don’t tie politics to partisan identification.”

No matter how you slice it — whether you blame general voter apathy for low turnout or believe that anti-Hispanic rhetoric will wake the so-called Sleeping Giant into action — Latino voters are ripe for being engaged. Not with token photo-ops at Mexican restaurants, a few key minority outreach campaign hires or a Spanish-language campaign website, but for the long term.

Will either party get past its entrenched assumptions about how Latino voters will act? Or will they keep gambling on Hispanic voters not reaching a critical mass anytime soon?

Maybe a better question is: Are Hispanics ready to finally punch at their rightful political weight, or will they settle for being written off again?

— Esther Cepeda (estherjcepeda@washpost.com) is a Washington Post columnist. Follow her on Twitter: @estherjcepeda.

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