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Why Latino Voters Will Swing the 2012 Election

14 minute read
Michael Scherer/Phoenix

Arizona has a history of offering up extravagant political characters who sweep into the national conversation and proceed to upend it–from “Mr. Conservative” Barry Goldwater to Joe Arpaio, the sheriff who reinstituted chain gangs, to Jan Brewer, the sitting governor, who championed the most incendiary immigration law in the country. But when it comes to understanding what is about to happen in Arizona and a host of other crucial states in the coming campaign, you have to meet a barrel-chested Phoenix firefighter named Daniel Valenzuela and hear how he won a seat on the city council representing this city’s mostly Latino west side. In a season when Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum have courted a Latino backlash with nativist appeals, the source and shape of Valenzuela’s victory explain why Latino voters may choose the next President.

His story is a cautionary tale for a party that claimed 44% of Latino votes as recently as 2004, when George W. Bush led the ticket. Unless Republicans quickly change their tone and direction, they will be lucky to approach the percentage Bush won, much less match it. In the balance hangs the White House.

Valenzuela, 36, began his campaign last spring with a pitch to five Latino students at a local college. “It’s not just to win a city-council seat,” he told them. “The idea is to get people registered to vote.” The students needed no encouragement. They had already seen their friends and families detained by Arpaio’s deputies in routine roundups. They had faced state-college tuition hikes for not having proper immigration papers. Within weeks, the five students recruited nearly 100 others, almost all under the age of 30. They called themselves Team Awesome, and they walked the streets of west Phoenix five or six days a week last summer, when temperatures topped 118F. By Election Day in 2011, the group had made about 72,000 visits door to door, returning four or five times to many homes. Even so, the results stunned the experts: Valenzuela beat his Republican opponent by a ratio of nearly 3 to 2, with nearly 14,000 votes cast. Latino turnout in his district increased 480% from the previous off-year election, giving Phoenix two Latino members of the city council for the first time. Having watched for years as both parties ignored what are known as “low-propensity Latino voters,” Valenzuela, a political independent, had rewritten Arizona’s political textbook overnight.

CNN: “Big let down” for Latinos in Nevada

Aides to Barack Obama, who had been watching the Valenzuela race closely, quickly dispatched Katherine Archuleta, a Latina voting activist from Colorado who now serves as Obama’s political director, to win Valenzuela over. They didn’t want only his support; they also wanted his network and his blueprint for changing the politics of this reliably Republican state and others like it. Their premise: demography is political destiny. For the better part of two decades, social scientists have been predicting that a Latino population boom would one day transform national politics. Latinos now account for more than half of U.S. population growth and one in four American newborns. They make up about 16% of the country today and will account for 30% by 2050. But Obama’s aides care little about the out-year projections. They believe that Latino votes could be decisive in 2012, and they have been quietly building a national strategy to make that happen. Arizona, of all places, is the testing ground.

The battle lines were drawn decades ago. In every presidential contest since 1992, Republicans have won, at minimum, about a quarter of the Latino vote, and Democrats have won at least half. Up for grabs in most years is the remaining 25%. If Obama gets the vast majority of it in November, that could put him over the top in closely fought Colorado, Nevada, Florida and Arizona, potentially delivering an electoral-college victory even if he loses Indiana, Wisconsin and Ohio. Republicans by contrast, seem to have done everything in their power to alienate these voters, concentrating instead on wooing the more anti-immigration wing of their party. Herman Cain excited crowds with jokes about electrifying a fence on the Mexican border and guarding it with alligators. Michele Bachmann signed a “double fence” pledge. Mitt Romney scored points by opposing in-state tuition breaks for undocumented students and advocating “self-deportation” for those 11 million people currently living in the country illegally. In early-voting states like South Carolina, where nativist sentiment runs high in the GOP base, tough talk was the easiest political move. As the campaign continues, the Republican candidates hope to appeal to Latinos on bread-and-butter economic issues. The question is whether it’s already too late.

The White House, meanwhile, having stumbled with Latinos during Obama’s first two years in office, swiveled back to immigration policy late last year. Under pressure from Hispanic leaders, it suddenly slowed its push for deportations and amped up the constituent service, making certain, for instance, that Valenzuela got to meet Obama on his latest visit to Arizona, the sixth in three years. “If we do our grassroots stuff right on the ground in all these Western states, which we will, because it’s something we are good at,” says Obama’s campaign manager Jim Messina, “we could seriously change the outcome.”

