The crucial vote in the 2012 elections may have come from a powerful and growing demographic group -- Hispanics. And political parties know it.
Especially in Atlantic County and Cumberland County -- where Hispanics make up 17 and 27 percent of the population, respectively, according to the 2010 U.S. Census -- local parties are reaching out to the South Jersey Hispanic electorate at the same time that groups are working to increase Hispanic voter registration.
"I think there is a lot more focus within the Latino community itself to go out and vote," said Bert Lopez, president of the Hispanic Alliance of Atlantic County and host of the television program Latino Motion. "In fact, Spanish (language) media has always encouraged people to go out and vote."
The Pew Research Center found that Hispanics made up 10 percent of the national electorate, up from 9 percent in 2008 and 8 percent in 2004. Most notably, Hispanics voted for President Barack Obama over Mitt Romney by 71 to 27 percent, exit polls stated. President George W. Bush had received as much as 40 percent of the Hispanic vote as recently as 2004.
Jorge Coombs, who heads Hispanic voter outreach for the Atlantic County Republicans, said that the local party works with its statewide counterpart -- led by Jose Sosacq, the first Hispanic mayor of Mount Holly -- to learn "different strategies to reach out within the community and take more of a grass-roots approach, to talk to church and community groups."
Republicans, he said, "and this has been the problem at the national level, have to be well aware of the issues on the minds of voters. You see in the results of the past election the issues people felt the party wasn't addressing."
Coombs, a Chilean immigrant from Galloway Township, is an immigration attorney with the firm of Youngblood, Lafferty & Sampoli in Linwood, "and it's my business to know and hear what's being discussed from much of the community. Immigration reform is definitely on the mind of individuals. Even though Hispanics who are voting have legal status, they work with people or have people in their family who have immigration issues."
Stances on immigration issues -- such as many Republicans opposing the DREAM Act, which provides a path for citizenship for undocumented immigrants who serve in the military or meet other requirements, and Romney calling for undocumented immigrants to "self-deport" -- severely hurt Republicans with Hispanics in 2012 and in recent elections, said Michael Busler, a fellow at the William Hughes Center for Public Policy at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, leading the party into "an identity crisis."
"Historically, Hispanics have sided more with the Republican Party, particularly when George W. Bush ran in 2000 and 2004," Busler said. "However, in the last election Hispanics voted overwhelmingly Democratic. Democrats have a more liberal view on immigration reform than Republicans do. ... Republicans are going to have to take the lead in immigration reform and come up with something not so rigid."
Jim Schroeder, the chairman of the Atlantic County Democrats, agreed that Republican policies at the national level "really caused a significant shift in voting behavior for Latinos."
"But the extreme right in the Republican Party won't allow moderates to address the problem," Schroeder said. "It sent a message to Hispanic voters that they're not welcome in their party."
As for themselves, the Democrats "have had plans over time to try and expand our outreach," he said. "And we had Senator (Robert) Menendez on the ballot this year, probably one of the most successful Hispanic elected officials in the country."
Returning to the Republicans, the other big local issue, Coombs said, "is jobs. A lot of Hispanics work in the service industry and a lot work in the casinos in unions. So we have outreach to Local 54 (UNITE-HERE) and outreach in community groups, looking to expand upon (the Hispanic vote) in the next election. And it's still growing, obviously."
A full third of the Hispanic population below voting age, according to the Hughes Center, meaning that much of the Hispanic vote is still untapped.
"Specific efforts by different groups to go out and get the Latino vote are paying off," Lopez said. Besides Spanish-language media, he said, groups such as Democracia USA, which has a chapter based in Philadelphia, have long advocated for increased registration.
"And even when you look at Facebook, you see messages like 'Time to vote'," Lopez said. "They're working in social media like everyone else."
In the end, Coombs said, "The Hispanic voter, the Latino voter, they don't want to be in the position where the party is out on Election Day saying, 'What can I do for you?' Voters want to feel that the Republican Party -- or any party -- is well-versed in what issues are important to them. (Just) telling people you're aware of the issues, and you'll work on them, is probably not going to do it. But if a candidate conveys (knowledge), and the person on the street knows that, that means something to a voter."
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