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Latino Excitement at Record Levels in U.S. Election

WASHINGTON, Oct 29 2012 (IPS) - Just over a week before the United States votes in a highly anticipated and historically tight presidential election, a new poll released Monday finds that interest by Latino voters has strengthened significantly over the past two months, and that turnout among Hispanics could be higher than the records set in 2008.

According to the latest impreMedia-Latino Decisions poll of registered Hispanic voters, 45 percent say they are more excited about the current election than they were for the 2008 election, when Barack Obama was elected. That number has gone up by eight percent over the past 10 weeks, when the poll was first taken.

Further, a full 87 percent of respondents say they would most likely be voting when national polling sites open on Nov. 6, with eight percent having already taken advantage of the early voting options made available in certain states. During the last presidential election, 84 percent of registered Latino voters cast ballots – far higher than the U.S. national turnout, of 57 percent, that same year.

The high levels of interest mean that Latinos will further cement the community’s importance in the current and, particularly, future election. Hispanics make up one of the single fastest-growing sectors of the U.S. population, with around 50,000 Latino youths currently becoming eligible to vote every month.

To date, they have tended to vote overwhelmingly for the Democratic Party. The prospect has reportedly led to existential debates within the Republican Party, which has seen its voter base – which skews older and whiter than the Democratic base – continue to shrink as a percentage of the overall voting public.

“The polls show that this year we can anticipate record participation among Latino voters,” Monica Lozano, the head of impreMedia, said Monday in a statement. “It looks like the ‘sleeping giant’ has woken up.”

The new numbers will receive particular scrutiny given the general lack of Spanish-language polling that has taken place during the campaign season, despite a massive amount of polling figures coming out on a daily basis.

In mid-October, the widely watched pollster Nate Silver suggested that the relative lack of Spanish-language respondents could increase Barack Obama’s figures by around a dozen percentage points, including in some of the most strongly contested “swing” states, such as Florida and Colorado, that will eventually decide the election.

Indeed, the strong new numbers will be particularly welcomed by Obama’s campaign, which has made the Latino vote a central pillar of its strategy. In an initially off-the-record interview released last week, Obama stated, “Since this is off the record, I will just be very blunt. Should I win a second term, a big reason … is because the Republican nominee and the Republican Party have so alienated the fastest-growing demographic group in the country, the Latino community.”

The president also noted that this “alienation” of Latinos by Republicans is a “relatively new phenomenon”. This is seen as referring to a host of new and pending laws enforcing voter identification requirements that many have suggested would impact particularly on Latino and other minority voters – typically strongholds for the Democratic Party.

According to a new report released last week by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO), “More than 100 years of virtually unchecked discrimination at the polls against Latino U.S. citizens” is now being compounded by a “significant added obstruction in the form of restrictive state voting laws … (that) will have a worse effect on the Latino electorate than on all voters.”

NALEO suggests that these new policies could negatively impact on around 219,000 Latino voters across the country this election, a number it calls a “conservative estimate”. Indeed, after the U.S. courts recently halted proceedings in several states planning to institute new voter ID laws, the report suggests that number would have been closer to 835,000.

Notably, a Republican state official has been caught on tape stating that such legislation was being enacted specifically in order to help the Republican challenger Mitt Romney’s chances of election.

While the presidential race is currently considered a statistical dead heat, Romney appears to hold a slight edge in the national popular vote, while Obama is seen as up in the critical state-by-state “electoral college”.

Three-quarters for Obama

According to the new findings, around 73 percent of Latino voters say they trust the Obama administration more on issues of righting the economy, compared to just 18 percent that back Romney, almost identical to the numbers that say they will vote one way or another. This spread, the Latino Decisions analysis states, “matches the largest gap among Latinos this year”.

Still, many Latinos have considered Obama’s tenure as president to be a letdown, at least in contrast to the high expectations that met his election. Despite high hopes by immigration activists, for instance, Obama was only able to institute a limited piece of favourable legislation – an executive order deferring deportation for certain children of illegal migrants – in August of this year.

The move, though widely lauded by the Latino community and others, was quickly characterised as pandering to Hispanic voters in the context of a tight election year. Beyond this, Obama’s initial pledges of a massive overhaul of U.S. immigration law became one of the more high-profile casualties of the president’s politically costly focus on health-care reform.

Still, according to the new poll, Latino voters are planning to turn out in large numbers in support of Obama. While Romney had initially hoped to build on George W. Bush’s inroads into the Hispanic vote, Romney’s strategy of focusing on jobs and the economy – mirroring his broader campaign – rather than on immigration now looks to have been fairly unsuccessful.

Campaign observers are quick to note, however, that this does not mean that the Latino vote should be seen as monolithic, or that, as one Romney spokesperson noted last week, Obama should be able to take Hispanic voters for granted.

“While Obama has maintained a large lead among Latinos throughout the campaign, the data shows that over one-third of Latino voters are not sure that things will actually improve under a second Obama term,” Matt Barreto, a co-founder of Latino Decisions, said Monday in introducing the new polling data.

On the election’s most significant issue, the still-stuttering U.S. economy, Barreto notes that most Latino voters blame political gridlock in Congress. Over 40 percent of respondents believe that neither Obama nor Romney will be able to forge cooperation in Washington.

“In the final week of this campaign, the candidates need to connect with Latino voters,” Barreto says, “and explain how they will somehow be able to break the impasse in Congress and get things done.”

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