The race between President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney seems tight, prompting some observers to conjure up the specter of a tie.
And so swing states and swing voters become all the more significant, and the candidates and their surrogates are spending nearly all of their time until Election Day focusing on them.
The race is centered on just a few states where polls show competitive races, and several of those – including Florida, Colorado, and Nevada – are home to significant Latino populations.
The competition for Latino voters is brightening the spotlight on rising stars in both parties, as Obama and Romney rely on them on the campaign trail to stir enthusiasm among the Hispanic electorate. San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, for example, has stomped for Obama.
In September, Castro was the first Latino to be the keynote speaker at a Democratic National Convention, and is being talked about as a future presidential candidate. Romney has relied heavily on U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio – who was on the so-called short list of potential running mates for the former Massachusetts governor– to reach out to Latinos. Rubio, who is from Florida, will be joining Romney in his home state on Saturday.
A record 23.7 million Latinos are eligible to vote on Nov. 6, 22 percent more than four years ago, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Some 12 million are expected to vote. Polls show Latinos favoring Obama over Romney, 70 percent to about 30 percent, on average. The Romney campaign has said it hoped for at least 38 percent of the Latino vote.
Latino turnout will be critical, political observers say, in the swing state-by-swing state, swing voter-by-swing voter race to the 270 Electoral College votes needed for victory.
Following is a snapshot of states where Latino voters, depending on turnout, can swing results.
Romney and Obama have spent considerable time in Florida, a crucial battleground state, with 29 electoral votes.
Florida has nearly 4.6 million Democrats and more than 4.1 million Republicans. But the Democrats include a lot of north Florida "Dixiecrats" — Southerners who vote Republican but register as Democrats because generations before them did.
About 2.4 million Florida residents aren't registered with a party. Nearly 20 percent of Florida’s eligible voters are Hispanics. Nearly one in five Florida residents is foreign-born.
Obama took the state in 2008, but he’s not taking it for granted. Campaign staffers have been “on the ground,” in election-speak, since 2010, going to door to door in Latino neighborhoods.
“We have had a year and half to build down here, so we are much more organized in the Cuban community, the Puerto Rican community, the Colombian community,” said David Plouffe, a senior Obama strategist, according to The Boston Globe. Plouffe’s said he was optimistic about an Obama win in Florida because “there are more Latino voters than last time.”
Romney staffers also hit the ground in Florida, but had to play catch-up, waiting after he won the GOP primary. Both Romney and Obama have spent millions on advertising targeted at Latino voters. Of course, the candidates and their surrogates have made the obligatory campaign stops in South Florida, sipping cafecito, the Latino espresso.
The Romney campaign targeted Cuban-American voters, as well as other conservative-leaning Latinos, by releasing ads that cast Obama as weak on the Castro regime in Cuba and on Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, a self-styled enemy of the U.S. government.
Since 1988, no candidate has won Florida by more than 6 percentage points. In the last four presidential elections, the state went Republican twice and Democrat the other two times.
Obama will be in Ohio on Monday, the latest in a series of visits here over the last few weeks. On Tuesday the president visited Dayton, on Thursday he stopped in Cleveland.
Vice President Joe Biden went to Canton, Lorain and Toledo in the last few days.
Romney kicked off a bus tour on Thursday that includes stops in the Ohio cities of Cincinnati, Worthington and Defiance. He’ll make a speech in Iowa Friday and then return to Ohio for another event that night. His running mate, Paul Ryan, will arrive in the state Friday evening as well and is expected to spend the weekend stumping in Ohio.
That makes nearly 30 times in Ohio for Romney, and nearly 20 for Obama.
Both campaigns and outside groups spent more than $141 million on TV ads in Ohio through the beginning of October, one of the highest per-person spending rates in the country. Only more-populous Florida, which has seen $150 million in ad spending, has seen a higher total. In October alone, they have aired more than 40,000 ads in Ohio.
No Republican presidential candidate has ever won without Ohio, which has 18 electoral votes. If Romney were to lose Ohio, he would have to carry every other battleground state with the exception of New Hampshire.
