Hispanic vote grows stronger in tight presidential race

Pundits have it that previous elections have turned on angry white men, soccer moms and security moms. This time around, conventional political wisdom has it, the election lies in the hands of Hispanic voters, in particular those voters in Colorado and the other battleground states.

Although Hispanics account for 20 percent of the state’s population, an analysis by the Center for Immigration Studies suggests they account for about 8 percent of voters.

The Hispanic vote in the battleground states, in fact, tends to run slightly lower than in the rest of the country, which is about 9 percent, according to the center.

Another organization, Latino Decisions, however says Latinos account for about 12 percent of registered voters. That’s up from 9.2 percent four years ago.

In a narrow election, that segment stands to be decisive and a win in battleground Colorado could pave the way to the presidency for Barack Obama or Mitt Romney.

Mitt Romney’s “magic number,” according to Latino Decisions, is 38 percent of the Latino vote. As September began, Romney was well short of that goal, garnering 22 percent of Latino support, or little more than a third of those who told Latino Decisions they supported President Barack Obama in a June 2012 poll, according to Latino Decisions.

That’s leaving some Republicans flustered because they view Hispanics as a natural constituency. Democrats, meanwhile, say Hispanics gravitate to their message because, in the words of longtime Grand Junction Democrat activist Jose Lucero, “We’re more middle class than anything else,” and appeals from the GOP to Hispanics are a “hard sell.”

Sell it, though, Colorado Republicans are trying to do, and none more than Glen Gallegos, a Grand Junction Republican who is running for the University of Colorado Board of Regents.

But for one thing, Hispanic culture and Republican policies virtually interlock, Gallegos said, citing preferences for smaller government, reduced spending, personal responsibility and cutting debt.

Despite those things, “I’m the exception” as a Republican, Gallegos said, noting that in his tours around the 3rd Congressional District, people frequently are surprised to learn of his political affiliation.

Yet many of his unaffiliated and Democratic friends “feel the same way I do” about the size of government, the debt, personal responsibility and regulatory overreach, Gallegos said.

“I don’t want a government that tells me you can’t have a 16-ounce soda in New York City,” he said.

Much as he agrees with those Republican precepts, Gallegos said the GOP could have extended a hand to Hispanics in its convention last month, but the platform did little to encourage him that the party was making a serious outreach to Hispanic voters.

Frequently, the fault line separating Hispanics and Republicans is immigration, more specifically illegal immigration, and it’s one that Erik Groves, a Grand Junction Republican activist, said puts Republicans in a bind.

“The challenge for the Republican Party is how to maintain its positions on illegal immigration and the rule of law while not letting concerns about those issues turn into anti-Hispanic rhetoric,” Groves said.

Republicans can ill afford those kinds of associations because Hispanics are the fastest-growing demographic in the nation, one that could be key to victory for years to come, Groves said.

Hispanics tend to view illegal immigration much as everyone else, said Grand Junction lawyer Jerry Otero, a former Democrat and now unaffiliated voter.

“Hispanics aren’t saying, ‘Let’s just flout the law,’ ” Otero said. Republicans, however, haven’t done much lately, he said, noting that President Reagan oversaw an amnesty and George W. Bush sought to pass a comprehensive law addressing immigration.

“Democrats seem to look at it more from a compassionate viewpoint and Republicans tend to look at it from a business point of view,” Otero said.

Either way, Republicans struggle to get Hispanic votes.

Deportation policy

Exit polling data showed that George W. Bush garnered 35 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2000, then 40 percent in 2004. Sen. John McCain attracted only 31 percent of Hispanic voters in 2008.

Democrats have an easier time of it because of their support for the middle class, demonstrated by backing a “strong educational system, health care access to as many people as possible and doing all we can to make sure people are paying their fair share and doing their fair share,” said Rick Palacio, chairman of the Colorado Democratic Party,

“Those are largely the same things that attract any other constituency,” Palacio said.

Obama’s offer to defer deportation to the children of illegal immigrants went over well in Colorado, according to the Latino Decisions poll, taken shortly after Obama used executive authority on June 15 to establish the program.

