. Hispanic voters are poised this year to be the swing votes for president in many of the nation’s swing states. They’re expected to vote in big numbers again for President Barack Obama, and their numbers are growing. In Colorado, Nevada, Florida, North Carolina and Virginia, they very well could determine whether Obama wins another term or is succeeded by Republican Mitt Romney.
If they turn out.
“The president has consistently had broad voter support. The question was enthusiasm,” said Matt Barreto, a co-founder of Latino Decisions, which studies Hispanic voting behavior.
That may be why Obama has vaulted immigration to the forefront of the 2012 campaign, at least for the moment. His announcement last Friday that the government will stop deporting thousands of young undocumented workers was a jolt of fresh energy for Hispanic voters. The president hopes to continue the momentum this Friday when he addresses the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials in Orlando.
Romney, who’ll speak Thursday at the group’s convention, has a tougher task. Earlier this year, he urged illegal immigrants to engage in “self-deportation” and said he would have opposed Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the nation’s first Latino justice, nominated by Obama.
Barreto’s swing state poll last week showed enthusiasm for Obama growing among Latino voters. The president won the Hispanic vote in 2008 by 67 to 31 percent, exit polls found, and he’s in position to put up similar margins this time. Whether he can sustain enough passion to get more people to show up at the polls is the open question, however.
“People are concerned about the economy, and Romney talks a lot about job creation,” said Angeline Echeverria, the executive director of El Pueblo, a nonpartisan community organization in Raleigh, N.C. “He talks about things that might resonate.”
Latino turnout has been lower than that of whites or blacks in recent presidential elections, partly because of the same factors that dampen turnout in the general population: The Hispanic population tends to be younger and less wealthy.
Obama’s camp is confident. Adrian Saenz, a veteran Texas political strategist, has been working as the campaign’s national Latino vote director since November. Spanish-language ads have been running in Colorado, Nevada and Florida since April. The ads emphasize jobs, health care and education, which polls find are major concerns in the community.
“Mitt Romney is on the wrong side of every issue important to Hispanics,” said Gabriela Domenzain, the Obama’s campaign’s director of Hispanic press.
The Romney camp fired back that its candidate’s economic message will resonate.
“Behind the depressing economic data are real people who are suffering because of the Obama economy. That’s why you see a lack of enthusiasm” for the president, said Alberto Martinez, a Tallahassee-based Romney adviser.
Republicans have Hispanic outreach directors in at least six swing states and a national Hispanic outreach director, Bettina Inclan, who’s a campaign and Capitol Hill veteran. Two Spanish-language ads have been running in swing states.
“The challenges Mitt Romney faces have been exaggerated by the Obama campaign,” Martinez said, “and the president’s support has been exaggerated.”
Not all Republicans are so buoyant. “We need to do better among Hispanic voters,” said Haley Barbour, a former Mississippi governor and national party chairman. “We also need, in my opinion, to develop a better policy on immigration.”
Immigration has been the key flash point in the battle for Latino voters. Many Hispanics were encouraged in 2008 by Obama’s pledge on illegal immigration: “It’s absolutely vital that we bring those families out of the shadows and that we give them the opportunity to travel a pathway to citizenship.”
Obama’s words “were heard and written by the Latino community with a Sharpie, not a pencil,” said Angela Kelley, the vice president for immigration policy at the Center for American Progress, a liberal research group. However, the White House has done little to seriously engage Congress in crafting path-to-citizenship legislation.
The president helped change the skeptical mood with his announcement last week. Romney was more vague, saying a longer-term solution was needed. He didn’t address the substance of Obama’s action.
Whether the warm feelings toward the president last could determine the election’s outcome, and intensity varies from state to state.
In major battleground states, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, the percentage of eligible Hispanic voters has been growing.
– Florida, 15.9 percent in 2010, up from 14.5 percent in 2008.
– Nevada, 15.1 percent in 2010, up from 13.5 percent in 2008.
– Colorado, 13.7 percent in 2010, up from 12.6 percent in 2008.
– Virginia, 3.7 percent in 2010, up from 3.3 percent in 2008.
– North Carolina, 2.9 percent in 2010, up from 2.1 percent in 2008.
Each state has a different story.
In Colorado, “if Romney gets 30 percent he’ll be pleased,” Denver-based strategist Floyd Ciruli said. Romney has one possible advantage: During the February caucus, he was painted as the centrist in the race, losing to conservative Rick Santorum.
In Nevada, Democrats have a big edge: The Latino vote was a huge boost for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., two years ago in his tight re-election race. But Eric Herzik, a professor of political science at University of Nevada, Reno, warned that turnout is difficult to predict; the huge influx of new residents in recent years has left the state without strong political traditions and organizations.
In Florida, the diverse Hispanic community is trending Democratic. More Hispanics were registered as Republicans in 2006, but more were registered as Democrats two years later, according to Pew. The Democratic edge in registration among Florida Hispanics persists.
The numbers are smaller in Virginia and North Carolina, but big enough to make a difference in a close contest. Obama is up by 3 percentage points in Virginia, according to the poll consensus, while Romney is up 3.3 percentage points in North Carolina.
The national strategists see these and other states with something in common: Latino voters need to be motivated.
“Obama is doing wonderfully,” Barreto said, “but we just don’t know what turnout is going to be.”
Steven Thomma contributed to this article.