By JULIET V. CASEY | REVIEW-JOURNAL

In a state where Hispanics represent at least 22 percent of the population, the strength of Hispanic voters in upcoming presidential elections still is debatable.

No major efforts were launched to engage Hispanics in the Nevada caucuses, and most activists say they won’t boost voter registration drives or get-out-the-vote campaigns for another two months.

But one local Hispanic research group is predicting this could be the year of the Hispanic voter.

Ray Sandoval, executive director of the Reynaldo Martinez Institute of Hispanic Leadership and Research, said exit polls in states that have held caucuses indicate Hispanics are engaging in the political process in greater numbers than ever before.

“In Iowa, South Carolina, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona, Hispanic turnout has been high, unusually high,” Sandoval said, adding that early estimates show those states have had 15 to 25 percent increases in Hispanic participation. “These are early indicators that Hispanics are going to be a key group of voters in this year’s elections.”

Carlos McCarthy and Andres Ramirez, political consultants who track Hispanic voters in Nevada, say analyses of voter turnout in recent elections show that, although thousands of eligible Hispanics still aren’t registered to vote, many of those who are have been voting.

McCarthy, whose Ethnic Data Services identifies Hispanic registered voters, Hispanic homeowners and Hispanic business owners for political campaigns, said Hispanics easily could be a powerful voting bloc this year.

“Both parties have failed to realize that,” he said.

McCarthy’s numbers show that 63,597 of the 547,758 active registered voters in Clark County in 2002 were Hispanic.

McCarthy’s service cross-references voter registration records from the Clark County Election Department against lists of Hispanic surnames, business license and county assessor records to estimate the number of Hispanic voters.

Ramirez’s consulting firm runs similar analyses of voter information to develop registration drive strategies for People for the American Way, a national liberal activist group. He said about 42 percent of registered Hispanic voters in Clark County turned out for the 2002 general election.

“That’s still a little disappointing compared with the turnout of the general population,” he said, noting that 57 percent of all registered voters turned out for the election. “But it goes to show there are enough voting Hispanics in any district to decide an election if they band together.”

He estimated that, although some 64,000 Latinos are registered statewide, 59,000 who are eligible to vote have yet to register.

Political consultants running campaigns and conducting voter surveys in Nevada, however, aren’t putting much stock in the Hispanic vote.

“The Hispanic vote is still an emerging vote,” said Gary Gray, who is running campaigns for about a half-dozen Democratic candidates in Southern Nevada. “Things that predict actual voting activity are the length of residency, home ownership, education and income. When you put those elements down and look at them, Hispanics frequently don’t fit those categories as a group.”

Gray also said courting the Hispanic vote doesn’t necessarily mean putting information out in Spanish, arguing that most voting Hispanics care about the same issues as mainstream voters.

Don Williams, a longtime Las Vegas political consultant, said Hispanic voters are gradually increasing in Nevada. He expects to see slight increases in the upcoming elections.

But Williams said counting on the strength of the Hispanic vote to swing an election is about 10 years premature. He said local campaigns typically don’t go to great lengths to reach Hispanics, because they don’t see a lot of return on their investment. On the national level, however, TV ads and prominent play in national publications has been “very effective.”

“But the importance of the Hispanic vote is exaggerated for now,” he said. “In the next 10 years, it’ll be for real. When the second generation comes of age, they’ll consider themselves Las Vegans and Nevadans. They’ll be fully assimilated.”

Irene Bustamante, diversity director for MGM Mirage and founder of the Latina Network, a nonprofit group affiliated with the Reynaldo Martinez Institute, said campaigns trying to win the Hispanic vote haven’t succeeded because they haven’t reached the right target audience, which is women. She contends that women are the decision makers in most Hispanic cultures and “have the power to educate and influence future generations.”

“Typically, most Hispanic women have associated with the Democratic Party, but their message to Hispanics has been very generic and has alienated Latinas,” she said. Bustamante said the nation’s two major parties have not delivered a message that focuses on education, crime and social issues.

Miguel Barrientos, president of the Mexican-American Political Association, conceded that efforts to motivate Nevada’s Hispanic voters in recent years “has been weak.” He also said local activists are off to a late start in mobilizing the state’s fastest growing minority.

“But we’re not going to stand on the sidelines any longer,” he said. “We’re really up against it now, so we’re going to be doing a lot of outreach and voter registration drives, educating people that their vote is their voice, and that they need to vote if they want to have any negotiating power with elected officials.”

Barrientos’ organization is in a coalition of 35 other activists groups called the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride, which is organizing a massive effort to get Latinos to vote this year. The effort, starting late this spring, will include “Super Saturdays” registration drives around the Las Vegas Valley once a month until the general election.