The number of registered Latino voters living in North Carolina has doubled in the last four years, likely cementing North Carolina’s status as a swing state, according to a study released this week by the Institute for Southern Studies.
This month, North Carolina's voter rolls included 91,554 Latino voters. That's more than twice the 44,719 Latino registered voters in the state in May 2008.
"This is a significant achievement that is due to several factors," Carlos Casallas, the coordinator of special projects for the North Carolina state election board, told Agencia Efe, a Spanish-language news service and Fox New Latino partner on Wednesday.
"Hispanics from other states are moving to the area and registering to vote, registration campaigns in the community, naturalizations of resident immigrants and 18-year-old youths are more excited about participating in the electoral process," he said.
While the number of Latinos registered to vote in North Carolina has grown rapidly, Latinos comprise eight percent of the state's population and only about two percent of the state’s total electorate, according to the study. However, along with black registered voters, Latinos comprise nearly 25 percent of the adults registered to vote in North Carolina. Given that both black and Latino voters overwhelmingly register and vote for Democrats and the overall Latino population is growing at a faster clip than other groups, North Carolina is headed toward political power shift, the study found.
"The work over 22 years to register Hispanics and motivate them to go to the polls ... finally has born fruit," German De Castro, part of the Hispanic Voters of Mecklenburg Group, told Efe on Wednesday. Mecklenburg County is centered around Charlotte, the city where the Democratic National Convention will be held in September.
"These figures will attract the attention of the parties and I'm sure they will pay more attention to our community, De Castro continued, “sending working teams to seek support, but our challenge will be to demonstrate our voting power next Nov. 6," he said.
At minimum, neither party can claim a firm hold on the once solidly Republican state.
In 2008, President Barack Obama became the first Democrat to carry North Carolina since 1976. But Obama won narrowly by just under 15,000 votes. The 20,468 votes cast by Latinos were “indispensible,” Fox News Latino reported.
But this year, North Carolina’s political terrain has grown rocky for Democrats, ABC News reported. National Labor unions, another core Democratic Party constituency, are unhappy about the decision to hold the party’s convention in North Carolina, a state where unions represent just 4.1 percent of the workforce, the smallest share in the a nation, according to federal data. This month, North Carolina voters also approved a state constitutional ban on gay marriage, putting the state's sentiments at apparent odds with Obama’s self-described evolution on the same subject.
An aggregate of polls conducted between January and May places Romney and Obama in a dead tie, with each candidate claiming 45.9 percent of North Carolina voters. However, polls released this week by Survey USA -- a New Jersey polling and research firm known for it’s fully-automated touch-tone telephone surveys -- and the Raleigh, N.C.-based conservative advocacy organizaiton Civitas/ National Research revealed Romney enjoys a very slight lead.
Check out our slideshow on Top Latino Moments During The Campaign
If not the most memorable moment of the run-up to the Florida GOP primary, the most comical one had to be Mitt Romney's oxymoronic addition to the English language: self-deportation. At a Florida debate and in response to a question regarding if whether to enforce his position on illegal immigration, he would support mass deportations, Romney answered "Well, the answer is self-deportation, which is people decide they can do better by going home because they can't find work here because they don't have legal documentation to allow them to work here." Romney's use of the term 'self-deportation' and his genuine belief in it as a viable means to deal with the 13 million undocumented immigrants who would not be allowed to remain in the U.S., led to substantial social media outcry, an attack by his primary opponent, Newt Gingrich (to be expected), and a measure of agreement from fellow candidate Rick Santorum. Amazing.
Newt Gingrich didn't waste any time in 2012. In early January, he visited Little Havana's Café Versailles restaurant, a traditional stop for politicians looking to rally support among Miami's Cuban-American population. Gingrich drank Cuban coffee and conversed with the restaurant staff, who by now must be used to politicians stopping by to score points among Latino voters. Strangely enough, they applauded once he was finished with his coffee. GIngrich didn't miss a beat and told his audience how President of the U.S. his goal will be "to create a Cuban Spring that is even more exciting than the Arab Spring." He also talked about this stance on immigration, which he qualifies as more "humane" than the positions of his GOP primary opponents. Nothing like spicy politicking to go with your café con leche.
An crucial moment in the Florida race was the endorsement of Mitt Romney by Florida's self-proclaimed "three amigos," Republican Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Mario Diaz-Balart and Lincoln Diaz-Balart. The Miami Herald calls this the "ultimate Cuban-American endorsement trifecta." But this too led to controversy as these three Cuban-American politicians who now support Romney's candidacy -- and its conservative approach to immigration reform and threatened DREAM act veto -- have track records as advocates for comprehensive immigration reform and passing the DREAM Act. "Those three in particular have had a history of supporting measures like the DREAM Act ... but everyone wants stability in the Republican party and they likely think Romney is the most likely to provide that," said Kristian Ramos, a policy director at the NDN & New Policy Institute, a Washington D.C.-based think tank to The Huffington Post. In the 2008 primary the trio endorsed Sen. John McCain -- over Romney -- due in part to his own advocacy for immigration reform.
