Hey, I got one!” yells Kathy Cervantes, walking down the path from a brown stucco house ringing with half a dozen wind-chimes and a yapping dog. “I got one!” At 16, this Denver high school student is too young to vote, but old enough to convince others to do so.
Cervantes is working part-time for Mi Familia Vota, a non-profit group trying to mobilise Latinos to vote in the US election on November 6, and she had just registered Elaine Sevilla. “I have voted in the past but usually I don’t,” says Sevilla, 54 and jobless, who thought she had probably dropped off the voter registration rolls. “I hope that we can keep President Obama in office.”
With the election fast approaching and Latinos traditionally not well represented at the polling booth, Cervantes and her friend Angelo Duran, dressed in T-shirts printed with big voting ticks and bearing clipboards listing their targets, have been knocking on doors in this heavily Hispanic area of southwest Denver. In this downtrodden corner of the state capital, trailer parks are so permanent that they have satellite dishes and air-conditioning units, and front yards are littered with the plastic detritus of long-grown-up children.
Cervantes, a sweet, bespectacled teenager who dreams of being a flight attendant one day, has a goal of registering one new voter every hour she is out on the streets. “If he’s not registered, I tell him every vote counts. Maybe your sister can’t vote? So you should do it for her,” she says, recounting her pitch for me as we stand on a corner between hits. On this particular day, she and Duran signed up a whopping 22.
President Barack Obama and his Republican rival for the White House, Mitt Romney, are tied in the polls, having each taken a battering in recent weeks. Romney suffered after a string of slip-ups during September but made a comeback after his strong performance, and the president’s surprisingly lacklustre one, at the first presidential debate in Colorado earlier this month. The president gave an energetic performance, however, at this week’s second debate in New York and has been reprising the best lines on the campaign trail this week. With just over two weeks until election day, the race is neck-and-neck.
So Cervantes is right when she says that every vote will count – and perhaps none more so than the Hispanic vote. Latinos comprise the US’s fastest-growing electorate – expected to be 26 per cent bigger this year than in 2008 – and they are concentrated in swing states that will help decide the election: Colorado, Florida, Nevada, North Carolina and Virginia.
Obama won all five of these states in 2008, securing 67 per cent of the Hispanic vote nationwide, partly on a promise to usher in comprehensive immigration reform and ease the plight of some of the 12 million-odd undocumented people in the US.
The numbers point to an ever greater advantage this year. A Pew Hispanic Center poll last week found that registered Latino voters favour Obama over Romney by a three-to-one margin, with 69 per cent saying they supported Obama and only 21 per cent backing Romney. This is well short of the Romney campaign’s own stated 38 per cent target, and also much worse than Obama’s 67-31 margin over John McCain in 2008.
Obama seems to be benefiting from the comparison with his rival, whose hardline position on illegal immigration has alienated many a Latino voter, more than from his own record. According to a September CNN poll, while the economy is the number one issue for Hispanics, as it is for the rest of the population, immigration comes a close second along with education. Even if they are citizens, a large chunk of the Hispanic population remains close to the immigrant experience, through their families and through their communities.
The president has a checkered history when it comes to immigration. He pointedly avoided the sensitive issue for most of his first term, disappointing many Hispanic supporters, and has deported record numbers of undocumented people. However, he pleased many Latinos with his decision in June to grant a temporary reprieve to illegal immigrants brought to the US as children.
But his record looks positively progressive compared with the statements Romney made during the Republican primaries earlier this year, when he talked about making life so difficult for illegal immigrants that they would choose to “self-deport”. Since he officially became the Republican nominee for president in August, however, Romney has tried to temper his language and win back some disaffected Latinos.
Still, there is no doubt about who cleaner Glenda Garcia will be voting for this November. “Obama is a better choice for Latino people. A lot of people say he is not good, but it’s difficult for one person to change a lot of things in four years,” she says as we sit in the shiny new Belmar public library – a “white people’s library” – near a new shopping centre development in southwest Denver. “Obama’s mistake was to say that we would change everything,” she says. She has no time for Romney at all for one simple reason: “Romney says he does not want illegal people here.”
Forty-year-old Garcia escaped political turmoil in Guatemala and sneaked into the US a decade ago. She became a citizen last year – crying during the ceremony, she was so overcome – and now works at the Arapahoe courthouse in the Colorado capital. She is a no-nonsense kind of person: her black hair is chin length, her clothes plain, her language straightforward. But get her started on politics and she is as animated as a commentator at a racetrack, spilling facts and figures and exhortations as fast as she can talk. “In person of course!” she practically explodes when I ask her if she would vote in person or by post.