How the West Was Lost

The first rule for winning the Latino vote is to realize it’s a voter bloc in name only. There is a common ancestral language that binds nationalities, family histories and geographic allegiances. But that’s about it. A recently naturalized Mexican in Los Angeles is more likely to vote Democratic than a fourth-generation immigrant in New Mexico, who is more likely to be liberal than a 65-year-old Miami Cuban, whose 23-year-old daughter is more likely than her father to have voted for Obama in 2008. Last year, when Democrats ran Spanish-language TV ads pushing the President’s jobs plan, they hired two actors: a South American to read the script for Florida and a Mexican for Nevada and Colorado.

Local differences matter, but so do those things that distinguish Latinos from other ethnic groups. Latinos tend to be younger–their median age is just 27–and more socially conservative on issues like marriage and abortion, and they are less politically active than non-Latino whites and blacks. They have also been hit harder by the recession, with median household net worth dropping 66% from 2005 to 2009, according to the Pew Research Center. When it comes to voting, one issue obscures all the others: respect. “Once any group senses that you really don’t like them and you really don’t want their support,” Republican pollster Whit Ayres says of Latinos, “it really doesn’t matter what you say after that.”

The 1994 campaign ad that turned California from a purple to a blue state began with grainy black-and-white footage of Latino migrants sprinting the wrong way down a six-lane freeway near San Diego. “They keep coming,” the narrator announced over an ominously thumping soundtrack. The ad helped re-elect GOP governor Pete Wilson and pass a ballot measure, later tossed by the courts, that barred undocumented immigrants from nonemergency public health care, education and social services. The California GOP, however, has yet to recover from that double win. “It absolutely damaged the Republican brand,” says Jennifer Korn, who led George W. Bush’s Latino-outreach effort in 2004. “Conservatives have not realized how their tone and rhetoric has turned people off.” Over the next six years, the chances that California Latinos would identify as Republican dropped from 34% to 12%, while the odds they would identify as Democratic rose from 38% to 63%. At the same time, Latino voter registration boomed as unions and community groups mounted citizenship and registration drives. Richard Nixon won California three times, Ronald Reagan won it twice, and George H.W. Bush won it once. Since Wilson, no Republican other than Arnold Schwarzenegger has won a top statewide office.

But instead of learning the Wilson lesson, Republicans have repeated the error across the Mountain West. In 2010 the Nevada GOP’s Senate candidate, Sharron Angle, ran ads that reprised the black-and-white images of menacing Latinos crossing the border. (“The best friend an illegal alien ever had” was her tagline for Senate majority leader Harry Reid, who won overwhelming support from Latino voters.) Arpaio, the Republican sheriff in Phoenix, has been chastened by the Justice Department for unlawfully profiling, detaining and arresting Latino residents. And the 2012 Republican campaign trail has more often than not echoed Wilson’s approach. Romney named Wilson as honorary chair of his campaign in California and toured South Carolina with the Kansas secretary of state who helped write the Arizona law that pushed Valenzuela and Team Awesome into action in the first place. “You look at what Pete Wilson did in California 15 years ago,” says Messina, “and that is what this primary is doing with Latino voters.”

Within months, the damage to Republicans among Latinos was measurable. In a January survey for the Spanish-language network Univision, pollster Matt Barreto found that 27% of Latinos felt the Republican Party was hostile toward Hispanics, while an additional 45% believed Republicans “don’t care much” about them–a total of 72% who don’t feel welcomed by the party. (And the numbers are getting worse: back in April 2011, just 20% sensed hostility from the Republicans.) The GOP’s nativist drift led Newt Gingrich, who takes slightly more centrist positions on immigration, to call Romney “anti-immigrant.” It has rallied a group of party elders, including former Florida governor Jeb Bush and strategist Karl Rove, to appeal for a more moderate tone. “We know that this is the fastest-growing segment and that we have to increase our share,” warns Ed Gillespie, the former chairman of the Republican Party, who recently spoke to a gathering of conservative Latinos in Florida. “In 2020, if the Republican nominee for President gets the same percentage of the white, Hispanic, African American and Asian vote that John McCain got in 2008, a Democrat will be elected to the White House by 14 percentage points.”

Nobody’s Perfect

The man best positioned to improve his party’s standing among Latinos keeps a handmade rosary in his desk, a gift from an undocumented immigrant. Marco Rubio, Florida’s freshman Republican Senator, helped the Colombian woman in Miami gain legal residency after her visa expired because a lawyer she hired never filed her paperwork. A Cuban-American darling of the Tea Party and a potential vice-presidential nominee, Rubio talks about immigration less as a law-and-order matter than as a complex problem with a prevailing “human element.” His party, he says, is too focused on the ills of illegal immigration. “What’s the Republican legal-immigration plan?” he asks rhetorically. “And that’s a problem, when all they hear from you is what you’re against, not what you’re for.”

