Battle for Hispanic vote is about future of politics in US


The Latino vote is key to electoral success in many swing states, writes CARL O’BRIENin Denver, Colorado

EDGAR ANTILLON is used to getting a hard time from his Hispanic family and friends.

“They tell me, ‘you’re a racist, you want to send us all back home to Mexico’, or, ‘you’ve lost touch with who you really are’. But it’s not the truth.” The hostility comes from the fact that Antillon (27), a supervisor of a security firm and son of illegal immigrants from Mexico, is a Republican.

As chair of the Juntos con Romney (Together with Romney) campaign in Adams County, a politically important part of the swing state of Colorado, he’s had doors shut in his face or phone calls ended in mid-conversation from members of the Latino community.

Hispanics tend to be poorer, less well educated and gravitate more towards the Democrats’ stance on support for the less well-off and immigration reform.

The perception among many is that Republicans simply stand for the rich and take a much more hostile line on issues such as deportation.

“As you grow up, you realise it’s not as simple as that,” Antillon says.

“It can be hard to get beyond those stereotypes. The big issue for our community is not immigration – it’s how to create jobs and opportunities.” This all matters because, after years of Republican dominance of Colorado, Barack Obama won the state in 2008 by nine percentage points.

A key reason was the boom in the Latino population. They now make up at least 13 per cent of the electorate. If the polls hold true, anything up to 70 per cent of Hispanics will vote for Obama.

A fierce battle is unfolding among both campaigns to win over the Latino vote, widely seen as the key to electoral success not just in Colorado, but other swing states with large Hispanic populations such as Florida and Nevada.

“The competition between the two candidates is stronger and stronger and Latinos can make the difference and determine the result in many undecided states,” says Lynn Tramonte, of the pro-immigrant group America’s Voice.

But the Romney campaign is not going down without a fight. It believes Latinos are Republican voters – they just don’t realise it yet. While they are more likely to be poor, they are also more likely to be religious and vote against issues such as abortion.

“The Hispanic values – that dignity and self-worth come from hard work – align much more with Republican principles,” says Pauline Olvera, a vice-chairwoman of the Republican party in Denver, whose grandparents came from Mexico. She has taken a break from her work as a stockbroker and entrepreneur to work full-time for the campaign.

She adds: “Look at where the Democratic party is going these days: they’re actually trying to make dependence on welfare socially acceptable. That cuts into the pride of the Hispanic community and our values.”

The Republican campaign for the Latino vote is focusing squarely on job creation. It has launched a Spanish-language ad called No Podemos Mas (We No Longer Can) to remind the community of the broken promises of four years ago. It has also sent Mitt Romney’s Spanish-speaking son, Craig, into the fray to energise party volunteers who are knocking on doors and making phone calls.

But some of Romney’s stances do pose problems for the Latino community. The Republican candidate has taken a tougher anti-illegal immigrant stance, while he has fought college tuition grants. His comments about the “47 per cent” of those reliant on welfare hardly helped his cause either.

Antillon concedes that some of the party’s positions have made life more difficult, but he insists that Obama is vulnerable when it comes to the economy.

“Unemployment among Hispanics in Colorado is 11 per cent, higher than the average for the state. When I go knocking on doors, people are confused.

“They were promised jobs four years ago, but they haven’t arrived. We don’t need welfare, we need jobs,” says Antillon.

Democrats, meanwhile, are taking nothing for granted. Barack Obama has a new ad in which he speaks straight to the camera in Spanish about his immigration reform, known as the Dream Act, which will give legal status to many undocumented young people.

In many ways, this battle for the Latino vote isn’t just about this election – it’s about the future of politics in America. A record 24 million Latinos are eligible to vote next week, a 22 per cent increase on four years ago. The country is becoming less white and more diverse. Last year, for the first time, the majority of children born in the United States were not white.

Are the Republicans, then, in danger of being on the wrong side of history? Party members insists it won’t be the case. They say people vote with their interests, not their identities, and that their policies on education, job creation and smaller government will ultimately resonate with Hispanics and other minorities, “Remember George Bush got 40 per cent of the Hispanic vote during his campaign, so the Democrats are not invulnerable,” says Pauline Olvera.

In the meantime, the battle for votes continues, one doorstep at a time. Antillon is hopeful the message will get through to his community through hard work and persistence.

“Many Hispanics have come here from countries that suppressed them,” says Antillon, whose parents were granted residency under an amnesty by Republican president Ronald Reagan.

“They are here for freedom, to live the American dream, to walk down the street and be able say, I want to change things. And that’s what we offer.”