A little more than half of the poll respondents, 51 percent, said the program made them more enthusiastic for Obama’s candidacy. Fifty-five percent said their knowledge of Romney’s opposition to the DREAM Act, which would allow children of illegal immigrants to attend American colleges, and support for self-deportation raised doubts about him.

Democrats “create all kinds of segregated groups” rather than simply address Americans, said Pauline Olvera, secretary of the Colorado Hispanic Republicans.

“In general, we don’t want to be treated like we’re special,” Olvera said. “We wanted to be treated as any other American.”

It’s frequently difficult to get that message out, Olvera said, “but when we get it out, it resonates.”

Republicans hope to capitalize on one Democratic convention stumble in which the word “God” was omitted, then put back in during a raucous session presided over by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

“That was a huge red flag,” Olvera said. “It’s something the Hispanic community should be thinking about right now.”

Getting Hispanic voters to take note of that issue, however, is difficult, she said.

Palacio agreed, noting “I have heard no noise whatsoever about that.”

For the most part, Hispanic Republicans carry their message knocking on doors and in small gatherings, Olvera said.

“We’re trying,” she said. “It’s an uphill battle, for sure.”

In an effort to reach out to Hispanic voters, the Romney campaign started “Juntos con Romney,” or “Together With Romney,” which is made up of Hispanic Coloradans.

Some kind of outreach component is included in 59 of the 64 Obama field offices in Colorado, Palacio said.

One woman who works in that effort is Yesenia Arreola, a 24-year-old Obama campaign volunteer in Carbondale.

Arreola noted the same reaction picked up on by the Latino Decisions poll, to the announcement of deferred deportations.

“At first it was seen as very much a surprise,” Arreola said. Surprise gave way to a positive reaction and then “a lot of questions,” she said as potential applicants realized they would have to surrender a great deal of personal information.

To date, about 72,000 people nationwide have applied to the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement for deferred deportation.

The reaction to that and other immigration-related issues underscores the notion that immigration remains a top concern of Hispanic voters.

Spanish-language ads

The Latino Decisions poll found that 60 percent of Colorado Hispanics had friends, relatives or co-workers who were not legally in the country and that 35 percent know someone who has been detained or deported.

The economy, jobs and education also are major issues for Hispanic voters, Arreola said, noting that all of them are equally important.

Hispanic voters “are very receptive once they become aware” of Democratic policies and initiatives, especially in face-to-face conversations, Arreola said.

Not all campaigning is conducted in that manner and Hispanic voters aren’t spared the nonstop blare of political advertising.

Republicans chafe at what Olvera said amounts to a bias in which Spanish-language television routinely conflates immigration and illegal immigration, but both presidential campaigns regularly advertise on Spanish-language television.

Followers of English-language television are familiar with Americans for Prosperity, which is funded largely by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, who are regularly attacked by Democrats. The Libre Initiative is taking a similar tack with Spanish-language television this week in Colorado and other states with Hispanic populations, showing Latina entrepreneur Cecilia Aldana describing her efforts to build a medical business in Las Vegas, Nev., with more than 100 employees and describing the threat posed by high national debt and unemployment.

“Hispanic voters are being courted hot and heavy” this cycle, said Daniel Garza, executive director of The Libre Initiative. “That’s a good thing, by the way.”

In part, Garza said, he is trying to change the subject for Hispanic voters from immigration to the economy.

“Our polling shows that (the economy) is the No. 1 issue for Hispanic Americans,” he said. Immigration “is very important, but for the rest of the 45 million Hispanics who live in America, economic opportunity is more important.”

It’s on the issue of economic freedom that Gallegos said he makes his political choice.

“We need more freedom in this country when it comes to entrepreneurship and business,” he said. “I’m in the Republican Party on that point, there’s no question about that.”

There’s more to the debate than business, noting that social-justice issues such as health insurance, education and helping the less fortunate contrast sharply with Republican positions on the same issues, Palacio said.

How Hispanic voters deal with those issues could have dramatic effect, Palacio said.

“It’s a constituency that has the ability to change the outcome of this election and without a doubt change elections for years to come,” he said.


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