Latinos make up a small slice of the Iowa electorate, but they could play a big role in the 2012 election.
With the Republican Party of Iowa making big gains in voter registration, Democrats and President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign are looking for a boost from the small but growing Iowa Latino population.
“This election will be decisive for the Latino community — and the outcome will hinge on whether Latinos get involved,” said Obama for America Iowa Director Brad Anderson.
Peruvian-born Alejandro Pino of Cedar Rapids welcomes that attention. However, he recalls hearing similar sentiments four years ago.
“We get a lot of attention during the campaign,” said Pino, whose family moved to Cedar Rapids when he was 10. “We need to continue that dialogue or we’ll be having the same conversation in four years.”
Pino, 35, a member of the Iowa Commission on Latino Affairs, and other Latinos leaders see an increase in participation by Latinos.
Younger Latinos are more educated about the political process than their parents’ said Paula Martinez of Carlisle, a former Latino affairs commissioner and a second-term chairwoman of the Iowa Democratic Party’s Latino caucus.
“They see that this is where you get places,” she said, referring to the political process.
Latino numbers in Iowa have grown substantially over the past decade. The 2000 census found 69,000 Latinos living in Iowa. That number jumped 84 percent in 2010 to 151,500, or 5 percent of the state’s 3,062,309 residents.
According to one projection, Latino numbers in Iowa will grow to more than 415,000 or nearly 12 percent of the state’s population by 2040.
Nearly half of the Latinos live in six counties: Polk, Woodbury, Scott, Muscatine, Marshall and Johnson. More than half of the growth between 2000 and 2010 was in seven counties: Polk, Woodbury, Marshall, Johnson, Pottawattamie, Linn and Scott.
Latinos make up about 2 percent of the registered voters in Iowa and trend Democratic. Obama received about 67 percent of the Latino vote nationwide in 2008.
However, Pino and Martinez believe both parties have opportunities to reach Latinos because, like their non-Latino neighbors, they are focused on bread-and-butter issues and those things that affect their upward mobility and quality of life. Jobs and the economy, family safety, health care and wealth inequality are what move Latino voters, Pino said.
“It’s the things we’ve been needing for a long time – just like the majority population,” said Martinez, chairwoman of the Iowa Democratic Party’s Latino caucus.
In a Pew Hispanic Center poll before the 2010 mid-term election 60 percent of Latinos ranked education as “extremely important” and more than half ranked health care and jobs as “extremely important.”
Pino, who works for Premier Staffing after nearly 10 years as intercultural affairs coordinator for his alma mater, Loras College, predicts it’s just a matter of time before young Latinos and politicians realize the power of their votes.
This year, he said, Latinos in battleground states like Iowa could play a super-sized role in the election because the Obama campaign is hoping to boost Latino turnout in an effort to offset GOP gains in voter registration since 2008.
Obama carried Iowa by 9 percentage points four years ago, but the GOP defeated an incumbent Democratic governor and flipped control of the Iowa House in 2010.
Obama helped his cause with his administrative order to grant two-year deportation deferrals and work permits to illegal immigrants brought here as children will help attract Latino voters, explained Martinez, who works for the state Judicial Branch in Polk County.
“It’s a definite plus for Obama and his administration” even though the 2010 poll of Latinos found just 31 percent said immigration was “very important,” said Martinez, who works for the state Judicial Branch in Polk County.
The issue is very important, especially among young Latinos, Pino said, but he’s hoping for a larger conversation. Latinos, he said, “feel disappointed and disenfranchised with how polarized the political arena has become” and how little reform has occurred.
“These folks come for a better life, to be reunited with their families and to work hard,” he said.
Martinez, who got her start in politics helping her father, a Polk County deputy sheriff, campaign for his boss, credits the president’s re-election campaign for pulling together a statewide group of Latinos to help in the re-election effort.
Mary Campos of Des Moines, a member of the Latinos for Obama Líderes Council and a longtime activist, said Obama has it easy to make the case Latinos should vote for him.
“Obama took 2 million Latinos out of poverty, ensured that 150,000 Latino students can continue their education, and temporarily lifted the shadow of deportation from immigrants who were brought to this country as minors, are excelling in school, and know no other home,” she said.
The Romney campaign isn’t writing off the Latino vote.
“Hispanics have suffered disproportionately under President Obama and the Romney-Ryan ticket has a plan for a stronger middle class and a more prosperous U.S. economy,” said Tom Szold of the Republican National Committee in Iowa.
While the president focused on distraction and division during his three-day campaign swing through Iowa last week, “Iowans, including Hispanics, are not better off after four years of Barack Obama’ Szold said.
The GOP believes Iowans are less excited about Obama than they were four years ago and it hopes to exploit that enthusiasm gap.
“We have an aggressive grassroots plan that seeks to engage, activate, and energize the Latino community to support the only ticket with a plan for real job creation in Iowa,” he said.
There may be more riding on this election than a second-term for Obama.
If he does well among Latinos this year he may help the Democratic Party capture that community for generations to come. National election data shows that more than 60 percent of the Latino vote went to Obama in 2008, but Rene Rocha, a University of Iowa political science professor, said Latinos are not solidly aligned with either political party.
Typically, he explained, first- and second-generation Latinos do not form an attachment to either party. If Democrats are successful appealing to Latinos with their economic and immigration policies, by the third generation, political affiliations may be set.
Based on that, and the fact that more than 60 percent of Iowa Latinos are below the voting age, Rocha predicts Democrats will capture many of those voters.
However, not all Latinos are loving Obama. Polling by Resurgent Republic found a majority of Latino voters thought the president had not made good on the promises he made, including immigration reform, during the 2008 campaign.