The question is not whether Obama will win the Hispanic vote, but rather how many of those voters will vote. Only about half of eligible Hispanics cast ballots in 2008, much lower than the two-thirds of the white and the black populations who voted, and surveys suggest that enthusiasm levels are lower this year.
For Obama, the election could turn on this. If the president’s allies can convince Latinos to go to the ballot box this November, they might compensate for the other parts of the electorate – especially white working-class men – that have gone off him.
“If Obama gets 80 per cent of the minority vote and the minority vote is bigger by two points, he can perform more poorly among other parts of the population and still win,” says Ruy Teixeira, a Washington, D.C.-based political scientist specialising in Hispanic issues at the Center for American Progress. “The only thing that would take the bloom off that rose is if they don’t show up.”
Immigration never used to be such a clear-cut political issue. George W. Bush, the last Republican president and self-styled “compassionate conservative”, had a notably open approach to immigration reform, as encapsulated in his catchphrase about Mexicans who made it over the inhospitable border terrain: “Hell, if they’ll walk across Big Bend, we want ’em.”
His efforts to overhaul the immigration system were stymied by Congress, but even that era seems like the good old days. Today, the coincidence of a crippling economic recession that has left millions of Americans out of work and the rise of the conservative Tea Party movement has conspired to make immigration reform a toxic issue for Republicans, who are pushing for an aggressive crackdown on illegal immigrants.
It is quite a transformation for a party that has long championed itself as the standard bearer for growth and cheap labour. In Arizona, a draconian law allows police to request papers of people they stop for other infringements, a statute sometimes called the “driving while Hispanic” law. If these policies remain, they could spell electoral suicide for the Republican party. The US’s Hispanic population, two-thirds of whom are of Mexican origin, grew by 43 per cent in the decade to 2010, surpassing 50 million, according to the latest census. The Pew Research Center forecasts it will triple by 2050.
“Republicans are whistling past the graveyard,” says Teixeira. “It doesn’t take a genius to look at the way the mix of voters is changing and think something needs to be done. Just look at Texas.”
Minorities now comprise 55 per cent of the population in the Lone Star state, but on current trends this will hit 62 per cent by 2020 and 79 per cent by the middle of the century, thanks to the fact that Catholic Latinos have more children. That means solidly Republican Texas – with 38 electoral college votes – could be a deep shade of Democratic blue before too long. The demographic change will be even more pronounced in the Hispanic-heavy swing states where Obama and Romney are battling for the advantage now. “Nobody is planning for the future,” Teixeira says of the current Republican party.
At a headline level, that might be true. But little noticed are the ranks of Hispanics who are moving up in the Republican party. Marco Rubio, the Cuban-American senator for Florida and rising conservative star who was on Romney’s shortlist of running mates, has been out on the hustings for Romney, both in his home state and in other Latino-heavy battlegrounds such as Nevada. Then there are Susana Martinez and Brian Sandoval, the governors of New Mexico and Nevada respectively.
What is more, Hispanics often share Republican values on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. That should give Republicans an opening – if they want it.
Mario Alonzo, for one, is open to persuasion. After running across the border from Mexico in 1997, 40-year-old Alonzo works three jobs, six or seven days a week, to support five children by three wives. As of last year, he is now an American citizen.
“Mucho, mucho excited,” he says when I ask him how he felt about voting in his first election this November. We met at a Village Inn, part of a downmarket diner chain, close to midnight on a recent Sunday, after he had finished the dinner shift cooking at an Italian restaurant.
Tired after a long day that began with church at 7am, Alonzo says in Spanish peppered with English that he is weighing his options for November 6. He has not sided with either party, ticking the “unaffiliated” box when he registered to vote shortly after becoming a citizen. His political priorities? Immigration reform and for “all people to live better”.
To win his vote, Obama and Romney need to convince Alonzo that they will look after the economy and help poor people. “I want everybody to have a job and to have opportunities like rich people,” he says. This might suggest Alonzo is leaning towards Obama, who has more redistributionist tendencies, and indeed he says the president is trying to help. But he thinks Romney also holds appeal.
“I admire him because he is rich and because he has the power to do whatever he wants. Maybe he can help us,” he muses. Nor is Romney’s Mormon faith an issue for this devout Catholic. “He has good family values, and his son was a missionary in Chile,” Alonzo says, referring to Craig Romney, who has been appearing in Spanish-language ads on his father’s behalf.
