The barrio — the neighborhood — is a highly charged urban metaphor for Latinos in the US. And in a neck-and-neck race to the White House, the barrio has become crucial for the aspirations of both Obama and Romney. Whoever wins the barrio would likely prevail in the 6 November US presidential election.
Today Latinos represent 16.3 per cent of the US population — the largest, fastest growing minority group — and they are becoming more politically engaged. The election result in November will depend on a handful of key states, all them with an important Latino presence.
The latest polls show President Obama should grab 71 per cent of the Latino vote; Romney would be left with 23 per cent. It is estimated that to win the elections, they will need to grab at least 33 per cent of all registered Latino voters.
In 2008 Obama obtained 68 per cent of the Hispanic vote and it was crucial to his triumph against John McCain who won 31 per cent. From a Latino point of view it was an election with a remarkable feature — it registered the highest ever Latino turnout in any US presidential election. For many, it was the year that the "sleeping giant" of US politics finally woke up. It was also the year when Samuel Huntington’s thesis that Latinos create their own political enclaves without assimilating was rebuffed.
President Obama certainly will get the Hispanic tick. However, what is not clear yet is whether the participation of this community in November polling booths will reach the historic levels of 2008. And this is critical.
As Mark Hugo Lopez from the Pew Hispanic Center put it, the big question will be how many Hispanics will turn up from a total of 23.4 million eligible to vote. This time around, the problem for Obama will be possible low Latino participation in decisive states, such as California, Texas, Florida and Colorado, is low. With a low Latino turnout, he has more to lose than Romney.
In 2008, the massive participation of Hispanics was encouraged by the belief that Obama would be more sympathetic to the demands of Latinos, especially in terms of immigration reform. Four years on, the immigration reforms — including the crucial path to citizenship — have not been introduced. During his administration the number of deported "undocumented" has been the largest in the last three decades.
And while Latinos are showing some signs of cooling down to Obama, they are not warming up to Romney. In the last few months, the Republican hopeful has increased his presence in the barrios with messages in Spanish — especially about his extended family — attempting to emphasise the Republican Party’s family values; a significant Latino tenet.
In his Latino seduction shots, Romney has kept framing his message around the belief — attributed to Ronald Reagan — that "Latinos are Republicans, but they just don’t know it yet." However the historic pattern showing that Hispanics tend to vote two-thirds Democrat and one-third Republican, is making his political seduction a bit tough.
Both Obama and Romney have been tokenistic and shallow while courting the Latino vote. They have done a few media releases in Spanish and have grabbed a few brown-skinned public figures with Spanish names.
This is a clear demonstration that US political leaders — as Tom Zoellner argued in the Atlantic — "fail to understand that Latinos, like any other voters, are motivated far more by bread and butter than by Spanish names or immigration rhetoric." It is neither a one-issue community, nor a monolithic one.
Jobs and the economy are the main concern for most Latinos, ahead of immigration, which has become — in what The Guardian called "the most racially polarised US election" — a highly charged, symbolic and mobilising factor. Todos a Votar! (Let’s Vote) has become a rallying cry in light of the openly racist measures taken against undocumented immigrants.
Nothing reflects this more than Arizona’s S.B. 1070 anti-immigrant bill. Despite some of its provisions being struck down last June in a legal challenge, the harshest "papers please" racial profiling provisions remain. If you look Latino, the likelihood is you will be forced — any time, any place — to pull out your wallet and show your papers. In a tongue in cheek retort, Latinos have reacted to the bill with "I’m Latino" car stickers.
Since 15 June, when Obama announced the decision to stop deporting young undocumenteds who meet some criteria of the 2001 Dream Act, he has experienced a steady rise in Latino support. This is good news for Obama, who in previous months was suffering a drop in enthusiasm for his candidacy.
Romney, on the other hand, didn’t do himself any favours when he opposed Obama’s 15 June decision. Most commentators agree that the Republican Party’s harsh rhetoric on immigration has alienated the Hispanic community. Romney’s target of 38 per cent of Latino voters seems unlikely. According to a recent poll he has plateaued at 28 per cent.
The Republican Party’s opposition to the citizenship path and a modified version of the Dream Act — whereby the legalisation of the undocumented would only be available to those who are willing to become cannon fodder and join the US army — has been repudiated in the barrios.
Just less than two months into the US election, hundreds of Latino organisations — barrio by barrio — have been redoubling their efforts to keep the Latinos engaged in the political contest. Because it is in the barrios where the 6 November election will be defined.
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