"¡Viva Obama!"

In Denver, a group of Latino voters show why they may hold the key to power for Democrats in the West.

Published August 26, 2008 10:46AM (EDT)

If Barack Obama is really going to redraw the political map this year, this isn't a bad place to start. Colorado's nine electoral votes have gone blue in only one of the last 10 elections, but they look within Obama's reach now according to recent polling. The same goes for nearby Nevada (with five votes) and New Mexico (also five). If John McCain weren't from Arizona, its 10 votes might be up for grabs, too.

Latino voters are a big reason that Democrats may find new electoral power in the West. In all the Southwestern states Obama is targeting, Latinos make up at least 12 percent of the eligible voters; in New Mexico, the Hispanic vote is a staggering 37 percent of the electorate. (Latinos are now the largest and fastest-growing minority group in the country, making up an estimated 15 percent of the U.S. population, though only about 9 percent of the electorate.) Recent polls show Obama beating McCain nearly 2 to 1 among Latinos. Obama's chances of winning, if he can't carry the Southern states and can't turn Ohio blue again, could well come down to how successful his outreach to the Latino community is here and in neighboring states.

No wonder the Democratic convention kicked off Monday with an invocation by Polly Baca, a former Colorado state senator and an activist on behalf of Latinos, then jumped to remarks by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus leaders, before delegates headed off to (among other parties) a massive gala sponsored by all the major Latino civil rights groups later in the evening. Obama's campaign is running radio, TV, print and online ads in Spanish, opening field offices to reach out to Latino voters, and sending prominent surrogates like New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson to talk to Latino communities. "The Democratic Party has woken up to this emerging and critical opportunity," said Simon Rosenberg, head of NDN, a progressive think tank that's been pushing Democrats to look West for years.

In a focus group here Monday morning for the Annenberg Center for Public Policy, run by Democratic pollster Peter Hart, the nature of that opportunity was on display. Annenberg convened 12 Latino voters from around the Denver area and asked them to speak about the election for two hours. Of the 12, five supported Obama, three supported John McCain, and four were undecided -- but two of the undecided voters said they were leaning toward Obama. The issues they said were important to them were the same issues that pollsters are finding matter to most Americans: ending the war in Iraq, turning around the economy, and improving access to affordable healthcare.

Hillary Clinton pounded Obama among Latino voters in primary after primary all spring, and some pundits wondered then if tension between blacks and Hispanics was a reason. But the voters in the focus group -- even the McCain supporters -- said they weren't worried at all that Obama would favor one racial group over another. "What I do see with Obama is that from his background -- minority, black, blah blah blah, everything -- I can relate to that," said Vaneska Mayor, 33, a chemist from Thornton, Colo., who grew up in Puerto Rico. "Because I'm not rich, and I'm a woman, and I'm a Latina, and my mom forced me to learn English even though I didn't want to, so I could have a better life."

For many of the voters, the biggest change an Obama presidency might bring about would be in the country's racial attitudes. "We have always been governed by older white people," said Paloma Gamarra, 34, a data analyst from Boulder, who was for Obama. Electing Obama would be "just like electing somebody who's poor like me or had to clean restrooms like me."

The debate over immigration reform in the last few years had left these voters a little, well, bitter, as Obama might say. "I think politicians tend to use us [Latinos] as a card for them to kind of stick out there," said Alex Moreno, 36, a window washer from Arvada, Colo.

"Sometimes they're like, 'Hey, here's all these opportunities,' and then they say, 'No, this year you guys are going to be the bad guys,'" said Adrian Romero, 35, the only person at the focus group who didn't vote in 2004 (but who says he'll vote for Obama this fall).

In fact, polls show much of the public, regardless of race, is sick of the immigration system being broken, and angry that Washington can't seem to get its act together to fix it. But Democratic activists say they think the politics of the issue are tilting away from border-security reactionaries, such as Rep. Tom Tancredo, and toward Democratic candidates who favor broad reforms that include letting undocumented immigrants apply for legal status. "If Democrats lean into the issue and define themselves, they will win against Republican demagoguery, because they're for a pragmatic solution that will do something about the problem," said Frank Sharry, a longtime advocate for immigrants' rights, at a panel Monday afternoon sponsored by NDN.

Partly because of the immigration battles -- and the rise in raids, imprisonment and deportation of immigrants by the Bush administration -- Latino civil rights groups have mobilized 1.4 million new applications for citizenship since January 2007. Janet Murguia, the head of the National Council of La Raza, told Salon she expects about 90 percent of the new citizens to vote. Only 9.7 million Hispanics voted in 2004; if Murguia's predictions are right, that number could go up by 10 percent just from new citizens alone, even without the massive voter registration drives Obama's campaign is running in key states. Democratic operatives and Latino activists alike seem confident the Hispanic vote will go heavily for Obama. Murguia, a former Clinton administration aide, said she was sure the Latinos who backed Clinton would stick with the Democratic ticket even though Clinton lost.

Of course, a couple of years ago, that would have come as a shock. Not only had George Bush won two terms in office in part because of an aggressive outreach to Latinos (complete with halting attempts to speak a sort of pidgin Spanish), but McCain had also been the leading sponsor of immigration-reform legislation. But nativist sentiment in the Republican base led McCain to back away from the issue during the GOP primaries; he now says the United States needs to secure its borders before dealing with legalization for undocumented workers.

McCain is running his own ads in Spanish, trying to restore his image in the Latino community. But the voters in the Annenberg focus group didn't give McCain much credit for his attempts to find a solution on the issue, perhaps due to broader disillusionment among Latinos with the Republican Party. Yet there was substantial worry among them that Obama might have a tough time winning the White House.

"I mean, I'm going to vote for him, but I don't see it happening," said Moreno, the window washer. "There's too many close-minded people here in the United States that are going to put [race] as an issue. They're just going to be so close-minded that they're going to say, 'No, I'm not going to have a black person as president.'" Dwayne Chavez, 43, a blood-bank technician from Aurora, Colo., who voted for Bush four years ago but changed his registration from Republican to independent, and who said he'd probably vote for Obama, held similar feelings. "We're breaking the glass ceiling here, and I don't think America's ready for that glass ceiling to be broken," Chavez said.

If Obama wants to prove them wrong, he may need their votes -- and the votes of other Latinos -- to do it.

By Mike Madden

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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