The growing importance of America's Latino vote
Here's a stat that might surprise you: one in nine Americans eligible to vote on Nov. 6 is Latino.
In fact, Hispanics outnumber African-Americans right now and their population has increased 23 per cent just since the 2000 election.
Little wonder Barack Obama is now seen in a television ad speaking exclusively in Spanish.
The growing importance of the Latino vote explains why both Obama and Mitt Romney have appeared twice in hour-long interviews with Univision, the dominant Spanish-language broadcaster in the U.S., with news audiences rivaling the big three networks.
But in terms of strategic importance, it is Obama's Democrats who have come to rely on the Hispanic vote, particularly in Colorado, Nevada and Florida — three swing states where large Latino populations can have a decisive role.
In fact, the Democrats are outspending Romney's Republican campaign by a factor of nearly two-to-one on Spanish language television ads.
So what do Latinos care about when they look at a candidate?
According to political scientist Casey Klofstad at the University of Miami, whose specialty is how societies (human and animal) make decisions and who has conducted a series of polls this year on Latino voting, jobs are the primary issue, as it is with most Americans.
But immigration reform comes a close second, as you might expect in a community where the legal status of many of its members has become something of a political football in recent years.
Nineteen-year-old Karen Garcia is a case in point. When I visited her tidy, modest home in Miami, there were eight family members and a friend present, but the only one with legal status in the U.S. was her six-year-old cousin, who gets his citizenship from being born in the States.
Karen's parents came to the U.S. illegally from Mexico. She followed at the age of nine.
"As a 'dreamer', my future literally depends on what happens in this election," she says, referring to the once proposed but never adopted Dream Act, which would have conferred citizenship on the children of illegal immigrants who had been in the country for some time.
But even then, she says, "I'm not going to be happy if I'm a U.S. citizen and my mom and dad still have to live in fear."
Looking the other way
Just that morning, Garcia's mother was pulled over by the police for dropping her son at school outside the designated zone.
She doesn't have a driver's licence and she can't get one because she can't prove legal residency. But she drives anyway — very carefully, she adds.
Her job is impossible to reach without a car but should police check her status that could lead to deportation.
In this case, the officer didn't ask to see her licence. Karen suspects he had to know.
According to the research, one in two Latinos admits to knowing an illegal, undocumented person. And so immigration reform touches a nerve almost everywhere.
Congress, however, cannot seem to come to any agreement about what to do with those millions of undocumented people, some of whom have been in the country for decades, raising families and taking on jobs that many Americans don't want.
In the meantime, Obama stepped into the breech in August with an election-year policy change, an executive order that his government will stop deporting young illegal immigrants who entered the U.S. as children as long as they meet certain requirements, like going to school and staying out of trouble with the law.
That change angered many Republicans, who accused Obama of supporting queue-jumpers. But it looks to have animated Hispanic voters in some areas of the country at least.
"This is the last campaign the Republicans can try to win with white males," says Klofstad. "From here on out, Latinos are a constituency that is going to have to be recognized."
How much clout?
By 2050, nearly a third of the American population is projected to be Latino. In just 10 years, Florida will be a majority minority state — meaning most of its residents will be visible minorities.
As for the Hispanics there, they are divided as well among Cubans, Puerto Ricans and Central Americans, all with their own political leanings. They are by no means a unified bloc, at least in Florida.
Maria Rodriguez heads up the Florida Immigrant Coalition and she is busy these days encouraging new arrivals to vote — not pointing them towards any one party or candidate, but getting them to recognize that their numbers mean they are a force to be reckoned with.
"This election, Latinos matter a lot," she says. "I saw the difference when the candidates from the Republican primary came down and they were accusing each other of being anti-immigrant."
That was very different rhetoric from what they were saying in the rest of the country, she notes, where some candidates promise to be "tough on immigration." But at least it's a start.
The problem this election, though, as perhaps in the past, is voter turnout, Kofstad points out.
The growing numbers of potential Latino voters won't do any good if they don't go to the polls. While 89 per cent of Americans tell pollsters they intend to vote on Nov. 6, only 77 per cent of Latinos are as adamant.
In short, today's politicians are starting to see the power of the Latino vote, some more than others. Perhaps it is time for Latinos to see it too.