Romney’s campaign website notes: “The GOP ground game in Ohio continues to produce record-high numbers of door knocks [for the GOP]. We have knocked on 21 times as many doors and made three times as many phone calls in Ohio compared to 2008. Sometime this week we’ll knock on the two millionth door and make our sixth millionth voter contact since May.”
On his campaign stops in Ohio, Romney has been blunt about the power of the state’s voters.
“We’ve got to make sure we win here in Ohio, and when we do, we’re going to take back the White House,” he said at a recent rally there.
And on another, he said: “It’s time for [Obama] to leave the White House. Ohio’s going to elect me the next president of the United States.”
Obama has been no less forthright, saying during a stop there: “Buckeyes, we need you.”
Ohio is home to about 355,000 Hispanics, the majority of them of Mexican descent. Some 166,000 of them are eligible voters —the 19th largest Hispanic eligible voter population nationally, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
“While Ohio doesn’t have a significant Latino population, every vote will count,” said Viviana Hurtado, Project Vote spokesperson. “Latinos have lagged in voter registration [nationwide]. In 2008, only half the eligible Latino voters voted.”
Wright State University professor Tony Ortiz, who is a member of the Ohio Commission on Hispanic/Latino Affairs, agrees.
"As close as this race is getting, Latinos can make a difference," Ortiz said.
As in the rest of the country, jobs and healthcare are major concerns for Ohio’s Latinos. The unemployment rate for Latinos has been higher over the years than that of the general population, reaching 16 percent in 2010, according to the Ohio Department of Development.
A third of the state’s Latinos lived under the poverty line, according to the agency, and about a quarter of Latino residents lack health insurance.
Immigration has been an issue, too, though in one particular city the topic took on a different twist.
Responding to years of economic decline, Dayton, Ohio embarked on a campaign in 2011 to attract immigrants to move there and revive the economy.
While Virginia may not be the first state people think of as a hotbed for Latinos in the United States, Old Dominion’s history of Hispanic immigration, its rising population of Latino voters and its swing state status help make it key as the presidential race comes down to the wire.
While Obama took home Virginia’s 13 electoral votes in 2008 by 6.3 percentage points, the state is very much still considered up in the air this election, with both candidates making late pushes to reel in undecided voters.
According to Census Data released in 2011, Latinos make up about 8.2 percent of the state’s population and only about 35 percent –or about 183,000– of those are eligible to vote. This constitutes about 3 percent of all eligible voters in the state.
A recent Latino Decisions poll of Virginia’s Latino voters found that 62 percent of Virginia’s Latinos plan to vote for Obama, while 22 percent will go to the polls for Romney.
These findings seem to echo the national mentality of Latinos across the nation toward the presidential election.
Across the country, Obama holds a strong advantage among Latinos over Romney, but his ability to win the overall election hinges on the ability to pull in voters in swing states like Virginia. A Real Clear Politics average of polls from Virginia shows that Obama leads Romney 48.4 to 47.6, a gap of less than 1 percent.
"The growing population of Latino voters in Virginia is both more enthusiastic about the election than most Latinos, and more likely to decide the outcome of the very close presidential and Senate races here,” said Matt Barreto, principal at Latino Decisions and an assistant professor at the University of Washington.
When it comes to the issues, the majority of Virginia’s Latinos hold immigration as their top issue, with 57 percent of those polled by Latino Decisions saying that they were “more enthusiastic” about voting for Obama after his announcement of deferred action, the initiative that gives undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as minors a two-year reprieve from deportation.
“The new poll shows the importance of the new deferred action policy to Latino voters in Virginia – and especially undecided voters,” said Professor Michael McDonald, Associate Professor at George Mason University. “With undecided voters expressing more enthusiasm for Obama after hearing about his deferred action policy and less enthusiasm for Romney after hearing about his plans to halt the program upon taking office.”
New Mexico has been a hotly contested state in recent presidential elections. In both the 2000 and 2004, the victor was determined by just a few thousand votes.
And while Obama won with a 15 percent margin in 2008, the neck and neck nature of the 2012 race means the state’s five electoral votes are anyone’s game.
In the past five presidential elections, Republicans have won the state only once, in 2004, and by the slimmest of margins.
Now, however, New Mexico is a dichotomy.
The 46 percent of Latinos that make up the state’s demographics represent the largest state Latino share in the country; they make up 39 percent –or 550,000– of eligible voters in the state.
