Fifteen-year-old Jesus Calle came of age this election. In 2008, he was too young to pay attention to presidential politics. This year, the Timber Creek High School sophomore said he would have voted for President Barack Obama, same as his parents.
The 2012 election may well be a coming of age for the Hispanic vote as well. Never before have Hispanics voted so overwhelmingly Democratic as they did for Obama, said Luis Martinez-Fernandez, professor of history at the University of Central Florida.
"Hispanics have come together in a way they have never come together in terms of one party and one candidate," said Martinez-Fernandez.
Jesus Calle and his 16-year-old sister, Monique, are among the 161,500 Hispanics in Metro Orlando younger than 18 who will contribute to the doubling of the Hispanic electorate in the United States during the next two decades. They will help determine whether Hispanics become firmly entrenched in the Democratic Party or create a perpetual swing vote that favors candidates over party affiliation.
Nationwide, 17.6 million Hispanics younger than 18 -- most of them American-born -- will reach voting age by 2030. That's 5 million more than the 12.5 million Hispanics who voted 7-to-3 in favor of Obama over Romney.
Whether that next generation will follow their parents into the Democratic Party is anybody's guess, but Hispanics have a strong sense of "brand loyalty" that may translate into party affiliation as well, Martinez-Fernandez said. But like brand loyalty, party loyalty must be earned and maintained -- not assumed or taken for granted.
"Politicians have to understand there is a loyalty aspect that has to be won and preserved by cultivating relationships and mutual respect. It's not a matter of showing up and expecting Hispanics to vote for you," he said.
And that means Hispanics may never be as solidly, reliably Democratic as blacks. As much as they favored Obama, Florida Hispanics also voted heavily for former Gov. Jeb Bush and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.
It also means younger generations of Hispanics may not automatically inherit the party affiliation of their parents. In Miami-Dade County, Cuban-Americans have overwhelmingly voted Republican. But not this year, when as many as half of the Cuban-American vote went for Obama -- much of that attributed to younger voters.
"In Florida, it seems clear the younger Cuban-American voters have different politics than their parents," said Paul Taylor, a Pew Hispanic Center researcher and co-author of a new report on the ascent of the Hispanic voting bloc nationwide.
Hispanic voters have played a significant role in Orange and Osceola counties going Democratic in the past three presidential elections. The possibility of that trend continuing as the next generation reaches voting age is worrisome for Hispanic Republicans.
"Certainly there is a concern with the patterns and trends we are seeing that they are voting Democratic," said Eddie Fernandez, a conservative Republican attorney active in party politics in Central Florida.
There are many Republican principles that should naturally appeal to Hispanics -- low taxes, less government, opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage -- yet those issues don't seem to resonate as much as expected among Hispanic voters, Fernandez said.
Fernandez contends Republicans have failed to establish relationships with Hispanic voters that begin long before Election Day. Attempts to attract Hispanic voters often seem calculated or insincere, he said, citing campaign strategies that send one message to Hispanic voters and another to conservative white voters.
"I think Hispanics see right through that," he said.
At the same time, Fernandez sees opportunities to attract the Hispanic vote by allowing Hispanics a seat at the Republican Party's table so their voices and perspectives can be heard above those advocating for racial profiling and deportation.
"It's not a hurdle that can't be overcome," he said, but added, "The time starts now, after the election -- not when their vote is needed."
And the contest starts now for the hearts, minds and votes of the next generation of Hispanics who will be reaching voting age at the rate of 800,000 a year nationwide between now and 2030.
Jesus Calle is uncertain whether he will follow the voting pattern of his father, Armando, a Peruvian-born registered Democrat, or his Cuban-American mother, Marie, who was born into a Republican family but now declares herself an independent.
"I think I'm more along the lines of my mom," he said. "I'm going to vote for whoever would make the better president, whether a Democrat or a Republican."
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