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A sign directs voters to polls at a polling station on Nov. 4, 2008, in Shallotte, N.C. (Getty Images)

In North Carolina, Latino Voters Could Be Crucial To Winning The State

Oct 2, 2012 (Morning Edition)

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In this year's presidential campaign, $11 million has been spent so far on ads targeting Hispanics, according to ad-tracking firm Kantar Media/CMAG.

That's eight times the amount spent four years ago on Spanish-language ads, and it's focused in just a handful of battleground states: Florida, Nevada, Colorado and, perhaps most surprisingly, North Carolina.

Over the past decade, the number of Hispanics in North Carolina has more than doubled to nearly a million, according to a recent report prepared by Democracy North Carolina.

In the capital Raleigh, Latinos now make up about 10 percent of the population. In the Brentwood neighborhood, many shop at Hispanic grocery stores like International Foods; many are immigrants from Mexico and Central America — former migrant or seasonal workers who brought their families here and settled down.

There are also a lot of Puerto Ricans — people like Angel Delgado.

"I'm going to vote," Delgado said. "I'm voting for Obama. He's the only one that been doing something for, you know, people ... that need help, you know what I'm saying? Republicans, they ain't going to do nothing for anybody. I know that."

Four years ago, more than two-thirds of Hispanic voters supported Barack Obama, and in North Carolina, it made a difference.

Latinos make up just about 3 percent of the electorate in the state. In 2008, Obama ended up winning North Carolina by just 14,000 votes. Since then, the number of Hispanics registered to vote has doubled in the state.

The Obama campaign is counting on them once again. It has worked for months to organize the Latino vote through phone banking, canvassing and registering new voters in Hispanic neighborhoods.

North Carolina is also crucial for a Romney victory, so the Republican's campaign has been working to win over Latinos, too.

One of several Spanish-language ads the Romney campaign has been running in Raleigh features Mitt Romney's son Craig, a fluent Spanish speaker, talking about his father, who is the son of an immigrant from Mexico. Mitt Romney's father, former Michigan Gov. George Romney, was born there to American parents and came to the U.S. as a child.

The Obama campaign isn't running Spanish-language ads on broadcast TV in Raleigh, instead counting on its ground game to get out the Hispanic vote.

The Romney campaign is also working on mobilizing Hispanics. At Republican headquarters in Raleigh, Peter Agiovlassitis has been volunteering with the Romney campaign, making phone calls to fellow Hispanics. Agiovlassitis is a marketing and advertising executive, half-Greek and half-Cuban. He says Latinos who listen should respond to Romney's economic message.

"If the Hispanics see what the real story is out there — unemployment right now is 8.1 percent, but in the Hispanic community it's 10.2 percent," Agiovlassitis says. "So, I think if you get that message out that people aren't working, and more Hispanics aren't working, so where are we going to get the jobs?"

Polls show that the economy is the No. 1 issue for Hispanic voters, as it is for voters generally. But immigration also remains an important issue for Hispanics.

"The Romney campaign has the disadvantage that much of the anti-immigrant legislation in the South has been sponsored by Republicans," says Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program on Public Life at the University of North Carolina.

Romney himself took a hard line against illegal immigration during the primaries. Now, in the Spanish-language ads running in North Carolina, the Romney campaign touts its candidate's biography, his economic plans and his promise to repeal Obamacare but says little about immigration.

Arlene Nugent, a Latina formerly in the military, says she was drawn to Romney out of concern about the growing U.S. debt. She does phone banking with the campaign and talks to friends and relatives. She's concerned, though, that many Latinos she encounters already seem wedded to the Democratic Party.

"I do believe that some people are in their political party either by family, history, family tradition, racial pride, and because of that, they just vote by habit as opposed to being informed," Nugent says.

That could be a problem for Republicans in North Carolina this year and in future elections. The median age in North Carolina's fast-growing Hispanic population is 23, according to a report by the Governor's Office of Hispanic/Latino Affairs. Most of the state's population growth is now fueled not by immigration but by births.

Because of the language barrier, attachment to their home countries and the fact that many are here illegally, Latinos have been slow to engage politically in North Carolina.

But Gabriela Zabala, a Democratic activist who moved to Raleigh from Ecuador more than 30 years ago, says that's changing. With the last election and now this one, she says, Hispanics are getting involved.

"We're just growing up, and it will be [a] time when we become very mature, and things will change," Zabala said.

She's predicting a big turnout among Hispanics come November — one that she thinks may help determine the outcome of the election.

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