Although the state has a widely popular Republican governor –Susana Martinez– overall New Mexico tends to lean more Democratic.
This in part is attributed to New Mexico’s large Latino population, the ninth largest in the country, which has put immigration as one of its top priorities. Also, Hispanic eligible voters in New Mexico, like those nationwide, are mostly of Mexican origin and border issues resonate on a personal scale.
Dr. Christine Marie Sierra, a political science professor at the University of New Mexico, says that although most of the Latino population in New Mexico is U.S.-born, they still feel very strongly about illegal immigration.
“Even though the [proposed] policies affect an immigrant population,” Sierra said. “Latinos are concerned about the implications for the general community as well as themselves.”
No state in the union has been hit harder by the economic recession than Nevada.
In 2008, Obama won Nevada and its six electoral votes over Sen. John McCain 55.1 to 42.7 percent, thanks in part to overwhelming support from the Latino community, which makes up 14 percent of the state’s registered voters.
The state prides itself on its independent electorate. In the last six elections, Nevada has voted for a Republican and Democrat evenly.
So the question is: Will a sour economic situation sway enough Latino voters away from Obama and toward Romney? Or will Romney’s tough stance on immigration keep economically hurt Latinos loyal to the president?
"Hispanics are hurting almost more than any other demographic group under the Obama economy," Romney's Spanish-speaking son Craig, a frequent surrogate in the Hispanic community, said in an interview with the Associated Press. "They're really struggling and they understand that this president has failed them and we need someone who understands how to create jobs."
The state’s unemployment and foreclosure rates are both the highest in the nation, and the pain has been especially difficult for the 720,000 Latinos who live there.
The Latino community in Nevada saw an average unemployment rate of 14.5 percent in 2011, extraordinarily high compared to the 8.9 percent national average in the same year for the general population. Nationally, the rate of completed foreclosures on loans originating between 2004 and 2008 was 11.9 percent for Latinos – more than double the rate for non-Hispanic whites and higher than the rate for blacks.
But despite the economic pinch, even Romney supporters are pessimistic about the outcome.
"It's going to take several years because we haven't engaged this community at all," said Joel Garcia, a conservative who formed a coalition to recruit Hispanics here. "You've got a lot of Hispanics who are conservative in how they live their lives and their values, but there's this hook in their mouth pulling them left called immigration."
The latest poll out of Nevada shows Obama holds a lead.
The Las Vegas Review Journal poll of 806 likely Nevada voters showed Obama leading over Romney, 52 percent to 44 percent. The poll included 20 percent Latinos, which is several points higher than the Latino turnout in the past two elections.
Latinos were 13 percent of the Colorado electorate in 2008, and about 6 in 10 supported Obama, who ended up carrying 53 percent of the vote.
This time around, with 484,000 eligible voters in the state, the Latino voter population represents 17 percent of potential voters. This is a steady growth, considering that in 2004 Latinos in Colorado made up just 8 percent of the electorate.
So the nine electoral votes up for grabs in the state may well be in the hands of the Latino voters. One in every five Denver-area residents is Latino.
According to research done by Real Clear Politics, Obama’s main problem among Colorado Democrats who voted for him in 2008 is enthusiasm: About one-third will “probably still vote for him” (a line heard over and over), one-third will go for Romney and the final third will just stay home.
"The demographics still favor President Obama," Laura Chapin, a Democratic consultant, told the Associated Press. "This is a young, well-educated state with a majority of women and a lot of Latino voters."
RCL surveys also show that jobs associated with the oil and gas boom are natural votes for Romney. And, although he lags behind with Colorado’s many Hispanic voters, interviews with young people across the state show strong support for him, the survey shows.
Romney and Obama each have visited Colorado eight times since June, and polls there show them in a tie, as a toss-up, or with a slight lean left.
In the last 10 presidential elections, Colorado voted Republican eight times and Democratic twice, including 2008, when the state went for Obama. And eight times it voted with the winner, excluding 1976 and 1996.
With reporting by Elizabeth Llorente, Bryan Llenas, Andrew O'reilly, Kacy Capobres and Carmen Llona.
Elizabeth Llorente can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on https://twitter.com/Liz_Llorente