For 19-year-old Denise Cruz, a community college student in Manassas, Virginia, picking a presidential candidate is simple: She’s a first-time voter who will back Barack Obama because his immigration policies will allow her cousins from Mexico to stay in the U.S. and continue their education.
Cruz is the norm, not the exception in the Latino community, the fastest-growing block of eligible voters in the U.S. and a group that may be most affected by the electoral results on Nov. 6. Obama has a big advantage with this constituency, although his ability to defeat Republican Mitt Romney will hinge on how many turn out to vote in such competitive states as Nevada, Colorado, Florida and Virginia.
“Enthusiasm in swing states is higher than it is anywhere else,” said Gary Segura, a political science professor at Stanford University in California and founder of Latino Decisions, a political opinion research firm. “In some respects, the narrowing of the race in the last two weeks has made it more likely that the Latinos are going to make a difference.”
Nationwide, Latino registered voters prefer Obama to Romney by 69 percent to 21 percent, according to the Washington-based Pew Hispanic Center, a nonprofit research organization. In 2008, Obama received 67 percent of the Hispanic vote, compared with Arizona Senator John McCain’s 31 percent.
Of the nation’s 52 million Hispanics, 24 million are eligible to vote because of their age and legal status, which makes up about 11 percent of the U.S. electorate, according to Pew. That is up from 9.5 percent in 2008.
“Historically speaking, we have seen a record number of Hispanic voters in each election cycle since 1986,” Mark Hugo Lopez, associate director of the Pew Hispanic Center, said in a telephone interview.
Still, at most, only about half of them -- 12 million -- are expected to cast ballots in the election. That compares with a record 9.7 million in 2008, according to Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund. A Pew poll found that 77 percent of Latino registered voters say they are certain to go to the polls on Election Day, compared with 89 percent of the general public.
Obama’s campaign must maximize that turnout. “From bilingual phone banks, canvasses and voter-registration drives, to one-on-one conversations on the president’s accomplishments, Obama for America is reaching out to Latinos in their neighborhoods and in their language,” Gabriela Domenzain, director of Hispanic press for the campaign, said in an e-mailed statement.
The campaign has deployed Julian Castro, the Latino mayor of San Antonio, who became the first Hispanic to deliver the keynote address at the Democratic convention, to help with voter outreach in Nevada, Florida and Virginia.
Romney’s team, too, has expanded its outreach to Hispanic voters. Craig Romney, one of the nominee’s sons and a Spanish speaker, has been going door-to-door in Colorado, according to Bettina Inclan, the Republican National Committee’s director of Hispanic outreach.
“There is a large number, and a growing number, of Hispanic voters that vote for the candidate, not the party,” Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican of Cuban descent and a top Romney surrogate, said in an interview. “And those are the folks that we’re going to try to persuade, not just in this election, but moving forward.”
In Florida, one of the few states where 2012 data is available, Latino registration has surpassed that of 2008. According to the Florida Department of State’s Division of Elections, 1.6 million Latinos were registered to vote, with 592,000 declaring as Democrats and 463,000 as Republicans.
In Virginia, a state Obama won in 2008, 65 percent of Latinos voted for him and 34 percent chose McCain, exit polls show. A Latino Decisions poll released Oct. 15 found that 66 percent of Virginia Latinos plan to vote for Obama compared with 22 percent for Romney.
Keiri Villanueva, a 24-year-old sales associate in Manassas, said this election carries higher stakes than the 2008 contest and she’ll vote for Obama. Standing at the cell-phone counter at the Global Food market in Manassas, she said it’s important that immigrants “get an education” and build “their lives” even when they don’t have papers.
“It’s not fair when Mitt Romney says it’s not his problem to worry about us. So if is not a problem for him to worry about us, voting for him is not our problem either,” she said. Manassas, where Villanueva lives, has the second-largest percentage of Hispanic residents in Virginia, with about 31.4 percent.
The Obama administration in June announced that it would immediately stop deporting some illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children and make them eligible for work permits. The policy affects about 800,000 undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. before age 16, have been in the country for at least five years, have no criminal record and are in school or have a high school diploma or equivalent, according to the Homeland Security Department.
The administration’s action would bypass Congress, where legislation known as the Dream Act designed to provide a path to legal status for younger undocumented immigrants has been stalled. Romney, who opposes the Dream Act, has backed the idea of self-deportation through which undocumented immigrants would choose to leave the country.
Obama’s new policy “has energized people to get involved more in this election,” said Edgar Aranda-Yanoc, chairman of the Virginia Coalition of Latino Organizations, a nonpartisan organization. Immigration is the most important issue for Latinos in Virginia, he said, because many in the community are naturalized immigrants.
The argument isn’t persuasive to all voters. Teresa Cabrera, 58, of Manassas, said Romney’s stance on immigration doesn’t bother her.
“I plan to vote for Romney because of my beliefs,” said Cabrera, a Catholic who doesn’t support abortion rights and same-sex marriage.
Hispanic Catholics support Obama over Romney by a margin of more than 3 to 1, according to Pew. Hispanic support for Obama far exceeds that of non-Hispanic white Catholics, who are evenly split between the candidates, Pew said.
Access to health care and education grants are also factors in voting decisions. Chris Garcia, 19, a pre-med student at the Manassas campus of the Northern Virginia Community College, said being able to stay on his parents’ health insurance as he furthers his education is a reason he’ll vote for Obama.
Under Obama’s health-care law, young adults are allowed to remain on their parents’ insurance plans until age 26. An estimated 31 percent of Latinos are uninsured, compared with 16 percent of all Americans, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The Obama campaign’s Spanish-language ads, more than English-language ones, have focused on benefits of the 2010 health-care law. They include an ad narrated by talk-show host Cristina Saralegui, who has been dubbed the “Spanish Oprah.” A point the campaign emphasizes is that 9 million previously uninsured Latinos now have access to health care.
“A lot of people cannot afford it,” said Keisy Chavez, 41, from Centreville, Virginia, who has volunteered for the Obama campaign to get out the Latino vote. She said in a telephone interview that she often shares how the health-care law helps her and her family. Being denied health insurance is something that can “affect you every day,” so it’s an issue that people can relate to, she said.