Obama and the Dems’ Strategy to Win in Arizona: Heavy Courtship of Latinos

The president and Democrats are heavily targeting Arizona’s Latinos in the drive to win the state in 2012, says Terry Greene Sterling.

Haraz N. Ghanbari / AP Photo

On a recent Saturday morning in Phoenix, Benjamin Mauricio, an elderly laborer who has lived in the United States for 45 years, decided to become an American citizen. The reason: he wants to vote in November. To learn how to become a citizen, he attended one of several wildly popular Arizona “citizenship clinics” sponsored by the social-justice nonprofit, Mi Familia Vota, and the Spanish-language television network, Univision.

On the same day the clinic was held, on the east side of the Phoenix metro area, Gabby Brown dispatched a group of mostly Anglo Democratic voter-registration volunteers to a multicultural center, a local library, and Latino grocery stores. The stated goal: register as many voters as possible.

“Everyone thinks Arizona is a red state, but it doesn’t need to be,” Brown, a 23-year-old Barnard College graduate who is now a volunteer regional lead for Obama for America, told me. “The way we can win in Arizona is to dramatically reshape the electorate.”

The unbridled get-out-the-vote fervor in Arizona, and the importance of the state in President Obama’s reelection strategy, explains why the president will touch down in Arizona the day after his State of the Union message, to drive home his SOTU talking points at an Intel plant in Chandler, a Phoenix suburb.

By choosing Arizona as a stop in a post-SOTU whirlwind tour of five key states, the Obama campaign signals its determination to win over Arizona, which it lost by 8 percentage points in 2008 to favored son Sen. John McCain. This surprised Democrats, who hadn’t spent much money in Arizona, and gave them hope for winning the state in 2012.

Arizona Dems are further encouraged by redrawn congressional district maps that give them a shot at winning five out of nine districts.

As it now stands, the Arizona electorate is about one-third Democrat, one-third Republican, and one-third Independent, but Democrats hope to register enough Latinos and young voters to change the mix and deliver Arizona to Obama.

Latinos make up about 30 percent of Arizona’s population though historically have low voter turnout. But the “sleeping giant,” galvanized by what it sees as racist legislation and state policy, recently flexed its muscle.

Hispanics were a key force behind two recent political coups—the recall-election defeat of immigration law sponsor and Tea Party Republican state Sen. Russell Pearce, and a Latino firefighter’s trouncing of an established Anglo politico for a Phoenix City Council seat.

Encouraged, Democrats will spend “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in the next months to change the face of the electorate, with voter registration campaigns targeting Arizona Latinos and young voters. “Since we don’t know what turnout is going to look like among the current registration numbers,” a Democratic official said on background, “it’s impossible to know how many we need to register to change the electorate. We just know we’re going to be registering a hell of a lot of new voters.”

“We are confident we can be competitive in Arizona,” Ofelia Casillas, a spokeswoman for Obama for America, wrote in a recent email.

Arizona Latino voters, mirroring a national trend, have been disgruntled with Obama over his failure to honor what they viewed as campaign promises to push through immigration reform and the DREAM Act, which would give permanent residency to young, law-abiding, unauthorized immigrants who attend college or join the military.

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The administration has made moves to help Latinos—changing administrative deportation rules so that noncriminal immigrants who have lived in the United States for years will not be immediately deported, nominating a Latina to the U.S. Supreme Court, mobilizing the U.S. Department of Justice to battle draconian state immigration laws, and continuing a Bush-era investigation of alleged racial profiling by Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s office.

But in Arizona, the everyday stress of feeling targeted by lawmen and laws without hope of comprehensive immigration reform or the DREAM Act eclipsed the administration’s actions.

In his third SOTU, the president extended an olive branch to Latino voters by repeating his support of a law resembling the DREAM Act as well as immigration reform. “We should be working on comprehensive immigration reform right now,” Obama said.

Because the DREAM Act polls well in Arizona, Democrats hope the SOTU will win over disgruntled Latino voters. They plan on emphasizing the “clear choice” between the president and the likely nominee, Mitt Romney, who said he’d veto the DREAM Act, then tempered his view to allow unauthorized immigrants to achieve legal status through military service. Romney also accepted the endorsement of Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who penned the Arizona immigration law.

Still, a recent Rocky Mountain poll has Obama trailing Romney in Arizona. But Romney’s “appeal to non-Caucasians” is low, while younger voters and Latinos favor Obama.

Democrats understand that they need Latino voters to win the state. Arizona Latinos have been targeted in 186 phone banks, 327 voter registration events, and Latino-focused events.

And Latino leaders have been invited to a public “White House Community Action Summit” with administration officials at Arizona State University, three days after the president is scheduled to visit the Intel plant.

Francisco Heredia, state director of Mi Familia Vota, said Latinos will turn out to vote despite any lingering “ill will” for the president because they also care about education and jobs.

“People say we’re the sleeping giant, but I think we’re the ignored giant,” he said. “Now we’re finally getting noticed.”

For Benjamin Mauricio, the legal permanent resident who plans to become a citizen in time to vote in November, the president’s visit at the Intel plant is a start. Like many Latinos, he cares about economic recovery and thinks the president has done a reasonable job, given what he had to work with.

He’s still undecided on who he’ll pick for president, but, like many at the citizenship clinic, believes local elections are key to the well-being of the state’s Latinos. Voting, he said, is “the only way Latinos can stop discrimination and have a voice.”