As North Carolina Becomes Yet Another Swing State, Could Latinos Have an Impact?

North Carolina is now considered a swing state, and the Obama campaign has been targeting Latinos there. But the state’s Latino voting population is still relatively small. Could Hispanic voters have an influence on the allocation of the state’s fifteen electoral votes? Feet in 2 Worlds interviewed Gregory B. Weeks, an associate professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, to talk about this.
North Carolina at on Tuesday Oct. 21

North Carolina at on Tuesday Oct. 21

It seems these days political news junkies can’t get their eyes off the electoral map predictions at CNN, Real Clear Politics or whenever you look away, another state becomes a swing state.

Take, for example, North Carolina, a once-solid red state that now seems to be turning blue. The three websites were calling it a tossup earlier this week — and The New York Times described it as “a raging battleground.” If Barack Obama indeed wins the Tar Heel state, he will be the first Democratic presidential candidate to do so since Southerner Jimmy Carter did it in 1976.

Like a number of other states that voted for President Bush in the last two elections, the Obama campaign has jumped at the opportunity to try to “steal” North Carolina from the Republican column. Last weekend, Barack Obama campaigned in Fayeteville on his sixth visit to the state since the primaries, according to the Times. (John McCain was in Concord, near Charlotte, trying to defend Republican turf.) On Thursday, Obama’s running mate Joe Biden will make three stops in the state: Charlotte, Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, and Meredith College in Raleigh.

The Democrats have also recently launched a Spanish-language ad on local radio stations, in a drive aimed at attracting Latinos in smaller communities, The Washington Post reported. You can hear the ad –which was also launched in Indiana, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin– here:

But, as the Post‘s Ed O’Keefe underlines, “Latinos have been less of an electoral force” in those states than in the “Hispanic battlegrounds” of Colorado, Florida, Nevada and New Mexico. So, why bother?

Obama campaign spokesman Federico de Jesus told O’Keefe,

In the home stretch, as things get tighter in places like Indiana, the Hispanic community will play a key role and could actually tip the election if the race is decided by a couple of percentage points. While they don’t have the large percentage like Nevada or Colorado, they could help tip the results in our favor.

Gregory Weeks

Gregory Weeks

To talk about the Latino vote in North Carolina and weigh Obama’s Latino strategy in the state, Feet in 2 Worlds interviewed Gregory B. Weeks, an associate professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte who specializes in U.S.-Latin American relations and immigration.

Latino registered voters in North Carolina number about 60,000, having tripled since the 2004 elections according to local Hispanic newspaper Mi Gente. They represent two percent of eligible voters, according to a Pew Hispanic Center fact sheet [see in .pdf]. It’s a low number compared to the state’s Hispanic population, estimated at about 700,000, the 12th largest in the nation. The Center says North Carolina ranks “last nationwide in the share of the Hispanic population that is eligible to vote.”

“Nationally, Latinos have very low registration rates,” Weeks said in an e-mail, “and North Carolina is even lower because so many are not yet citizens.”

When this reporter visited the state this summer during the NY·DF, La Ruta del Voto Latino roadtrip, eastern North Carolina activist Juvencio Rocha Peralta lamented that it was hard to get Latinos who are American citizens interested in voting. “People feel comfortable and don’t go out to exercise their rights,” he said. “We’re a very conformist people: ‘I have documents and my family is OK, then let the others be damned.’ Making our people aware is a challenge.”

Asked about Latinos’ seeming lack of interest, Weeks concurred.

For those that are citizens, we have to ask why interest seems low. That’s an important question without a clear answer. My own opinion is that there are few programs in place to help educate new voters about how the political process works. In terms of national elections, there may also be apathy since North Carolina has gone solidly Republican for president for so long.

[Tonya Jameson, a Charlotte Observer reporter, blogged about a young Hispanic fighting this apathy towards politics through a website.]

Latino voters in North Carolina would seem to have plenty of reasons to be energized about this election. The anti-immigration rhetoric in the state has been quite heated, and some local politicians –like Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole– are campaigning on their anti-illegal immigrants stance. (The image to the left was recently posted by Weeks, who found it in a Dole campaign mailing.)

In addition, North Carolina was the state where the much-criticized Section 287g partnership between local law enforcement and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement was born. Local community colleges have banned undocumented students, and in 2007 the state toughened its requirements for obtaining a driver’s license, effectively leaving thousands of undocumented residents without a way to drive legally.

Weeks noted, however, that “the most egregious measures –such as in Pennsylvania, Arizona, etc.– are not found here as much as elsewhere. It is true that North Carolina now denies licenses without proof of legal status, but that came after other states — though the community college stance is unfortunately absurd. I have noted recently on my blog about how Elizabeth Dole has tried to make undocumented immigration an issue through ads, but they seem, sadly, about par for the course nationally.

“North Carolina has its problems, but I do not think they are worse than elsewhere.”

The state has seen its Latino population boom in the last couple of decades and the state’s demographics continue to change rapidly, Weeks said. “Currently, for example, about one out of every five children born in Mecklenburg County (which includes Charlotte) is born to a Latina mother, and the median age of Latinos in the state is about ten years younger than other ethnic groups,” he said.

“Therefore,” Weeks added, “Latino political influence is really more of a future phenomenon than a current one.”

A bigger proportion of the anti-immigrant rhetoric has come from the Republican Party, he said. “So, yes, there is fertile soil for Democrats in the future, as many Latinos register to vote for the first time.

“But I do not see this having an impact on the 2008 presidential election.”

AboutDiego Graglia
Diego Graglia is a bilingual multimedia journalist who has worked at major media outlets in the U.S. and Latin America. He is currently the editor-in-chief at Expansion, Meixco’s leading business magazine.