Apart from the soaring canyons, mountains and vast expanses of land associated with the American West, there is another fascinating landscape – and that is the changing politics in the region, largely due to Latino population gains. In states like Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Arizona, both parties are closely looking at how the Latino vote may impact November’s election results. Today Pew Research center released poll results showing that after Romney’s performance in the last debate, Obama’s lead has been erased, and the candidates are neck and neck, with both being favored by 46 percent of voters.
“Particularly in the Rocky Mountain West, if the turnout is there,the Latino vote will be decisive,” says Gabriel Sánchez, associate professor of political science at the University of New Mexico and Latino Decisions director of research. In fact, says Sánchez, one reason why his home state of New Mexico is leaning “blue,” though it is still considered a battleground, is due to a large increase in Hispanic voters in the state. Latinos are now almost 40 percent of New Mexico’s voters, the largest Latino voting block in the country, according to the latest figures from Pew Hispanic. Almost half of the voters in the state – 48 percent – are registered as Democrats.
The state’s governor, Susana Martínez, is a Republican Latina whose speech at the recent Republican National Convention got rave reviews, and the Republican Latina is popular in her home state. So why is Martínez not bringing more Latinos to the Republican fold? Sánchez says Romney, and his campaign, lost an opportunity to reach out to Hispanics.
“Governor Martínez distanced herself from Romney after his 47 percent comments, as well as previously with his self-deportation comments,” says Sánchez. “You would expect that Romney’s prospects would hinge on the ability of Martinez to court Latino vote for the campaign, but if anything, it has backfired,” says Sánchez.
In Nevada, a crucial battleground state, Latinos accounted for almost half of the population growth in the past ten years, and they are now almost 30 percent of the population. A recent Latino Decisions tracking poll found 78 percent of Latino voters in Nevada favor Obama, and 17 percent favor Romney, with 5 percent undecided. Both candidates have spent much time in the state. Just like in New Mexico, Nevada has a Republican Latino Governor, Brian Sandoval. While Sandoval spoke at the Republican National Convention and says he is an enthusiastic supporter of Mitt Romney, he also distanced himself from Romney’s “47 percent” comments, saying publicly he does not agree. “There are a lot of folks that I’m working extremely hard to get them employment,” said Sandoval to the Las Vegas Sun. “And until they’re employed, there are many services that they’re going to be needing,” said Sandoval.
“The fundamental dilemma for the Romney campaign is that Latinos, even Republican Latinos, are not always in sync with Romney’s message,” says Sánchez.
Colorado, site of last week’s presidential debate, is another battleground state where the Latino population has increased significantly; Hispanics are now almost 40 percent of the population in some metro areas and are about one in five of the state’s residents. Though the general poll numbers in Colorado show a tight presidential race, the last Latino Decisions poll on Colorado Hispanics had Obama at 70 percent and Romney at 22 percent, and Latino Decisions principal and political scientist Matt Barreto thinks the numbers might be even higher.
“One of the reasons for these Republican low numbers has to do with the fact that some recent Republican campaigns in Colorado, specifically Tom Tancredo’s, were very anti-immigration and ultimately seen as very anti-Latino,” says Barreto. “Those positions have lasting effects, and it is going to take a really positive message from a Republican to start changing these numbers,” says Barreto.
In Arizona, Latinos represent 19 percent of eligible voters in the state. Mitt Romney is ahead in Arizona in the latest polls. In Arizona, says NBC Latino contributor Stephen Nuño, “one of the hardest things to predict is how many Latinos are going to vote, especially if they are new voters,” he says. Nuño, who teaches political science at Northern Arizona University, says many Latinos in Arizona are registering as independents. Democratic Senate candidate Richard Carmona, a Puerto Rican from an impoverished background who earned two Purple Hearts in Vietnam, became a surgeon and then was named U.S. Surgeon General under George W. Bush, was recently behind his opponent, Republican Jeff Flake. Democrats hope Carmona’s recent gains in polls means he could win the race and keep the Senate in Democratic hands.
In Arizona as well as in the other western states, it all boils down to turnout, and whether Latino voters make a difference in tight battleground races.