05/23/2012 06:40 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

In Arizona 2012 Election Battle, Can Latinos Swing State For Obama?

Someone trying to draw up a list of election 2012 battleground states would not put Arizona at the top. It's best known in political circles for notorious anti-immigration law SB 1070. It hasn't cast its electoral votes for a Democrat since 1996, when Bill Clinton swept the Electoral College. Its secretary of state recently danced around the idea of kicking President Barack Obama off the ballot over false claims that he was born outside the United States.

But Arizona, at least for now, is confounding the conventional wisdom. In a poll released on April 23, Mitt Romney was beating the president only 42 to 40 percent, well within the survey's margin of error. Subsequent polls, as seen below, seem to show Romney with a more significant lead.

The Obama camp, meanwhile, is claiming that it considers the possibility of winning the state's 11 electoral votes a serious one. In February, campaign manager Jim Messina told volunteers at an Obama for America office in Phoenix -- one of at least four now open in the state -- that "we can win Arizona."

Bruce Merrill, professor emeritus in the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University, oversaw the poll where Obama and Romney were neck-and-neck and said it will be an uphill battle for the president.

"If the election were held next Tuesday, Romney would win in Arizona. I don't really have much doubt about that," Merrill said. "But there's five months left."

If Obama is to win at the end of those next five months, his campaign will have to transform the electorate of a state where Republicans hold a large and increasing 36-to-30 percent party-registration advantage over Democrats. It will have to turn out Latinos -- who are expected to largely back Obama -- to voting booths in numbers never before seen. And it will have to do it in the face of the same economic headwinds that threaten the president's reelection chances everywhere in the country.

New York Times political wonk Nate Silver has argued that if Obama wins Arizona, it will be because of a larger Democratic sweep. Republicans, meanwhile, don't think he can compete in the state at all. Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, told reporters in April that all the talk of Arizona being in play was a "mirage."

"I think Romney is solid in Arizona for a couple reasons," said Scott Smith, the Republican mayor of Mesa, Ariz., and a Romney endorser. "The Republican base, the conservative base, the Mormon base. And the fact that the two things that Arizona really is concerned with -- the economy and immigration -- Obama's not on the side with the majority of Arizonans."

The notion that Obama can take Arizona is "probably wishful thinking on the part of the Obama campaign," Smith said. Still, he does not dismiss out of hand the possibility that the president could make a serious challenge in the state -- he just thinks it's likelier the Obama campaign is attempting to distract the Romney campaign from investing resources elsewhere.

The "big question," Smith said, is whether Latinos will vote. Hispanics of any race made up 29 percent of the state's population in 2010, according to the Census Bureau. They made up 24 percent of its citizens. They made up an even smaller proportion, 21 percent, of its registered electorate. Their electoral weight has historically been even lower, politicians in the state say, because they simply haven't turned out.

"Latino voters have not voted commensurate with their numbers," Smith said. "For Latinos to have a major impact on a statewide election, there's got to be a massive swing in habits."

But there are hints that that swing, mistakenly predicted before the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections, could finally be happening this year. In November, voters in the Mesa-area district represented by state Senate President Russell Pearce voted him out of office. Pearce was the architect and one of the chief advocates of SB 1070, the law requiring police to demand proof of citizenship from anyone suspected of being in the country illegally.

“In an odd way, [Maricopa County Sheriff] Joe Arpaio and Russell Pearce have turned out to be the best thing that could happen in this state,” said Randy Parraz, President of Citizens for a Better Arizona, a Phoenix-area nonprofit that gathered the signatures needed to force a recall election.

To recall Pearce in very red Arizona, Citizens for a Better Arizona and a coalition of nonprofit groups, unions and political operatives trained and deployed as many as 500 volunteers.

“People thought Arizona was a Tea Party state totally controlled by the most right wing of right wing voters. But what we’ve proven is that when Latino voters are engaged, registered and show up to vote, we can turn powerful people, Russell Pearce, out of office. This time, we go into the election knowing that," said Parraz, a Democrat who ran for U.S. Senate in 2010 and an occasional HuffPost blogger.

He and other Latino-voter mobilization advocates say that Arpaio's reelection bid this year, a Department of Justice lawsuit over the sheriff's law enforcement tactics and the U.S. Senate candidacy of Democrat Richard Carmona could energize Latinos as never before. Whether that will happen -- and whether the talk of Arizona as a swing state turns out to be anything more than an Obama campaign fakeout -- may depend on the developing efforts of volunteers like Parraz.

"There are a lot of people who are dismissive and think Latinos don't vote, won't vote in November," Parraz said. "I think they are in for an awakening. We've had ours."