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Campaigns Court Colorado Hispanics in Unpredictable Contest

May 29, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
In Colorado, where Hispanics make up 20 percent of the population, presidential campaigning is increasingly being done in Spanish. And while immigration may not be the most important issue for Latino voters, it certainly is a defining one, according to Stanford University political scientist Gary Segura. Gwen Ifill reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And we turn to a fight being waged by both campaigns to win over a significant, but not predictable group of voters, Hispanics.

Gwen Ifill reports from the battleground state of Colorado.

GWEN IFILL: Alejandra Vasquez is a prize. She is undecided, she lives in a swing state, and she is Latina.

ALEJANDRA VASQUEZ, voter (through translator): I’m not affiliated with either party. It depends on what they will offer us. That will determine how I vote.

GWEN IFILL: Vasquez, a legal immigrant who has lived in Denver for a decade, is an engaged voter. She spent a recent weekend gathering signatures on a petition to allow undocumented workers to qualify for driver’s licenses. But when it comes to the presidential contest, she is a skeptic.

ALEJANDRA VASQUEZ (through translator): Obama promised us big immigration reform, and he hasn’t followed through. But the other side attacks us. Hispanics are sitting in the middle. And we don’t know which way to go.

GWEN IFILL: Colorado, where Hispanics make up 20 percent of the population, is one of a handful of critical swing states this year. With voters like Vasquez up for grabs, the campaign is increasingly being waged in Spanish.

MAN: Hi, Ralph. It’s Andrea for Latinos for Obama. How are you?

GWEN IFILL: The Obama campaign is clearly in full swing here, with 13 offices open across the state and multiple presidential visits already, the latest just last week.

WOMAN: Do you approve of the job that President Obama is doing?

GWEN IFILL: By contrast, the Romney campaign has appointed a Latino outreach coordinator, but without a state headquarters, the campaign is still working out of the Colorado GOP’s office.

This Cinco de Mayo Festival in Denver was a ripe target of opportunity for both campaigns.

MAN: Have you updated your voter registration recently?

GWEN IFILL: Democrats like State Representative Dan Pabon are part of the Obama faithful.

DAN PABON (D), Colorado state representative: The issues for Latinos are the same issues that affect every American. It’s jobs and the economy. It’s making sure that there’s an ability to put food on the table, to pay the mortgage or the rent, and to live and retire in security. If you look at the numbers and you look at the percentages, Latinos are going to be the deciding vote in this election.

GWEN IFILL: But Republican Party Chairman Ryan Call says disillusioned voters do not want to be pandered to.

RYAN CALL, Colorado Republican Party Chairman: For Republicans, we don’t make that many distinctions between the different segments in our society. We don’t kind of segment out people to pander to them in particular ways. We say, here’s what we stand for, here’s our message, here’s our — it’s a message of freedom, it’s a message of opportunity, it’s a message of — rooted in the principles that have made America what it is.

GWEN IFILL: President Obama won 67 percent of the Hispanic vote four years ago, 61 percent here in Colorado. Gov. Romney told a group of Florida donors recently that failing to win those votes this time spells doom for us.

Gary Segura, a Stanford University political scientist, polls Latino voter attitudes. He says it all comes down to numbers and history.

GARY SEGURA, Stanford University political scientist: Democrats cannot get elected to national office without a supermajority of African-American and Latino votes. That’s been true for a long time.

Democrats have not won a majority of the white vote since 1964. What’s happened over the course of, say, the last 20 years is that the number of states where Latino voters are able to tip the balance has grown from being, say, just California in the mid-1990s to now including places like Nevada, Colorado.

In the last election, Indiana and North Carolina are places where the margin of victory among Latinos was larger than the margin of victory statewide.

GWEN IFILL: A sore spot for Republicans, tough talk on immigration that rejects citizenship and focuses on law enforcement.

MITT ROMNEY (R), presidential candidate: The right course for America is to drop these lawsuits against Arizona and other states that are trying to do the job Barack Obama isn’t doing.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

MITT ROMNEY: And I will drop those lawsuits on day one. I will also complete the fence. I will make sure we have enough Border Patrol agents to secure the fence.

GWEN IFILL: But the state GOP chairman says Hispanic voters care about more than immigration.

RYAN CALL: Even if you talk to our — you know, to Hispanics, immigration is not the top two or three issue. It’s often down lower at number eight or nine, because, especially in Colorado, a lot of Hispanics — in fact, the vast majority of Hispanics — have been here for generations.

And, so, while they often have family members that are recent immigrants, and we certainly do see a growing immigrant community, they also have an understanding that the big issues, the most important issues are jobs and the economy, and they’re really the direction that we’re — that we’re headed as a nation.

GWEN IFILL: Gary Segura agrees immigration may not be the most important issue for Latino voters, but it can be a defining one.

GARY SEGURA: Eighty seven percent to 90 percent of all Latinos are within two generations of the immigration experience.

So, first of all, a majority of Latino adults in the United States are foreign-born. But, second, a huge portion of those adults who are not foreign-born are either the children of immigrants or the grandchildren of immigrants, upwards of about 90 percent.

So when you speak ill of immigrants, you might be speaking ill of me, but you’re almost certainly speaking ill of my parents or my grandparents.

GWEN IFILL: This underscores the challenge. Republicans haven’t won a majority of the Hispanic vote in 40 years, even as the population continues to grow.

Federico Pena, the former mayor of Denver and a Clinton-era Cabinet member, believes the president will maintain that advantage.

FEDERICO PENA, Obama Campaign co-chair: The good news is that then- Senator Obama knew four years ago that the Latino vote was going to be critical in these targeted states, and I was part of that strategy. So we targeted Nevada. We won. We targeted New Mexico. We won. We targeted Colorado. We won. We targeted Florida. We won.

And a heavy emphasis on the Latino vote, and we’re doing the very same thing this time, except, this time, we started day one.

GWEN IFILL: Christine Mastin, a Colorado immigration attorney who is volunteering for the Romney campaign, still sees opportunity.

CHRISTINE MASTIN, Immigration Attorney: Certainly, the Democratic Party has taken that vote for granted. And I don’t think anyone should take anyone’s vote for granted, whether it’s just — if it’s a Latino vote, an American vote, an African-American vote. We shouldn’t be taking anyone’s votes for granted.

And I think that we have a lot to offer the Latino community. I think it was Ronald Reagan who said Latinos are Republicans. They just don’t know it yet.

GWEN IFILL: On Nov. 6, Colorado and the nation will discover whether Ronald Reagan’s prediction proves true.

JUDY WOODRUFF: On our Politics page, you can watch more of Gwen’s interview with pollster Gary Segura.

And if you speak Spanish or any other language, you can help the NewsHour make politics accessible to everyone. On our home page, click “Help us Translate the Election’ to join our all-volunteer captioning and translation team.