Disillusionment plagues young Latinos who could decide the 2024 race in battleground states

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Disillusionment plagues young Latinos who could decide the 2024 race in battleground states

TEMPE, Ariz. — Young Latino voters in key swing states have the numbers to potentially sway the 2024 presidential election. But interviews with nearly two dozen young Latino students on college campuses in battleground states revealed many are currently unmotivated to back a candidate or even cast a ballot.

The students in Arizona, Pennsylvania and Georgia spoke passionately about Israel’s war in Gaza, the rising cost of living, immigration and abortion. Almost everyone interviewed said TikTok is where they get most of their news.

Amid the palm trees at Arizona State University, senior Darien Guerrero, 22, said he leans Republican. What he cares about most is the “great threat of climate change.”

But voting in November wasn’t high on his to-do list.

Climate change “is a problem that is bigger than us, bigger than the elections, the parties or anything. This is a human civilization problem,” said Guerrero, a biology major. He added that those in power often seem to be in the way of his generation’s efforts to fix the issue.

In the western U.S., which includes the battlegrounds of Arizona and Nevada, Latinos are nearly 4 of every 10 newly eligible voters — defined as those who have reached ages 18 or 19 since the 2022 midterms. In the South, Latinos are 24% of newly eligible voters, and in the Northeast they make up 19%.

Arizona (Suzanne Gamboa / NBC News)

Arizona (Suzanne Gamboa / NBC News)

Young voters usually favor Democratic candidates: The Harvard Youth Poll showed young Hispanics favor President Joe Biden over former President Donald Trump 50% to 27% in a two-way race, with 22% saying they don’t know. National polls currently show a tight race among all voters.

If young voters, many of them Latino, don’t vote in large enough numbers for Democrats —  particularly in Arizona, Georgia or Pennsylvania  — “that could be the whole race,” said Republican consultant Mike Madrid.

“It’s not [if] Democrats will win the youth vote — they will — but percentage is everything,” he said. “That is what has been narrowing this year, in a way that has been unprecedented.”

Pamela Gomez, 20, a biomedical student at ASU, said she intends to register to vote — but not yet. She passed on doing so with a group registering voters just a few yards away.

“I wish voting for a third party was more common or had more effect,” Gomez said. “Right now, I don’t want to vote for either Biden or Trump, but I know going for a third party doesn’t go anywhere.”

Arizona (Suzanne Gamboa / NBC News)Arizona (Suzanne Gamboa / NBC News)

Arizona (Suzanne Gamboa / NBC News)

Biden and Democrats drew on solid young Latino support in battleground states to secure their 2020 and 2022 victories. In 2020, new voters of all backgrounds under age 30 favored Biden over Trump, 59% to 33%. Trump won new voters of all backgrounds over age 30, 55% to 42%.

It’s unclear how that will play out in this election cycle. “There’s a general sense of both parties are the same, nothing’s going to change; institutions have failed us; we don’t trust any of the institutions no matter who’s in power,” said political scientist Stella Rouse, director of ASU’s Hispanic Research Center.

Isiger Palomino-Garcia, a student at Lehigh Carbon Community College, lives in a section of eastern Pennsylvania considered the state’s “Latino Belt.” The Lehigh Valley was once known as an industrial center and includes Allentown, the former steel town that now has the third-most Hispanic people of any city in Pennsylvania. Every block in downtown Allentown seems to have a Dominican barbershop, churches with Spanish names and countless Hispanic food restaurants.

Candidates, especially Biden, are pinning their hopes on potential voters like Palomino-Garcia. But while she remembered being “really happy” that Barack Obama was president when she was a teenager, the 21-year-old said she hasn’t decided whether to vote this year because none of the candidates excite her.

Pennsylvania (Serge Stambolyan)Pennsylvania (Serge Stambolyan)

Pennsylvania (Serge Stambolyan)

That’s not for lack of effort on the part of the Democratic Party, according to Victor Martinez, owner and co-host of Allentown-based Spanish-language radio station La Mega 101.7 FM. He said this election is the first time he has seen the Democratic Party pay such early attention to Latino voters overall in the region.

The Biden campaign has purchased ad time on the station, given Martinez unprecedented access to Democratic candidates, and invited him to broadcast live from the White House during the State of the Union address. Republicans have not yet approached him, he said.