A new generation of Latino leaders is emerging in Florida politics. Cuban-American senator, Marco Rubio, is undoubtedly the most well-known figure in this new emerging political group. "Obviously, probably Marco Rubio is on the top of the list in terms of young Hispanics leading the effort in the state," conservative activist Jeb Bush Jr., the son of Florida's former governor and nephew of former President George W. Bush, told The Huffington Post. Rubio's name comes up in every list of possible vice presidential candidates. Thus far, however, he has remained neutral in the primary race. Other Latinos who are gaining influence in Florida's Republican and conservative circles include Rep. David Rivera, who's backing cNewt Gingrich, Florida House Majority Leader Carlos Lopez-Cantera and state Rep. Erik Fresen.
Last Thursday's GOP debate confirmed that the Latino vote is a dominant factor in the Florida primary. From the earliest moments of the debate, issues such as immigration reform, the DREAM Act, relations with Cuba, Puerto Rico's status, Latinos who could serve in a Republican Cabinet, and more were catnip to the candidates who were each seeking to wow the audience. Gingrich stood strong in his attack that Romney is the most "anti-immigrant" candidate in the GOP race. Romney defended himself by calling the comments "inflammatory and inappropriate." Romney then went on to criticize a Gingrich TV ad as an example of "over the top rhetoric." The debate turned to focus on Cuba a few times, with Romney saying, "It is time for us to strike for freedom in Cuba, and I will do so as president." Gingrich, who had appeared earlier at Florida International University, reiterated his support for a 'Cuban Spring' if he is elected president.
In an effort to win the Latino vote, Newt Gingrich came out with a radio ad in Spanish perfectly attuned to the local audience in his reiterated stance against the Castro brothers' regime in Cuba. Comically, the ad also tried to associate Mitt Romney to the local hatred of Cuba's regime, by criticizing Romney's 2008 use of a phrase often associated with Fidel Castro, "patria o muerte, venceremos," which translates to "fatherland or death, we shall overcome." But, perhaps aware that further down the road, other Latino voters will be more interested in immigration reform than Cuban relations, Gingrich went for broke and labeled Mitt Romney as 'anti-immigrant' in the ad.
While campaigning in Hialeah, Florida, Romney gave the crowd what they wanted to hear, speaking forcefully of the need to defeat the current dictators in Cuba and Venezuela. So far, so good. But then he asked his young son, Craig, to speak to the mostly Cuban-American crowd in Spanish. Stepping up to the mic, Craig said, "Mi papá no habla español."
At January's Hispanic Leadership Network conference in Miami, both Gingrich and Romney delivered speeches with the express aim of attracting the conservative Latino voter, specifically Florida's Cuban-Americans. Romney spoke passionately about freedom, which is a key issue for Cubans in the U.S. given that so many fled the authoritarian Castro regime in Cuba. Gingrich also spoke about freedom, and tried to outdo Romney with his vocal support for a 'Cuban spring' and regime change in the island some 90 miles away.
Distancing himself from the harsh, anti-immigrant rhetoric that's characterized this year's Republican primaries, Ron Paul voiced a clear and more compassionate view regarding the subject during a conference in Nevada, where the Texas congressman said he favors a policy that doesn't rely on "barbed-wire fences and guns on our border." Paul criticized politicians for blaming immigrants for the current economic situation in the country. "When things go badly, individuals look for scapegoats," Paul said according to the Huffington Post. "Hispanics, the immigrants who have come in, are being used as scapegoats." He went on to compare the current anti-immigrant rhetoric to Nazi Germany's targeting of Jews in the 1930s. Paul said he was against laws that would require people to carry around identity papers to prove their legal status in the country.
In an interview with Univision, Sen. John McCain said that Republican candidates should adopt a "very humane approach" to immigration in order to secure Latino votes. McCain, who endorsed Mitt Romney earlier this year has since distanced himself from the candidate's stance on immigration and even publicly criticized Romney's "self-deportation" plan. McCain, like Romney, opposes the DREAM Act.
Romney named former Governor Pete Wilson-- a well known immigration hard-liner-- as Honorary Chairman of his California campaign. "I'm honored to have Governor Pete Wilson's support, because he's one of California's most accomplished leaders," Romney said on his website as reported by Fox News Latino. "As governor of California from 1991 to 1999, he led California from the depths of recession to prosperous economic recovery." But former Gov. Wilson is not only remembered for his economic policies, but also for his hostile stance against undocumented immigrants in the mid 90s. Wilson supported Proposition 187 in 1994, which essentially blamed undocumented immigrants for the poor performance of the state's economy. The law called for cutting off benefits to undocumented immigrants: prohibiting their access to health care, public education, and other social services in California. Prop 187 was ultimately blocked by federal court.