Pollsters in both parties believe that just softening the tone could move GOP numbers dramatically. Most Latinos still point to bread-and-butter issues like jobs and the economy as chief concerns, and on the specifics of how immigration policies should be reformed, there is a diversity of Latino opinion. Rubio’s plan lacks detail, but he says he has a clear asset that the Republican Party needs. “I do look forward to making that case to them in Spanish,” he says. He opposes blanket amnesty but wants to find a way to avoid deporting the 11 million undocumented immigrants now living in the U.S. He would stop short of granting full citizenship to young students and soldiers who came to this country illegally. “My real goal … is to try to figure out a way for immigration to once again be something that unifies Americans rather than divides us,” he says.

Obama still faces his own climb back with many Latino voters. After promising to implement immigration reform in his first year in office–and winning 67% of the Latino vote in 2008–Obama opted instead to push health care reform and global-warming bills. At the same time, he has overseen a dramatic increase in deportations. Cecilia Muoz, one of Obama’s top domestic-policy advisers, did not do the campaign any favors in 2011 when she agreed that families separated during deportation were “collateral damage” in the broader effort to enact reform. “He is the deportation President,” says Daniel Rodriguez, 25, an undocumented law student and activist in Phoenix, who has been working to register voters. “That’s not collateral damage. That’s people. That’s people’s lives.” The same January poll by Univision and Latino Decisions found that 37% of Hispanics said Democrats did not care about their vote and 9% characterized Democrats as hostile.

Obama recently made two changes to immigration policy in order to regain some ground: a provision that allows undocumented spouses to apply for citizenship without leaving the U.S. and a new policy that deports criminals first and strives to keep families together regardless of their legal status. “At the beginning of 2011, they said we are not going to make any administrative decisions,” says Frank Sharry, founder of America’s Voice, which supports immigration reform. “But they realized that they had to move.”

“Republicans on Paper”?

The Rev. Eve Nuez is exactly the sort of voter Republicans should have already locked up. Pro-life and against gay marriage, she keeps two framed photographs of George W. Bush on the desk of her west Phoenix office, along with a certificate from the Republican National Committee for her work on the 2004 campaign. And yet Nuez says she is caught “between a rock and a hard place,” opposed to Obama on social issues but unwilling to commit to the GOP because of its immigration stance. “The doors are being closed to conservative Evangelicals and Hispanics,” Nuez, 58, says, “And I think it is really going to hurt the Republican Party in Arizona.”

A few years ago, she had to shut down her children’s ministry, which operated 14 school buses for transporting hundreds of poor children, many of them undocumented, to local high schools for hot meals on weekends. A new state law supported by Republican leaders had made it a felony to transport 10 or more undocumented residents at a time. She says she has seen sheriff’s deputies park across the street from her bilingual church during Sunday services as an act of intimidation against undocumented attendees. “It hurts to be clergy in Arizona,” she says. “It hurts to be a good Samaritan.”

On a Saturday night in February, Nuez appeared before a group of about 100 local clergy for the Latino community. “A majority of them were Republican, very conservative, and I said, ‘By a lift of your hands, if you had Obama or Romney, who would you choose?’ ” she recalled. “90% raised their hand and said they would vote for Obama.” This is almost an exact reversal of the vision Bush had for the Republican Party when he ran for re-election in 2004. “We really look like Republicans on paper, but they don’t want us,” says the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, which has embarked on its own voter-registration drive in Evangelical churches around the country. “The Democrats don’t look like us on paper, but they really want us.”

In Nuez’s neighborhood, party doesn’t matter. In 2011 she organized phone banks for Valenzuela, whom she knew from church. She said the local Republicans were upset when they found out she was using their voting lists to push an independent candidate for the city council. But she saw in Valenzuela a chance to finally activate the Latino vote in Arizona.

That is well under way. On the ground in Phoenix, there are more than a half-dozen organizations working to register Latinos for the coming election. Citizenship workshops designed to help people become naturalized saw a fivefold increase in attendance after the previous round of anti-immigration laws in 2010. “That kind of empowerment can be permanent,” says Valenzuela, who has continued to walk his district since his election with voter-registration forms in hand. But he knows his road is long. “We are closer,” he says, “to the beginning than the end.”


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