Voters of Hispanic heritage could be the key difference-maker this election — if they show up at the polls.
CHARLOTTE — Si, se puede! is a rallying cry among Latinos at the Democratic National Convention. It translates roughly to “Yes, it can be done.” But can it? Hispanic voters may be the key to Barack Obama’s potential victory in swing states like Colorado, Nevada, North Carolina, and Florida. But their traditionally relatively lower turnout on Election Day may leave Democrats wanting.
Consider this: Obama’s 2008 win in North Carolina was by the slimmest of margins: 14,000 votes. The state, where Hispanics now account for 18% of the population, now has about 100,000 registered Hispanic voters, but only 14.2% showed up to vote in North Carolina’s May primary (compared with 38.5% of white voters and 25.2% African American voters).
Texas delegate Remi Garza thinks that for Hispanic voters, there is a disconnect that happens between Election Day and policy implementation.
“You get excited about Election Day and you go to the polls and cast your ballot. And your candidate wins, but unfortunately government processes take a long time. So the change you were expecting to happen quickly takes a lot longer to go through the system,” he says. He thinks that if Hispanics can just bridge that gap in their minds they’d be more likely to show up to the polls.
Garza hopes that Latinos in Texas will be inspired by San Antonio mayor Julian Castro’s speech at the Democratic National Convention. A Mexican American, Castro spoke about the immigrant struggles of his mother and grandmother. Castro’s been pegged as a rising star in the Democratic party, and Garza hopes his future political success will “put Texas on the map again as a Democratic state.”
Florida is a crucial swing state where 2012 could be narrowly won or lost on the votes of Hispanic voters. As Michelle Obama pointed out in her speech on Tuesday night, in 2008 Obama won Florida by just 230,000 votes — roughly 36 votes per precinct.
The Republican National Convention in Tampa tapped Florida Senator Marco Rubio as their speaker, and Latino Decision polls reflected a 4% bounce for Republican nominee Mitt Romney after the RNC. While Mexican Americans account for the majority of the Hispanic population in the United States, Cuban Americans in South Florida, who tend to be conservative, are the most politically active Hispanic group.
Daisy Baez, a DNC delegate from Florida and head of the Hispanic Caucus in Miami Dade County, says that because Cuban Americans don’t have the same challenges as other Hispanic immigrants in the United States, they have a unique perspective among U.S. Latinos.
“Once they step on this land, they have all the benefits and they don’t really have to fight hard for anything,” Baez says. “In addition, they use the fact that there is a Communist rule in their country to base all of their arguments around, which really is of no interest to the rest of the 95% Latinos in this country.”
Baez says that the issues important to many Hispanics in this country — immigration reform, affordable health care, and Pell grants for education — will be supported by Obama if re-elected. That’s why her caucus is engaging local community leaders and celebrities like Marc Anthony and Eva Longoria to encourage Hispanics in the state to get out and vote.
Baez sees the challenge of low Hispanic turnout as a cultural one that involves a lack of education and a sense that their vote will not count.
“I think that has to do with the perceptions that they bring with them from other countries,” she says. “The United States is a mature democracy. It works. Unfortunately that’s not the case in many Latin American countries where you still have repressive regimes or a lot of corruption. And so I don’t know if people necessarily feel that coming out and casting that one vote is going to make a difference.”
Tucked between a Carolina Golf Manufacturing store and an Asian café is a Mexican restaurant called Three Amigos. It’s just outside of downtown Charlotte, in a neighborhood known as “Little Saigon.” A Dominican, a Salvadorian, and a Mexican jointly own the restaurant. And they make an avocado salsa verde that’s so hot it will clear your sinuses for months.
Kelly Dederle is a waitress at Three Amigos. She fits the demographics the Democrats want to target — 18 years old, Hispanic, and living in North Carolina. But Dederle says she is making the choice not to vote in this year’s Presidential election — like many of her family and friends.
“I’m not saying other people who vote are not going to make a difference, but I feel like my vote is not going to count this time,” Dederle says.
Although she enjoyed Michelle Obama’s speech on Tuesday night, she says it’s still not enough to get her out to the polls on Election Day. And even though she thinks both candidates have good ideas for the country, she does not think that either candidate would be capable of really resolving the issues that are important to her.
“I just don’t have the initiative,” she explains. “The energy they transmit is not for the people, and it’s not a good one. It’s not like I feel excited for this campaign.”
Originally from Colombia, she’s been in the U.S. for about four years. When pressed to explain why she thinks her vote will not count, Dederle brings up her background.
“I come from a country where money is important. So for a lot of leaders who have the power of doing rules for the people, they don’t really go with what the people want, but what is convenient for them,” she explains. “And that’s how I grew up. I don’t really take full credit for what this government is giving me. I guess you can say…I have double thoughts.”
Whether she and others vote, and if so for whom, will matter much this November.