Four presidential battleground states have sizable Latino populations. Click enlarge for details.
Four presidential battleground states have sizable Latino populations. Click enlarge for details. Lindsay Mangnum/NPR
Ernesto Alas is obsessed with politics. He voted for President Bush twice, and he loved the president's support for legalizing millions of immigrant workers.
When hundreds of thousands of Hispanics marched in the streets nationwide two years ago, Alas was there in Washington, D.C., with his wife and four children. He proudly held the flag of El Salvador, the country he left 25 years ago.
But by September 2006, Alas felt frustrated. The rallies were fizzling. Congress was blocking President Bush's immigration efforts. Mid-term elections loomed.
Fallout From The Immigration Debate
Alas' political wanderings reflect the Hispanic community's shifting political views. In 2004, President Bush made huge inroads and won 40 percent of the Latino vote. This year, this fastest-growing part of the electorate is swinging heavily back to the Democrats -– in part, over the fallout from the increasingly polarized immigration debate.
Many Hispanic voters were pushed in 2006 by a slew of Republican campaign ads targeting illegal immigrants. One ad in Rhode Island linked the use of Mexican consular ID cards to terrorism.
Two years later, a backlash is again shaping up. "There is a new, incredible energy in the Latino community," says Simon Rosenberg, who heads the Washington, D.C.-based think tank NDN, formerly known as the New Democrat Network.
So many Hispanics have become citizens and registered to vote in the past two years, he says, that he estimates they could make up 10 percent of the electorate this November.
"In the primaries, you saw huge, tripling numbers of Latino voters," Rosenberg says. "And that's because this community feels they've got to get in the game. They've got to push back against what they perceive to be the incredible racism that has exploded against them in the last few years."
Drawn To Democrats Over War, Economy
This year, 78 percent of Hispanic primary voters voted Democratic. Alas is one of them, and he counts himself as an early and ardent supporter of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. He thinks the Illinois senator can relate to the concerns of low-wage immigrant workers because Obama himself grew up poor and on food stamps.
Tied closely to Alas' economic worries is his deep concern over the Iraq war. For him, Obama's biggest appeal may be his intention to bring U.S. troops home.
"Every single day, a lot of American people die over there," he said. "Every month, how many millions, billions do we spend in our country? We can do more things over here. But I think the war is over long time ago."
Alas says he has a lot of respect for Republican presidential candidate John McCain, especially his efforts to legalize immigrants. But Alas thinks that the Arizona senator will continue too many of President Bush's policies, including in Iraq.
Danny Vargas of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly says McCain has a reservoir of goodwill with the Hispanic community. Vargas takes comfort in the knowledge that Hispanics often tend to vote for the candidate over the party.
"I think McCain has always demonstrated a willingness to be a leader on issues that are tough," Vargas says. "So I think Hispanics see that as someone who's courageous and willing to do what's right."
Vargas agrees the Hispanic vote this fall could be pivotal, and in Northern Virginia, Alas will be doing his part to make sure of it.
In 2004, Alas was an election officer. He says he was crushed when only a couple dozen eligible voters in his precinct showed up. This time, Alas believes turnout will be far higher, but he's prepared to round up voters and drive them to the polls himself.