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The Globe and Mail

In Bakersfield, Calif., Latinos find issues they can sink their teeth into

Evan Aguilar holds up the Obama burrito at his restaurant El Taco Fresco in Bakersfield, Calif. The restaurant is holding a presidential burrito poll.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Muy picante: It's not really a phrase you associate with Mitt Romney, is it? And yet the burrito that bears his name at El Taco Fresco is indeed very spicy, thanks to a generous helping of jalapeno peppers.

The Obama, on the other (quite messy) hand, is rich with sour cream and Monterey Jack cheese. Both are built on a base of grilled chicken, rice and beans, and although they're both delicious, the citizens of Bakersfield, Calif., have decisively chosen one. At least their stomachs have.

"It's about 60-40 for Obama," says Evan Aguilar, 22, whose family owns El Taco Fresco. That says more about taste buds than it does about political convictions, because in the last presidential election, Kern County went exactly the opposite way, with nearly 60 per cent of the votes won by Republicans (Bakersfield, a low, dun-coloured city of 350,000, is the county seat).

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In 2008, it occurred to Mr. Aguilar, a graduate of the University of Southern California, that the family taqueria should sell its taco for $0.44, in honour of the man who would become the 44th president of the United States. Mr. Aguilar's ambitions expanded four years later, and the presidential burrito poll – modelled after hamburger polls held around the country – was born.

California's Central Valley is distant, both culturally and geographically, from the glamorous hubs of Los Angeles and San Francisco that it sits between. No one writes TV shows about its largest centres, Fresno and Bakersfield, although both are the subject of cosmopolitan snickering to the north and south.

The valley is a hard-working, plain-speaking collection of towns and cities built around agriculture and oil production. Drought and recession have hit the area hard. There's a high concentration of Latinos in the population (50 per cent in Kern County, compared to 38 per cent in the rest of California.)

Issues that are important to the Latino community have become campaign touchstones: President Barack Obama made a flying stop to the Central Valley earlier this month to declare the home of labour organizer Cesar Chavez a national monument. Controversy recently flared over the admission by Pedro Rios, a Republican candidate for the state assembly, that he'd come to California from Mexico as an undocumented immigrant. (Mr. Rios told the local ABC affiliate that he became an American citizen in 1993, thanks to an amnesty program sponsored by Ronald Reagan. It's impossible to imagine a Republican president supporting such a policy today.)

His customers may be leaning heavily toward Obama – or at least the burrito that bears his name – but Mr. Aguilar himself is on the fence. "I'm going to sit down and look at everything they've said and then make my decision," he says.

Mr. Aguilar is of Cuban-Mexican descent and he likes the fact that President Obama made travel to Cuba easier. "Even my Cuban grandmother, who's quite conservative, likes what he's done."

But Mr. Aguilar has a strongly entrepreneurial bent as well: He would like to see the family's taqueria, which has an ambitious menu of menudo and ceviche as well as burritos, expand into a chain. His business side hears the Republicans' call. He is that last, rare, hunted-after creature: The undecided voter. Either candidate might win his vote, should they stop by to try the burritos that bear their names. But so far, they haven't come.

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Traditionally, the fast food of choice for election soothsayers has been that American classic, the hamburger. Mr. Dooley's pub in Boston has the "Beefocracy 2012" poll, with the Obama burger (bacon and fried egg) up against the Romney (caramelized onion, mushrooms, chipotle sauce).

At Washington's BLT Steak, a two-week race pitted the Obama-Biden ticket (pineapple and speck on the presidential patty, the other a sloppy joe) against Romney-Ryan (pastrami and "fry sauce" on the Romney, and cheddar and bacon for his running mate.) Perhaps not surprisingly, given the introduction of pineapple to the equation, the Romney-Ryan burgers won handily.

The Smashburger chain recently asked customers which candidate they would rather eat a burger with – with President Obama winning that popularity contest, 59 per cent to 41. But then with the President there's a chance you might also get a beer.

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