Local experts say Latinos will play a decisive role in the general election


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Iowa is known for many things, including its first-in-the nation caucuses, and its usual battleground status, but not for a large population of Latinos.

“[Latinos’] presence in the Midwest is a newer phenomenon, and it’s taken campaigns a couple of cycles to realize potentially how powerful they can be,” said Rene Rocha, a political-science associate professor at the University of Iowa.

While far from California’s coastline or the vast expanse of Texas, this landlocked state is joining other perennial swing states in a new trend: a small, but thriving Latino population that potentially could determine who wins the election. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, the Latino population increased 4.1 percent overall in Iowa in a 10-year period, and according to National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, Latinos make up 2.2 percent of the eligible voters in Iowa, 50,126 voters.

“[Latino voters] could potentially be a key component to a candidate’s ability to win or lose,” said Mark Lopez, an associate director of the Pew Hispanic Center, located in Washington, D.C. “Of course, they could potentially help the president win Iowa, North Carolina, and Virginia.”

The center’s polling currently indicates registered Latino voters prefer President Obama 69 percent compared with 21 percent for GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

One Latina voter feels this position puts the Latino support at a premium that sometimes may be taken for granted, but stresses the importance of Latinos voting in this election regardless of the candidates they support.

“I do sometimes feel like a token …” said Elizabeth Macias, the manager of the UI Latino Native American Cultural Center. “People will start seeing the power of the Latino vote if we actually get out there.”

Experts agree the Latino population is extremely diverse, which forces campaigns to use a variety of messages to reach prospective Latino voters. Including issue appeals, Lopez said, Latinos value immigration but tend to be more concerned about the economy and job creation.

“I think the notion that Latinos are just obsessed with immigrations is inaccurate,” Rocha said.
Macias said Obama could better relate to others in circumstances similar to her: namely the ability to go to and afford college.

“Obama has at least struggled and at least knows what it’s like to try to achieve the American dream,” the UI graduate student said. Education is the most important issue to her, she said.

This diversity creates a challenge for campaigns looking to capitalize on Latino support, but both the Obama and Romney campaigns have created specific groups to target Latino voters with Latinos for Obama and Juntos con Romney respectively.

One expert feels that even with only seven days left till the election, Latinos are “still listening” to both campaigns, but each one could do a better job targeting Latino voters.

“The Latino vote is really up for grabs …” said Rosaline Gold, the senior director of policy research and advocacy for National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

Rocha feels Obama will most likely equal the support he received from Latinos in 2008, which according to the center was 67 percent, and he could potentially widen the gap, but Lopez cautioned that even this could “change in the last week.”

The growing Latino population may be a new trend in Iowa. Experts say their importance could be felt in this election, and their influence will continue to grow in the future.

“Iowa Latinos can to continue to develop the structure where Latino candidates are elected,” Gold said. “That’s the way [they] can turn population growth into political engagement.”

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