IOWA CITY -- Presidential candidates in the 2012 Iowa Caucus clamor for attention, addressing doctors, teachers, bankers and Joe Sixpack. But in all the noise, the voice of one of America's fastest-growing populations is lost. The voice of José Sixpack.
Latino voters, the group credited with swinging battleground states into the Obama camp in 2008, are routinely underrepresented in Iowa's caucuses. Some experts worry this political isolation could diminish their presence at the polls.
Voter apathy among Hispanics may not matter much now. Pew Hispanic Center estimates show eligible Latino voters comprise just 2 percent of Iowa's voter population.
But their numbers are growing. In a few years, their ballot power could turn them into a voice the politicians must listen to. Roughly 64 percent of Iowa's Latino population is below the voting age, compared to 23.7 percent of the general population.
For now, though, the Hispanic population frequently feels forgotten and powerless, contributing to a sense that their vote doesn't matter, said Gina Rosales, a coordinator for the nonprofit Centro Latino in Council Bluffs.
"They are calling the police every day to report robberies or vandalism," Rosales said. "Nothing happens. People think, ‘If the authorities don't do anything, why should I care about them?'"
Many Latinos in Iowa face prejudice and language barriers that isolate them, Rosales said.
Rosales described the account of a local woman who was walking home after dropping her kids off at school.
The police stopped her and asked a question, Rosales said. The woman didn't understand the English question, "but she was accused of lying to the police. They detained her and she spent time in jail."
Cornelia Flora, an Iowa State University sociology professor, said some Hispanic-American citizens might be afraid of drawing attention to themselves by going to vote.
"There is a lot of anti-brown agitation going on. A lot of hate," Flora said. "People often don't differentiate between someone who might be here with documentation and someone who is not. (In some rural counties) people are running for sheriff saying they are going to get rid of all the illegals."
EMOTIONS RUN HIGH
Just as anti-Hispanic attitudes drift north, the immigration debate extends from the traditionally contentious border states and into Iowa's farm fields.
Over one-third of Latino voters said the most important issue for the Latino community was immigration reform and the DREAM Act, according to national polls conducted by impreMedia, a Hispanic news company, and Latino Decisions, a research organization. The act would enable immigrant children to work towards citizenship by earning a college degree or serving in the military.
Rosales said immigration issues severely affect Iowa Latinos. She talked about a woman who raised her kids on her own while waiting two-and-a-half years for her husband's immigration to be approved. She had to declare bankruptcy, Rosales said, because she didn't have a spouse to shoulder half of the economic burden.
"The one who stays here is affected emotionally," Rosales said. "It is stressful and they are in a hostile environment. They have to ask the government for help with food and medicine, because they can't achieve that themselves."
Roughly 25 percent of the Latino Decisions poll responders listed unemployment as the most important issue. Then came education with 20 percent and "fixing the economy" at 18 percent.
Rita Vargas, the county recorder for Scott County, said the economy is a key issue among Hispanic voters in her county.
"Traditionally, when the economy isn't good, that's who ends up in the unemployment line," she said.
Overall unemployment hovered at 9.1 percent, while unemployment among Hispanics remained at 11.3 percent, according to the September news release from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Flora seconded the importance of economic reform among Hispanic voters, but she said the lack of resolution in the immigration reform is "like a cloud that hangs over everything."
A VOTE UNDEFINED
Latino voters are more likely than others to vote based upon policy positions instead of party affiliation, said Rene Rocha, a University of Iowa political science professor who specializes in racial politics.
Because first- and second-generation Latino voters are generally raised by parents without strong party loyalty, they do not form a strong attachment to one party or another, Rocha said.
Democrats usually appeal to first-generation voters on economic and immigration policies, so they tend to vote Democrat, Rocha said. The second generation is still malleable, but trends towards Democrats. By the third generation, party affiliation is often set.
Within the next 40 years, Iowa Latinos will be largely third-generation, Rocha said. If political trends continue, this generation will favor Democrats.
