Iowa's Growing Latino Population Wooed For The Caucuses — And Beyond
Iowa is undergoing a demographic shift. The first-in-the-nation caucus state is overwhelmingly white — Latinos still make up less than 6 percent of the state's population — but their numbers have more than doubled since 2000.
That means Latinos are an increasingly important group for both Republicans and Democrats to win over. Activists are stepping up efforts to engage Latinos in the 2016 election.
But they face some obstacles. The state's caucus system can be tricky for newcomers to navigate.
At the Latino Heritage Festival in Des Moines last month, Iowa resident Amparo Ramus came to hear Democratic candidate and former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley speak at a civic engagement tent.
"I plan to caucus," Ramus said. "I want to be a part of that feeling of caucusing. I've never done it in my life, I want to do it."
She's originally from Panama and has been in the United States for three decades, but Ramus just became a U.S. citizen in 2014.
Ramus works as a banker, and she explained why many of her Spanish-speaking customers face barriers to getting involved.
"Some people don't have the money. Their parents work in kitchens," she said. "They're working the weekends. They work any time."
The caucuses are held in the evening, so people can attend after work. But Ramus notes that many of her customers work in the service industry, so that doesn't help them.
Also, the system is more complicated than a primary, where you simply cast a ballot — caucuses are meetings that follow a sophisticated set of rules for choosing candidates.
"It's like playing a poker game. You have to know how to play poker," said Joe Enriquez Henry of the League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC.
At the festival in Des Moines, Henry sat at table covered with brochures in English and Spanish, wearing a sticker that read, "Latinos Like to Caucus."
Henry estimated that fewer than a thousand Latinos took part in the 2012 caucuses. He wants at least 10,000 to show up at Republican and Democratic caucus sites in 2016.
That's a tall order, but Henry said this is an important election for Latinos. He pointed to comments from candidates like Republican Donald Trump — who referred to Mexican immigrants as "rapists."
"There is anti-Latino sentiment that's being promoted. There's a certain amount of racism going on. It's important for our community to fight back on that," Henry said.
Henry said just over a third of Iowa's Latinos are Democrats, a small number are Republicans, and a majority are independent. He wants that group to show up at Republican caucus sites to force discussions on issues like a pathway to citizenship for immigrants who are in the country illegally.
LULAC is hiring half a dozen staffers to make phone calls, knock on doors and run caucus training sessions in counties with large Latino populations.
Other activists are doing similar work, like the Latino Forum of Central Iowa, a non-partisan group that offered festival-goers in Des Moines information about becoming a citizen, voting and caucusing.
The forum's civic engagement chairman, Alex Piedras, said a major goal is to help new American citizens navigate the political system.
"We also want to send a message to all political parties that the Latino community is a giant that's awakening and we hope to be more involved in the politics of this nation," Piedras said.
Latino Forum leaders say they invited all the major presidential campaigns, but only two candidates accepted — O'Malley and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, both running for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Iowa GOP Chairman Jeff Kaufmann said he's not sure why Republicans bowed out of the chance to speak to Iowa Latinos. But he said Trump's view on immigration is just one of many GOP positions, even though Trump has led in the polls for months.
"There are so many different views that are Republican," Kaufmann said. "There isn't a Republican view on immigration."
He added that the party can reach Latinos by emphasizing family values and self-reliance — and it needs to.
"A party that is not reaching out to new groups is a party that is dying, not living," Kaufmann said.
He pointed out that Latinos already make up the swing vote in some of Iowa's legislative districts, and they could play a key role in the outcome of next year's general election as the population of this swing state continues to change.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.