PHOENIX -- It's no coincidence that Barack Obama's 2012 campaign will open its fourth Arizona office in the middle of the heavily Latino neighborhood of Glendale. Betting on the increase in eligible Latino voters, and on the mobilization generated by anti-immigrant politics here, Democrats are hoping that Arizona won't just be competitive in November, but that it will swing to the Democratic column.
The last Democratic presidential candidate to win the state was Bill Clinton in 1996.
While Republicans continue to look for a nominee, Obama for America is expanding its presence in states that will be key to the president's reelection -- not just those he won in 2008, but some that he lost, like Arizona, where the Latino vote could push him over the top. It's part of a strategy to use western states to compensate for the states he might lose in other parts of the country.
In 2008, Obama lost Arizona by only nine percentage points, despite the fact that it was the native state of the Republican nominee, Senator John McCain. McCain won with 54% of the vote to Obama's 45%.
So far, Obama for America has conducted over 237 phone banks, dozens of events concerning issues of interest to Latinos, and over 439 voter-registration drives.
Rudy Espino, an adjunct professor of political science at Arizona State University (ASU), thinks it's probable that Arizona will be more competitive in 2012.
"Every election cycle, as the Latino population grows, and if you couple that with the fact that the Republican Party in Arizona has been pushing Latinos further and further away from them, it creates the possibility of putting Arizona in that so-called 'swing state' category like we hear about Florida, New Mexico and Nevada. I don't think it's gonna be at the level of competition of, let's say, New Mexico or Nevada, per se, but it's moving more in that direction, certainly," he said.
Arizona will also be more competitive since the next Republican candidate won't be a native of the state. "That home state effect -- it's not going to be present in 2012," Espino said.
"There's two factors in play that will determine how Latinos will play a role if anything at all. One is how much Republicans push them away, and the other is how much Democrats work to court that Latino vote," he added. "Democrats can't just sit there and expect that, with all the ant-immigrant rhetoric, Republicans are going to chase Latino voters straight into their arms. Latino voters want to see some tangible evidence that the Democratic Party is doing something for them and their concerns."
On the eve of the Republican primary in the state, the Phoenix headquarters of Obama for America conducted a phone bank targeting potential Latino Democratic and independent voters.
Democratic National Committee (DNC) vice-chair Linda Chávez-Thompson thanked volunteers for their help "turning Arizona into a blue state for Obama" because "the (Republican) alternative is a nightmare."
Even though Obama hasn't fulfilled his promise to introduce and pass comprehensive immigration reform, Chávez-Thompson said that the treatment of immigrants in Arizona "resonates" with first-, second- and third-generation Hispanics. "Especially here in Arizona, that resonates with Latinos and we intend to make that message heard loud and clear," she said.
Dee Dee García-Blase, founder of the National Tequila Party, said that Democrats had a pair of key weapons at their disposal -- former State Senate president Russell Pearce, the key sponsor of SB 1070, and Sheriff Joe Arpaio -- that they could use to encourage Hispanics in Arizona to register and mobilize, like they'd done with Tom Tancredo for Hispanics in Colorado in 2010. "If the Democratic Party emulates the Colorado blueprint, they can most certainly turn this state blue this year," said García Blase, who has abandoned the Republican Party to become an independent and concentrates her efforts on voter registration.
Matt Barreto, co-founder of the polling firm Latino Decisions and an adjunct professor of political science at the University of Washington, pointed out that the Democrats' challenge is to counteract a lack of enthusiasm among Latino voters. On one side, these voters feel attacked by Republicans, but on the other they feel frustrated by the lack of immigration reform, a defining issue for many of them when it comes to whether and for whom they'll vote.
But as the general election approaches, Barreto said, voters will see clear contrasts between the policies Obama wants to implement, even though he hasn't yet succeeded with all of them, and those the Republican nominee wants. "That will get Latino voters starting to think about the importance of voting."
Early polls show lots of disinterest among Latino voters, but when the campaign intensifies, "we have found that sometimes the people who are the most frustrated are also often very politically knowledgeable" and most likely to participate in the political process.
Barreto thinks the Obama campaign should focus not just on mobilizing Hispanic voters, but on registering them. Democrats did this with African-American voters in Virginia, North Carolina and Indiana in 2008, and those efforts alone ensured that those states were competitive and ultimately won by Obama.
"If Arizona is to become truly competitive -- not just to get closer for the Democrats, but a state that they truly can win -- they absolutely have to focus on Latino voter registration because there are hundreds of thousands of Latinos in Arizona who are citizens and eligible to vote, but who are not yet registered," Barreto said.
If more Latinos register, more will vote. In places like Arizona and Nevada, where Latinos lean Democratic, Barreto concluded, adding more voters to the rolls will pay enormous dividends for Democrats.