The Race for Hispanic Voters Heats Up

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President Obama didn’t hold back any praise on Tuesday during his day-trip to the Caribbean. “Puerto Rican artists contribute to our culture,” he declared at the airport in San Juan, Puerto Rico. “Puerto Rican entreprenuers create American jobs.”

He spoke these words before an audience that has no say in the electoral college that will select the next President of the United States. But his real audience was stateside. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, there are 3.7 million Hispanics who live on the island of Puerto Rico and 4.6 million Hispanics with family origins on the island who live in the mainland United States. The latter number is the one that matters–millions of potential voters for Obama in 2012.

If you haven’t noticed, the 2012 election season is already taking on a Latin flair. The ad that Mitt Romney released Monday was full of Hispanic faces, as was President Obama’s campaign announcement video. Obama recently appointed Katherine Archuleta, a Department of Labor official, as his 2012 campaign’s political director.  Archuleta is, among other things, the founder of the Latina Initiative, a Colorado effort to get more Hispanic voters involved in politics.

The reason for the big push is no secret. A large number of the key swing states in 2012–Nevada, New Mexico, Florida and Colorado, to name the main ones–have significant Hispanic voting populations, which the Obama campaign hopes to turn out in record numbers. The Puerto Rican community is particularly large in Florida, where a 2003 survey found 480,041 Puerto Rican voters, the second largest group, next to the Cuban population of 540,885. Those numbers are almost certainly higher today. Pew found that the number of Hispanic eligible voters grew from 13.2 million in 2000 to 21.3 million in 2010. (For context: In 2008, a high-turnout year, 131 million Americans voted, out of a total voter pool of about 206 million, according to the U.S. Census.)

Republican performance with Hispanics has suffered in recent years, largely because of the backlash against illegal immigration within the party. But the trends are not all negative. Obama and Biden got 67% of the Hispanic vote in 2008, while Democrats got only 60% of the Hispanic vote in 2010. The 2010 elections also brought into office a number of new Republican Hispanic leaders, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Governors Brian Sandoval of Nevada and Susana Martinez of New Mexico.

All of this goes a long way to explain why Obama was ordering a Medianoche sandwich for lunch in Puerto Rico on Tuesday, instead of a Philly Cheese Steak in Pennsylvania, or pulled pork in South Carolina. In this election cycle, even the campaign food will be different. The demographics demand it.