“I’m not worried about young people voting for Trump,” said Democratic strategist Chuck Rocha, who was a senior adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. “I’m worried about them staying home.”

Israel-Hamas war and rising housing costs top concerns

Dalton State College is Georgia’s only Hispanic-serving institution, a federal designation for nonprofit institutions with at least 25% Hispanic full-time undergraduate enrollment. Located in the deep-red Whitfield County, which is represented by far-right Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene in Congress, Dalton boasts a large manufacturing industry and was once dubbed the “carpet capital of the world.” It’s also home to a vibrant Latino community that has come to define the small city in recent decades.

Nearly 40% of students on campus are Hispanic, and many of them grew up in Dalton or the surrounding area. Whitfield County is home to just over 11,000 registered Latino voters — about the same number of votes that carried Biden to victory in the state in 2020.

It is apparent here, as in Pennsylvania and Arizona, that the Biden campaign hasn’t yet eased young Latinos’ worries on several issues, in particular the Israel-Hamas war and frustrations over the lack of affordable housing.

Emmanuel Ramirez, 19, a computer science freshman at Dalton State College, said that while he’s leaning toward Biden, he hasn’t ruled out voting for a third party candidate in part because he’s unimpressed by the candidates’ responses to the Israel-Hamas war.

“It’s infuriating. It’s frustrating,” Ramirez said. At the time of the interview, Ramirez was fasting for Ramadan to show solidarity with his Muslim friends.

Biden, who signed a bill Tuesday that includes includes $26 billion in assistance to Israel and humanitarian relief in Gaza, has urged Israel to agree to a cease-fire and to curb attacks on Gaza, while Trump said in March that Israel should “finish the problem,” though he has otherwise mostly avoided talking about the war. Many young Latinos who expressed anger over the civilian deaths in Gaza were opposed to sending money to Israel and supported a cease-fire.

Many students were familiar with videos on social media that they said show Israeli strikes killing and injuring Palestinian civilians, including children, but some were not familiar with the details of the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks and hostage takings that triggered the current conflict.

Arizona (Suzanne Gamboa / NBC News)Arizona (Suzanne Gamboa / NBC News)

Arizona (Suzanne Gamboa / NBC News)

Marcel Lopez, 20, who is getting his associate degree in engineering at Phoenix Community College, was also unhappy with the billions the U.S. is sending to support Ukraine in what he sees as “an unwinnable war.”

Rocha said the war, along with a sense of rebellion and the “none of the above” view of Trump and Biden, are at the heart of malaise among young voters.

Across all three battleground states, young Latino college students said one of their top economic concerns was the increasing cost of housing.

Nicholas Hernandez, 22, an ASU political science and transborder studies major, said his family recently moved out of their four-bedroom west Phoenix home because the rent kept increasing. “A lot of my friends talk about that, too. Their parents’ rents have increased as well.”

He works two jobs and pays his school-related costs and application fees for law school. He’s a loyal Democrat, and although he said “Joe Biden is not the best,” he is voting for him.

Pennsylvania (Serge Stambolyan)Pennsylvania (Serge Stambolyan)

Pennsylvania (Serge Stambolyan)

A class assignment on municipal candidates motivated Jeremy Bautista, 20, a Lehigh Carbon business major, to vote for the first time last year in local Allentown elections. But he’s unsure whether he wants to vote again; neither Biden nor Trump has eased his concerns about his economic future.

“Am I going to be able to live on my own by the age of 23?” he said. “Am I going to be able to have that independence?”

When immigration is personal

Many of the young Latino college students interviewed are children of immigrants, with previously or still undocumented family members, and they see immigration as a deeply personal issue. They chafed — and some became emotional — while discussing the threats of increased immigration enforcement and deportations.

In Georgia, Ramirez recalled spending his summers picking grapes with his family, starting at age 10. He saw Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrest and detain his father, leaving his mother to struggle to make ends meet for their three children.

“It was hard,” Ramirez said through tears. “It was really unfair. Obviously, the exploitation was there, the wages weren’t fair at all, and it hurt. But it shaped me.”

Hernandez, the ASU student, said he often talks with fellow students about living under his state’s harsh “show me your papers law” and worries about a return to that anti-immigrant environment.