"The first-generation is more socially conservative," Rocha said, ironically noting that "the segment of the Latino vote that the Republicans are likely to attract on social issues is the section they alienate due to immigration."
Some Republican candidates have tried appealing to Hispanic voters based on social issues, said Rubén Martinez, the director of the Julian Samora Research Institute, a Latino research center at Michigan State University. They are unlikely to meet with success, he added.
"Latinos may not be participating, but they recognized what is going on," he said. "Social issues are not going to have a lot of play in the upcoming election because of wide-spread racism, which has increased in the last decade, as well as the current economic situation."
All told, Rocha stressed that the Latino electorate forms a fairly stable base of Democratic votes.
"It's hard to see a significant change in the foreseeable future," Rocha added.
OBAMA VIES FOR LOST GROUND
However, a number of pundits and polls have commented on the recent dip in Latino approval ratings for President Obama, suggesting an opening for Republican candidates to win swing votes.
Obama is sinking in the eyes of Hispanic voters, according to recent polls by Resurgent Republic, a conservative polling organization, and by Latino Decisions.
A majority of respondents in the Resurgent Republic poll said Obama "has not delivered" on promises he made to Hispanic voters, such as regarding immigration reform.
Obama seems to be trying to regain this lost fervor.
On Sept. 14, he addressed the Hispanic Caucus, appealing to Latino voters by referencing the DREAM Act. He pointed to Republicans as the roadblock. They helped draft the act, he said, but then reneged when Senate Republicans blocked the passage of the bill through the Senate.
"Nothing about the language in the legislation changed," Obama said. "The only thing that changed was politics in Washington."
Rocha also noticed a shift in Obama's policy as the president called on the Department of Homeland Security to focus on deporting only illegal immigrants with criminal records. Rocha said this was intended to "shore up the Latino base."
"He's saying that ‘I can't push reform through Congress, so now I'm going to unilaterally liberalize immigration policy to the extent that I can,'" Rocha explained. "He is counting on that base."
As a result of this prioritization, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, a branch of the Department of Homeland Security, published a press release on Sept. 28 announcing the arrest of more than 2,900 "convicted criminal aliens."
2012 AND BEYOND
Following the 2008 election, pundits and scholars credited the Hispanic voting block with providing then Obama, then a U.S. senator, the extra boost needed to win swing-state delegates. Hispanic voters went 67 percent to 31 percent for Obama over his competitor, U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., according to Pew Hispanic Center data.
The Resurgent Republic's poll analysis found that to "remain competitive in the future ... Republicans must increase their share of the Hispanic vote."
Despite this recognized influence, Latino voters in Iowa, and across the nation, have received little attention from candidates.
Granted, Iowa's Latino vote won't be large enough to decide the 2012 caucuses. But the Hispanic electorate of the future could pack a punch.
A National Council of La Raza study reveals that registered Hispanic voters increased by over 20 percent in 2004, while overall registration increased by less than 10 percent. In 2008, Hispanic voters increased by roughly 25 percent, and total voters by less than 5 percent.
"Twenty years ago, Latinos were a non-existent part of the electorate," Rocha said. "Now they are a marginal part. As the Latino population gets larger and more assimilated, we will see an increased clout in the Latino vote."
"Latinos are going to triple in the next 30 years," said Martinez, the Samora research director, noting they will form roughly one-third of the future population. "If Latinos are not incorporated into our institutions ... this country loses out. This country as an inclusive democracy begins to diminish."
So far, Martinez said, there have been few efforts to incorporate Hispanic voters, especially from the Republican Party.
"There needs to be some very determined steps to ensure they become full-fledged, participating citizens," he said. "Mainstream voters understand the system. If they decide not to vote, not to participate, that is an informed decision. When you have people who are institutionally isolated, that's different. I don't think we need to change (the caucus system), but there is a need to educate and incorporate all members of society."