Latinos make up a small slice of the Iowa electorate, but they could play a big role in the 2012 election.
With the Republican Party of Iowa making big gains in voter registration, Democrats and President Obama's re-election campaign are looking for a boost from the small but growing Iowa Latino population.
"This election will be decisive for the Latino community -- and the outcome will hinge on whether Latinos get involved," said Obama for America Iowa Director Brad Anderson.
Peruvian-born Alejandro Pino of Cedar Rapids welcomes that attention. However, he recalls hearing similar sentiments four years ago.
"We get a lot of attention during the campaign," said Pino, whose family moved to Cedar Rapids when he was 10. "We need to continue that dialogue or we'll be having the same conversation in four years."
Pino, 35, a member of the Iowa Commission on Latino Affairs, and other Latinos leaders see an increase in participation by Latinos.
Younger Latinos are more educated about the political process than their parents' said Paula Martinez of Carlisle, a former Latino affairs commissioner and a second-term chairwoman of the Iowa Democratic Party's Latino caucus.
"They see that this is where you get places," she said, referring to the political process.
Latino numbers in Iowa have grown substantially over the past decade. The 2000 census found 69,000 Latinos living in Iowa. That number jumped 84 percent in 2010 to 151,500, or 5 percent of the state's 3,062,309 residents.
According to one projection, Latino numbers in Iowa will grow to more than 415,000 or nearly 12 percent of the state's population by 2040.
Nearly half of the Latinos live in six counties: Polk, Woodbury, Scott, Muscatine, Marshall and Johnson. More than half of the growth between 2000 and 2010 was in seven counties: Polk, Woodbury, Marshall, Johnson, Pottawattamie, Linn and Scott.
Latinos make up about 2 percent of the registered voters in Iowa and trend Democratic. Obama received about 67 percent of the Latino vote nationwide in 2008.
However, Pino and Martinez believe both parties have opportunities to reach Latinos because, like their non-Latino neighbors, they are focused on bread-and-butter issues and those things that affect their upward mobility and quality of life. Jobs and the economy, family safety, health care and wealth inequality are what move Latino voters, Pino said.
"It's the things we've been needing for a long time -- just like the majority population," said Martinez, chairwoman of the Iowa Democratic Party's Latino caucus.
In a Pew Hispanic Center poll before the 2010 mid-term election 60 percent of Latinos ranked education as "extremely important" and more than half ranked health care and jobs as "extremely important."
Pino, who works for Premier Staffing after nearly 10 years as intercultural affairs coordinator for his alma mater, Loras College, predicts it's just a matter of time before young Latinos and politicians realize the power of their votes.
This year, he said, Latinos in battleground states like Iowa could play a super-sized role in the election because the Obama campaign is hoping to boost Latino turnout in an effort to offset GOP gains in voter registration since 2008.
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