Arizona (Suzanne Gamboa / NBC News)Arizona (Suzanne Gamboa / NBC News)

Arizona (Suzanne Gamboa / NBC News)

“A lot of us talk about the trauma … of us losing our parents, seeing tíos (uncles), tías (aunts), friends, parents hiding. My dad was afraid to drive around,” said Hernandez. “My mother had to drive him everywhere.”

At Dalton State College, Karla Hernandez, 21, a senior studying biology, had similar fears now that the state has passed new legislation, House Bill 1105, to crack down on undocumented immigrants following the slaying of nursing student Laken Riley at the University of Georgia. Most Hispanic students and locals who spoke to NBC News cited the bill as a cause of deep concern.

georgia dalton (Courtesy Karla Hernandez)georgia dalton (Courtesy Karla Hernandez)

georgia dalton (Courtesy Karla Hernandez)

Hernandez said she learned about the bill through Instagram posts and looked it up. The bill, which is awaiting the governor’s signature, could bring back a program known as 287(g) that partners local law enforcement with ICE to make arrests, conduct raids and other actions. The program has been a source of numerous complaints of racial profiling, denial of due process and family separations.

“It was like there is no way this is actually happening, and it was, so that’s really shocking,” she said.

ASU’s Rouse said her research shows there’s diversity of opinion in border counties and cities when it comes to immigration, even among young people, with some supporting more immigration restrictions because of the way increased migration has affected their communities. That could work in Republicans’ favor.

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Trump has vowed that, if elected, he’ll conduct massive deportation sweeps and wants to end  birthright citizenship. As president, he tried to get rid of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which Biden supports.

The issue for Democrats is whether these differences can mobilize young Latino voters to abandon thoughts of a third-party candidate.

A mobilization tipping point?

A few days after Arizona’s Supreme Court upheld an 1864 law imposing a near total ban on abortions, Guerrero, the biology student at ASU, said in a text that the court’s decision makes him feel more compelled to vote, though he hadn’t decided how he’ll vote.

Across the board, regardless of political leanings, young Latino college students supported abortion rights.

Mariajose Leon, 19, a freshman studying biomedical science and Spanish at ASU, said abortion is a human rights issue that is “very black and white — women should have the right to decide.”

Arizona (Suzanne Gamboa / NBC News)Arizona (Suzanne Gamboa / NBC News)

Arizona (Suzanne Gamboa / NBC News)

Juan Carlos Avitia, 18, an ASU freshman studying aerospace engineering, said he leans Republican. He said women should have the right to choose, with some limits. “I don’t like big government, but I think there should be restrictions,” he said.

Abortion has been a mobilizing issue for Democrats: About 4 in 10 (42%) young Latino voters nationally said that the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade and state laws restricting abortion motivated them to vote in the 2022 midterms, according to a Brookings report.

That’s why Alyssa Cáceres, 20, a student at Lehigh Carbon, voted for the first time in that midterm. This year, she’s unhappy with the prospect of Biden and Trump on the ballot again, but does plan to vote.

“I’m unsettled. I’m picking between the lesser of two evils,” she said. “There should be a third choice that’s better.”

Fellow Lehigh Carbon student Margaret Rodríguez Sánchez, 20, is still on the fence about registering to vote. But she said reproductive rights would be “very important when it comes to my voting.”

Pennsylvania (Serge Stambolyan)Pennsylvania (Serge Stambolyan)

Pennsylvania (Serge Stambolyan)

Rouse, the ASU Hispanic Research Center director, said the Israel-Gaza conflict and immigration seemed to be drowning out the abortion issue, and she was unsure if it would be as mobilizing as Democrats hoped. But it’s back on the radar, she said.

This year, Democrats started their outreach and messaging to prospective Latino voters earlier and have been amping it up with just seven months to go before Election Day.

But in a tight race boiling down to what happens in a few swing states, challenges remain — especially for Biden. Young voters, Rouse said, aren’t engaging with what she describes as “existential threats” to democracy.

“It’s a really hard message to get across to young people,” she said.

Suzanne Gamboa reported from Tempe and Phoenix, Arizona; Nicole Acevedo from Allentown and Schnecksville, Pennsylvania; and Isabela Espadas Barros Leal from Dalton, Georgia.

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com

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