New citizens such as Garcia and Alonzo are an easy get for those trying to mobilise voters. The excitement of going to the ballot box in the Land of the Free is all the motivation they need. Much more difficult are the 18- to 24-year-olds – the fastest-growing part of the Latino electorate, which is in itself the fastest-growing part of the US electorate. Young Latinos who have grown up in America have traditionally been less interested in heading to the polling booth than other age groups.
“The big question is: how much motivation will there be for Latinos to get out and vote?” asks Mark Lopez, associate director of the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington, D.C. “Because of demographic changes, we will probably see record numbers of Latinos voting,” he says, but adds that there could still be a drop in the turnout rate.
In Colorado, the voting rate could be even lower because the Republican secretary of state, Scott Gessler, has declared that people who did not vote in the last election will automatically drop off the registration rolls this year, unless they expressly re-register. That could cause mayhem next month: the last congressional elections were in 2010, a presidential off-year that is always characterised by a sharp decline in voting, causing the electorate across the country to be much whiter and much older.
Both the Obama and the Romney campaigns are trying to mobilise their supporters: Obama’s team to ensure maximum turnout, and Romney’s to try to minimise their losing margin. Thousands of volunteers for both candidates are knocking on doors in Hispanic neighbourhoods like those in southwest Denver, while Spanish-language ads are filling the airwaves in swing states.
“The policy of Obama and the Democrats has caused that half of our young people are struggling to find work when they graduate,” the narrator says in one of Romney’s most recent Spanish-language ads, entitled “Legado”, or Legacy, according to a translation provided by the campaign.
Obama clearly has the organisational edge. One recent Sunday, at his campaign headquarters in west Denver – festooned with “Latinos for Obama” posters and pictures labelled “Esperanza”, reprising his 2008 “Hope” campaign slogan – volunteers were preparing to make home visits to prospective Hispanic voters.
“Supporting Obama is one thing, but taking it to the next level and participating is another,” says Diana Khribeche, a Denver mother of two teenagers who has Mexican lineage and who is volunteering with the Obama campaign for the first time this year.
Republicans have a tougher challenge. When Paul Ryan, Romney’s running mate, held a rally in Denver recently, it was difficult to spot a single Hispanic face in the crowd. Republican operatives eventually rustled up two, out of the hundreds of people at the rally.
Separately, voter mobilisation groups are redoubling their efforts to counter both the challenges of changed registration rules and the number of voters who have moved as a result of the foreclosures triggered by the lingering financial crisis.
“Our priority is to make sure that the electorate is reflective of the community that we are living in, and that our democratic process is as strong and energised as possible,” says Grace Ramirez, Colorado state director for Mi Familia Vota.
So as well as going door-to-door in Hispanic areas, volunteers like Cervantes and Duran have been holding voter registration drives at community epicentres, such as the bustling Mi Pueblo Market, which is packed with locals buying everything from fresh cactus leaves to take-out quesadillas. How about a voter registration form with those kidney beans?
Paul Lopez, 33, a dynamic Democratic councilman for Denver’s third district, won’t hear a word of pessimism. Forget the naysayers, he says; young Latinos have more motivation than ever to vote. “Kids that grow up with the privilege of being a citizen now have friends who will not join them in college. They see their friends suffering, and if that doesn’t put a fire in their hearts, I don’t know what will,” he says, sitting in his constituency office decorated with pictures of himself with Obama, and signs such as “Justice for Janitors”. “They realise how important their vote is. They are becoming the swing population,” he explains. His district is 70 per cent Latino, made up mainly of Mexican Americans like himself.
A short man with a neat goatee and boundless energy, Lopez says that young Latinos are motivated by the increasingly divergent treatment espoused by the two presidential candidates. “If you want to turn a group out to vote, give us something to vote for,” he says, pointing to immigration reform as that cause. “We’re not here to be cheap labour. We want to live and we want to thrive.”
Lopez suggests we take a spin around the neighbourhood. Clearing the piles of paper and toys off the seats, we pile into his blue SUV and take a drive. It is chilli harvest season and we pass roadside stall after roadside stall selling the roasted peppers, which fill the air with a tingling heat.
“The Mexican-American community here in Colorado will determine the election, whether they come to the polls or not,” he says as we drive through the streets, slowing down for Lopez to shout greetings in Spanish at workers outside a mechanic’s shop and mothers stopped at intersections.
Don’t just take his word for it. As Obama himself told the audience of Denver’s oldest Spanish-language radio station a few months ago: “The Latino community in Colorado can ultimately determine who ends up being the next president of the United States.” Obama is hoping that this community does prove to be the decider, because if it does, it will decide for him.
Anna Fifield is the FT’s US political correspondent