WASHINGTON -- Hispanic vote strategists from both parties agreed on Tuesday that the Latino vote could have a major impact even in unexpected place: Ohio, increasingly considered the key state to an electoral victory.
Still, if Latinos want to have a bigger influence in the state, it would help if there were more of them there, Republican strategist Ana Navarro said at a National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials event.
"If we want immigration done, some of us are going to have to bite the bullet and move to Ohio," the Florida resident, who supports immigration reform, said to laughs from the crowd. "Get big winter coats and just make the sacrifice for the cause."
NALEO released a report on Tuesday detailing its predictions for the Latino vote and Latino representation in politics, exactly two weeks before the 2012 elections take place. Its executive director, Arturo Vargas, told reporters they expect a record Latino turnout of 12.2 million nationwide, and an increase in Latinos in Congress.
In Ohio, Latinos make up only 3.2 percent of the population. But they still could influence the results, Vargas said.
"Although Ohio may not be a Latino-rich state, a state with two, three percent of the electorate that's Latino could, in fact, make a difference in a state that's evenly divided," he said.
States with larger Latino populations will also prove important, Vargas pointed out, specifically Florida, Nevada, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico.
No one at the event denied President Barack Obama is winning with Latinos, and that Democratic candidates are also leading among Latinos in general. That doesn't mean Democrats can rest on their laurels, however -- and neither they nor Republicans are doing so. The other panelist, Democratic strategist Maria Cardona, said she thinks Obama may be able to take Florida, where both he and GOP nominee Mitt Romney have put in significant resources to win the Latino vote.
"In Florida specifically, if President Obama continues to focus on his message to the Hispanic community, I think he can take Florida, but it is razor-thin," Cardona said. "I think the Hispanic vote will actually be the deciding factor."
Cardona and Navarro both praised one element of Obama's outreach to Latino voters. His campaign released an ad with him speaking in Spanish -- and not badly -- even though he doesn't actually speak the language.
Navarro pointed out that he's not an actual Spanish-speaker and that many Latinos know it. But that's not to say it's a bad strategy, she said.
"My advice to anybody wanting to run for office nationally or in some of these states where the Hispanic vote matters is get yourself a Rosetta Stone now," she said, referring to the language program. "Start practicing, start doing your enunciation because we give you points for effort, and I think it was a smart tactic for President Obama."
Immigration may also be a boon for Obama and Democrats, despite frustration among reform-minded Latinos over the president's record deportation figures. His June decision to stop deporting some undocumented young people was a political move, but it was nonetheless the right thing to do for immigrants, Navarro said.
Meanwhile, Republicans may be shooting themselves in the foot on the issue, she and Vargas said, particularly in Arizona, where Gov. Jan Brewer (R) signed the SB 1070 law to police immigration and Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio is known for his controversial treatment of undocumented immigrants found in raids by his office.
Navarro said she still expects Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) to beat Democratic candidate Richard Carmona -- who is of Puerto Rican descent -- in the race for an open Senate seat there. But it would be in spite of the damage done by immigration actions, she said.
"If we do lose that Senate seat, I would say to Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Governor Jan Brewer, 'You built that,'" she said.