The Obama for America campaign office on Denver’s gritty West Alameda Avenue sits two doors down from a tattoo shop and right beside El Defensor del Hispano, a local business that helps neighbourhood Latinos wade through their legal and tax problems.
The campaign office, with its abundant Spanish-first election signs and literature, is just one outward sign showing of how hard President Barack Obama’s forces are courting a chunk of the electorate that will be crucial to his re-election chances. With five months until election day, Mr. Obama’s biggest challenge does not seem to be persuading Latinos to prefer him over Mitt Romney. Most polls show the President with at least a 2-to-1 advantage over the projected Republican nominee among Hispanics.
But the Obama campaign faces a colossal task in translating that passive support into votes at the ballot box. Census Bureau figures show a notable drop in voter registration among Latinos since the 2008 election, the first such decline in four decades.
Unless Mr. Obama’s campaign can mobilize Hispanics and get them to the polls in November, the President risks seeing Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico slip through his fingers – and with them his chance at a second term in the White House.
Winning this trio of so-called “Latino influence states” and their combined 20 electoral votes has become even more critical, since Mr. Romney currently appears to have an edge in the biggest swing state in which Hispanics figure prominently. The likely GOP nominee has a narrow lead in Florida, which has 29 electoral votes and whose Republican-leaning Cuban-Americans still account for half of Latino voters.
Latinos account for about 20 per cent of Colorado’s population of 5.1 million and for about 14 per cent of the state’s eligible voters. They can decide the election in their state – provided they turn out. As with other blocks of the electorate who turned out in record numbers for Mr. Obama in 2008, such as young people and African-Americans, Hispanic voters in Colorado appear to be suffering from an enthusiasm gap.
Mr. Obama’s failure to fulfill his 2008 promise of passing comprehensive immigration reform – which would include a path to citizenship for the country’s 11 million illegal immigrants – remains a sore point among many Latino voters here. So does the President’s unwillingness to push Congress harder to pass the so-called DREAM Act, which would provide legal status to post-secondary students and members of the military who came into the country illegally as children.
“I think it may dampen people’s enthusiasm for him,” offers Grace Lopez Ramirez, Colorado state director for Mi Familia Vota, a non-profit organization that registers Latinos to vote. “As much as those issues aren’t foremost in Hispanic people’s minds, it starts to break down their confidence in gaining victories for our community.”
Still, apathy may a bigger problem for Mr. Obama than his inaction on the immigration front. Hispanics were hit harder than other Coloradans by the recession, Ms. Ramirez notes, leading them to focus on immediate economic concerns more than politics.
“Here in Colorado, Hispanics have been directly impacted by the foreclosure crisis,” she explains. “Quite a number of our volunteers are unemployed. So jobs and the economy are huge issues for the Hispanic community.”
In U.S. politics, the terms Latino and Hispanic are used interchangeably to describe Spanish-speaking residents of the United States who trace their origins to Mexico and other Latin American countries. They now number more than 50 million.
Nationally, barely half of eligible Hispanics registered and marked a ballot in 2008, compared to two-thirds of white voters. And it will take even more of an effort for the Obama campaign to mobilize Latinos this year.
That is bad news for Mr. Obama. He carried Colorado handily in 2008 on the strength of his support from Latinos and suburban white voters around Denver. But an NBC-Marist poll released on May 31 gave him a mere one-percentage point lead over Mr. Romney among registered voters, well within the survey’s three percentage point margin of error.
The poll was all the more worrying for Obama strategists, since Romney campaign has yet to devote much effort to Colorado, while the Obama campaign already has 13 field offices in the state and has been advertising heavily – in both English and Spanish.
It heartens Pauline Olvera, secretary of Colorado Hispanic Republicans, whose group promotes GOP policies among the state’s Latinos.
“I do think it is possible for Mitt Romney to win the Hispanic vote because the Republican Party platform resonates much more with the values of the Hispanic community,” she says.
Polls suggest otherwise: Hispanic Americans are far more likely than others to favour government involvement in the economy and support for Mr. Obama’s controversial health-care reform legislation is highest among Latinos.
Ms. Olvera counters that Mr. Obama’s endorsement last month of same-sex marriage will work in Mr. Romney’s favour among Colorado’s Latinos in November.
“We’ve had an increase in membership just since Obama did that,” she says. “Hispanic voters are intelligent. They see it as pandering to his base.”
The Romney campaign has yet to make a concerted pitch to Latino voters. But it gave a hint of the tack it intends to take by releasing a Spanish-language web video last week, noting that “more Hispanics have fallen into poverty under President Obama.”
The claim is based on a U.S. Census Bureau study showing that about 900,000 more Hispanics fell below the poverty line between 2009 and 2010. Over all, the poverty rate among Latinos rose to 26.6 per cent, or more than double the rate of white Americans.
Still, if Mr. Romney has any hope of breaking through with Latino voters, it likely will not be because of his policies. His hard line stand on illegal immigration has led a solid plurality of Hispanic voters to view him negatively. By contrast, Mr. Obama is viewed positively by 58 per cent of Latino voters, according to an NBC poll done last month.
Over all, the poll showed that 61 per cent of Latinos planned to vote for Mr. Obama, compared with 27 per cent who chose Mr. Romney, though the survey’s margin of error was particularly high at plus or minus seven percentage points. In 2008, Mr. Obama won 67 per cent of the Hispanic vote, compared to 31 per cent for Republican John McCain.
Pundits speculate that Mr. Romney might match the 44 per cent of the Latino vote that George W. Bush won in 2004 by picking a Hispanic running mate, with Florida GOP Senator Marco Rubio topping the list of potential vice-presidential candidates.
In recent weeks, New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez’s name has been added to the Mr. Romney’s short list. Though she only is a first-term governor – as was Sarah Palin, Mr. McCain’s running mate in 2009 – Ms. Martinez has impressed observers with her steady leadership and low-key style.
It would take more than a Latino on the ticket, however, to sway Linda Vargas.
“I always vote Democrat. I feel the Democratic Party has always been more helpful to minorities than the Republican Party,” says the 62-year-old Denver resident.
To win, Mr. Obama needs to make sure she and Latinos like her register to vote and get to the polls. And that is looking harder to do than it sounds.