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LAS VEGAS--Drive a few miles northeast from the heart of the Las Vegas Strip, and you’ll reach the Latino parts of Sin City. This is an area of Vegas most visitors don’t see – grocery stores, dry cleaners and playgrounds. And now, sandwiched between stores at a strip mall: A Team Romney campaign office.
I stopped by to see the operation. A few people were milling about. The staffers were welcoming, but they needed clearance to speak with me; standard procedure for a political campaign. They suggested I come back the next day.
I left and spent some time in the neighborhood. I didn’t meet many people who knew about the new Romney campaign office.
“I’m surprised they’re opening it right now,” said Blanca Gamez. “The campaign is about to finish in less than a month, and now you’re in such desperate need to open an office, it’s ridiculous to me.”
A poll released earlier this month reflects this attitude: 78 percent of Nevada’s Latinos favor Obama, while 17 percent prefer Romney. Overall, the state is 27 percent Latino according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Latinos make up 17 percent of Nevada’s eligible voters. Fernando Romero, a board member with the local group Hispanics in Politics, the state’s oldest Latino political organization, said Latinos heavily favor Obama, in large part, because of all of the anti-immigrant rhetoric from Republican candidates during the primary debates.
“Every single one of them mentioned and brought up the subject of immigration, and it was harsh, it was cruel,” he said. “How can that not energize a community?”
Romero said it’s commendable that the Romney campaign is now opening an office in the heart of what he calls the barrio. But he says Romney won’t connect with Latinos until he and his surrogates actually come talk to them on their turf.
“He’s 100 percent right,” said Dan Burdish, past executive director of the Nevada Republican Party. “If you’re going to work for the Latino vote, you need to go to the Latinos.”
Bringing in the Big (Latino) Guns
Team Romney in Nevada brought in perhaps the biggest Latino name in Republican politics, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, R-Fla., on Oct. 2.
Rubio spoke for 30 minutes, mostly talking about the economy and the need for more free enterprise and less government regulation. Several hundred people came to hear Rubio speak at a casino ballroom in the city of Henderson, about a 30-minute drive from Las Vegas.
“Imagine for a moment, if in the next couple of years Mitt Romney is elected president and the following things happen, Obamacare is repealed and replaced,” Rubio told the crowd to raucous applause. Rubio went on to list other things that he says would happen under a Romney presidency, including a simpler tax code and an energy policy that relies on more domestic sources.
The crowd in Henderson was overwhelmingly older and white. Besides 30 seconds of Spanish geared toward the Spanish-language news cameras, there was no nod to Latinos in Nevada.
Blanca Robles was one of the few Latinos at the event. She said she wasn’t disappointed that Rubio didn’t address Hispanic voters more directly.
“He was speaking to all Americans, we’re all Americans, and that’s the thing that I like also about Republicans, we don’t try and segregate and divide. We are all Americans.”
She said she likes Mitt Romney because he favors a smaller government.
“I think unfortunately a lot of the minority groups, especially the Latinos, have kind of been – I hate to say it – have been almost brainwashed into the Democratic Party as their party. Whereas if they really analyzed their views and their morals and their work habits it really is more conservative toward the Republican party.”
So why not have Senator Rubio come speak directly to Latinos?
I posed that question to Elsa Barnhill, the director of Hispanic outreach for the Romney campaign in Nevada. She’s the woman I tried to speak with the day before at the campaign office in the Latino neighborhood.
Barnhill said, “We inquired about using a couple of facilities on the east side of town, but it wasn’t able to happen, they were pre-booked. As you can imagine with campaigns, things are at the very last minute, they don’t give us a whole lot of notice, and we just kind of have to move quickly.”
Barnhill added that the last time Marco Rubio was in town, he did speak at a grade school in a Latino neighborhood. Problem was, many Latinos also showed up to protest his visit. There weren’t any protesters on this day in Henderson.
The Message Is the Economy, But Is It Working?
Barnhill went on to say that the Romney campaign has been going door-to-door delivering a pro-Romney, or anti-Obama, message to voters in Latino neighborhoods. Their focus: jobs and the economy.
“Hispanic voters, they know, as much as President Obama goes on TV and tells them how great things have become since he’s been a president, nobody takes that seriously,” said Barnhill. “I mean, not the person that doesn’t have a job, not the person who is wondering if they’re going to lose their job, certainly not the person who has lost their home in a foreclosure like has been the crisis here in Nevada.”
But David Damore, a political scientist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), who conducted the recent poll about Latino voters in the state, said talking points that play well with white suburban voters aren’t working with Latinos.
“Tax cuts, for instance, don’t really resonate in the Latino community. The social issues don’t really resonate as a political issue in the Latino community. So there really isn’t much of a message there besides: The economy has been bad here. And no clear path to what we’re going to do about it.”
Damore’s poll shows that more than three-quarters of Nevada’s Latinos approve of the job Barack Obama is doing as president. Perhaps that’s why the president feels comfortable talking directly to Latinos on their turf.
Only three weeks ago, the president spoke at a high school in the heart of the Latino part of town. The hugely popular Mexican rock band Maná also played. More than 11,000 people showed up, some waiting five hours in the near 100-degree heat to get in.
“This is why I like coming to Vegas. Good weather and good people,” said the president to much applause.
Mitt Romney won’t be able to match that enthusiasm among Nevada’s Latinos. But David Damore at UNLV says if Romney can peel away just 10 percent of Hispanic voters, that could make the difference in who wins Nevada.
Reported by PRI’s The World, a co-production of WGBH/Boston, Public Radio International, and the BBC World Service. Support for The World’s Immigrant Lives project comes from the Rita Allen Foundation.
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