Obama’s team eyes Arizona’s Latino voters
President Obama, seen here speaking in Arizona, is looking to turn the state into a battleground with the help of Latino voters, a group that has traditionally punched below its weight at the voting booth in the Grand Canyon State. (Flickr: Intel Photos)
PHOENIX – President Obama’s reelection team wants to turn Arizona from red to blue in 2012 with the help of Latino voters, but it will have to reverse a decades-old problem to accomplish that goal.
Obama’s campaign advisers have openly said they see Arizona as a state they can flip from red to blue with the help of Latinos, the fastest-growing population group in the state. Long a politically dormant group, Latinos became energized in 2010 following a divisive 2010 debate over the state’s immigration crackdown law, signed by GOP Gov. Jan Brewer.
“It’s no longer an opinion, I believe it’s a fact,” Phoenix City Councilman Daniel Valenzuela said in an interview. “I believe Latino voters are helping to shape the city by the way of politics.”
Obama’s campaign has opened four offices in the state and plans to open a fifth one by the end of the month in Glendale, a Hispanic-heavy suburb in West Phoenix, according to a campaign official. That’s up from three late last month. Staff and volunteers conducted a total of 570 voter registration events, a number of which have been held at Latino-owned businesses, since last April, including 70 in about the last month.
Should Obama pull off a win in Arizona, it would be a big coup for his reelection prospects; it’s a state Democrats have only won once in a presidential contest since 1952 (Bill Clinton’s 1996 reelection).
But the campaign is trying to break down the chief obstacle that for years has prevented Latinos from becoming a full-blown political force in the state: low registration.
“If Hispanics ever mobilized they can control Arizona,” said Bruce Merrill, a longtime Arizona pollster and emeritus professor at Arizona State University. “But I just don’t see any big movement of Hispanics moving into the electorate at this time.”
Merrill predicted that if the election was today, Obama would still lose Arizona.
The Latino population boomed by 46 percent in the last decade and in 2010, the state had the fourth-largest Latino eligible voter population nationally, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. But in 2008, there was a whopping 22 percent voter registration gap between Latinos and non-Latinos.
That hurt Democrats statewide in the 2010 election; Brewer’s opponent Terry Goddard won 71 percent of the Latino vote, but still lost the election, in a campaign that was largely a referendum on the immigration law.
And even though Latino registrations spiked by 200,000 between 2009 and 2010, Democrats saw an overall 6.2 percent dip in voter registrations between 2008 and 2012, only to be surpassed by independents as the second-largest voter group in the state.
That’s not to mention that selling Latinos on registering in 2012 won’t be an easy task for Obama’s team. Polls show that while Latinos strongly prefer Obama to any of the Republican candidates, they are also less enthusiastic about the president than they were in 2008.
But political factors — both in Arizona and nationally — and the demographic trends have given the Obama campaign hope. Two local elections last November showed the potential of the Hispanic vote in Arizona, Merrill said.
Former state Senate President Russell Pearce (R), the main sponsor of Arizona’s immigration law, was replaced by a moderate Republican in a recall election, which was successful in large part because of a spike in Latino turnout.
Another promising race for Democrats was the Phoenix City Council election that resulted in a win for Valenzuela, a 36-year-old political novice.
Valenzuela said that, while the economy remains the top concern for Latinos, the immigration rhetoric coming from Republicans in the state is what is driving more Latinos to get politically involved with Democrats.
“[That] really leaves the door open for President Obama” to win Arizona and its Latino voters, he said.
Valenzuela knows from experience; his campaign was able to turn out nearly 500 percent more voters compared to a city council election four years ago in the same neighborhood, becoming first Latino to represent a city council district that has been heavily populated by Latinos.
Obama’s campaign was so impressed by Valenzuela’s election result that they met with him to find out how he got so many Hispanics to be politically involved.
“If you say ‘I need you to walk for me’ you might get three or five people. But if you say ‘I want you to walk with me—keyword is with, not for—you might get 10 people,” this is the advice he gave Obama’s campaign, he said.
Arizona Democrats also have a candidate they are hoping can compete for the state’s open Senate seat and court Latinos, former U.S. surgeon general Richard Carmona, a former independent who served in the Bush administration.
Though Carmona, who is of Puerto Rican descent, trails in the polls to the likely Republican nominee Jeff Flake, he’s raised enough money to have a shot at winning.
“They want somebody who is going to recognize the importance of all Latinos and how they contribute to our economy,” he told Univision News. “They want someone who is going to treat them with respect, and come up with a plan to solve this very divisive problem of immigration.”
The Republican’s lengthy and contentious primary has also pushed the party’s front runner, Mitt Romney, to the right on immigration.
During an Arizona Republican primary debate last month, Romney upheld Arizona’s mandatory E-Verify, a program that checks potential employees’ eligibility to work in the U.S., a “model” for the country and he’s endorsed by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who helped author Arizona’s SB 1070 immigration crackdown law.
DeeDee Blase Garcia, founder of the Hispanic group Somos Republicans, an Arizona-based group Latino GOP group, stepped down as the organization’s president because she got tired of the party’s tough immigration views. In an interview she said she might vote for Obama in 2012.
Merrill, the ASU pollster, said that it is no surprise that Hispanic Republicans are considering to vote for Obama in 2012, because the Republican presidential candidates have adopted immigration positions that don’t jibe with most Latino voters.
For example, 90 percent of likely Latino voters in a Fox News Latino poll said they are in favor of the DREAM Act, which all the GOP candidates oppose. In the same poll, Romney trailed Obama among Latinos nationally by 56 points and nearly half of Latino respondents who voted for McCain in 2008 said they would most likely vote for Obama in 2012.
Merrill said all this could be hard for Romney to reverse in the general election if he were to become the GOP presidential nominee, adding that the Obama campaign will use his record against him to court Hispanic voters in Arizona.
But in states like Arizona, the registration gap could continue to prevent Latinos from being the constituency that decides the election.
“That gap will continue to grow unless the parties and the institutions take it seriously to bring in these new constituents,” University of Washington Prof. Matt Barreto, an expert on the Latino vote, said at a round table last month. “It’s very difficult work to get people involved in the political process.”