From MATTHEW JAFFE of ABC News and JORDAN FABIAN of Univision
WEST LIBERTY, Iowa – Standing on the main red-brick drag downtown, in front of La Paz Market and La Luna Mexican Products, below the lamppost flags wishing passersby a “Feliz Navidad,” you might think you were somewhere in Latin America… if it weren’t for the year’s first snowfall blowing through this sleepy town in eastern Iowa. In a state where only 5 percent of the population is Latino, West Liberty is the first town where the majority of the population belongs to the nation’s fastest-growing minority.
Hearing Jose Zacarias tell his story, it’s easy to see why. Zacarias left Guanajuato, Mexico 27 years ago to escape tough times south of the border. In his search for a better life, he came to Iowa and settled down close to some relatives in the Quad Cities. He got a job, found a wife, bought a house and had three kids.
“What Latinos really appreciate when they come here is this town – and maybe all of Iowa – suffers from hardly any crime. You can leave the door to your house open. You can leave the keys in your car. Nothing will happen,” Zacarias said, sitting in an assembly hall on the grounds of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church.
But the easy going ways in Iowa have already been flipped on their head in 2012, a presidential election year. Republican candidates have spent months crisscrossing the state in preparation for Tuesday’s GOP caucuses and both President Obama and the Republicans see the Hawkeye State as a crucial battleground that will help determine the outcome of the election.
Four years ago, Obama won the state in the caucuses and general election with the help of a small cadre of Latino voters scattered throughout the state. Just under 2 percent of all eligible voters in Iowa are Latino, a far lower percentage than nationwide, to say nothing of other key early states such as Florida and Nevada. But political observers have begun to doubt if Obama can generate the same enthusiasm among Latinos – in Iowa and elsewhere – because of frustration over his record, especially on immigration and deportation policies.
Zacarias said he only became a citizen a few weeks ago, but he’s long been involved in politics. He helped organize for Obama during the 2008 caucuses and he’s also on board to support the president this year, even though he shares many of the frustrations about Obama that are common among Latino voters.
“I think it’s right. It’s there and it has a lot of reality,” Zacarias said of the disappointment Latinos have when it comes to Obama. “Mr. Obama made a lot of promises to Hispanics in 2008, immigration reform, to get a chance for more people to become legals.”
“The president should have focused more on Latino issues like immigration and the famous DREAM Act,” he added. “He spent too much time politically on the issue of universal healthcare and almost no time on Latino issues.”
Disappointment over Obama’s record and frustration about the 11.4 percent unemployment rate in the Latino community have given Republicans hope they could make gains with Latino voters across the country. But Zacarias said he has not let his Democratic allegiances waver for one simple reason: Republicans, in his opinion, haven’t offered Latinos a better option.
“I don’t think any Hispanic in his right mind is going to vote for Rick Perry or [Mitt] Romney,” he said with a chuckle. “It might be a tough sell [for Obama], but I think the GOP is helping a lot by putting those guys forward. Romney, Rick Perry, Newt [Gingrich] for Christ’s sake, you know?”
West Liberty Mayor Chad Thomas, an Obama backer, said that no GOP candidates or their surrogates have visited his town to appeal to the Latino community.
Even Latino Republicans concede that candidates in their party have alienated the community by not engaging directly with its members and their tough rhetoric on illegal immigration.
Two hours away from West Liberty, in the state capital of Des Moines, Enrique Peña Velasco, a Colombian who immigrated to the U.S. 31 years ago and now works in corporate marketing, said that he is leaning strongly toward caucusing for Newt Gingrich, in large part due to Gingrich’s immigration policy. Velasco said that the former House Speaker reached out to him and other members of the Latino community last fall, holding a small briefing to explain his policy positions.
“All of the other candidates have not really spent a lot of time in the state trying to work in the Latino community. They have basically ignored the community,” Velasco said. “The other candidates have made a mistake in ignoring us completely. They forget that nationally, we are strong in numbers and we play a key role when it comes to the actual general elections.”
Velasco, who now resides in Winterset, Iowa, said that he was specifically turned off “in a big way” by other candidates over their positions on immigration.
He said that he was considering backing Michele Bachmann, but was “very turned off” by her pledge to build a double fence along the U.S.-Mexico border. He also said that Mitt Romney’s opposition to the DREAM Act and Ron Paul’s past statements about minority groups in newsletters and books have not helped.
“Because as a Latino, being an immigrant, it’s a very touchy and very important issue to my heart,” he said.
Another Republican Latino businessman in Des Moines – Juan Rodriguez – echoed Velasco’s dismay with the lack of outreach from Republican candidates not named Gingrich. Rodriguez said the only other candidate to contact him was Ron Paul, but Paul never followed up. Like Velasco, Rodriguez is now set to support Gingrich in the caucuses.
Even though the focus in Iowa this week is on the GOP race, the Obama campaign is planning a major push to win back Iowa in 2008: it’s already opened eight field offices in the state, held over 4,000 meetings, and made over 350,000 calls to potential supporters. The campaign brags that they are more active here than any of the Republican candidates, even though it has been the GOP hopefuls who have been invading the state for the past six months.
However, the chairman of the Iowa Republican Party counters with a number of his own: the GOP has now enjoyed 33 consecutive months of voter registration gains in the wake of Obama’s 2009 inauguration.
“Iowa is the epitome of the failures not just from a policy standpoint, but politically, of the Obama administration. So I think coming out of Jan. 4, while everybody else goes on to New Hampshire and the other states for Republicans, we start building that organization, unifying here in Iowa and deliver Iowa’s six electoral votes to the Republican nominee,” Matt Strawn told Univision News in an interview the night before the caucuses. “It’s not specific to Latino voters. If we are going to be successful in November in the general election… it isn’t enough just to talk about the failures of the Obama administration. Our candidates need to lay out a compelling vision why a conservative Republican governing philosophy is better for meeting the challenges all Americans face, whether they are in the Latino community or other groups.”
“Just being the angry guy in the room pointing out problems, a) isn’t going to win, but it’s not going to solve the problems we have,” he said.
But without any direct outreach from Republican candidates, Latinos such as Zacarias are optimistic that Obama will win a second term – and that it will prove better than the first.
“Hopefully, this being the second term for him, he won’t have a lot to lose and he’ll be able to spend a lot of his political capital on Latino issues and leave a great legacy,” Zacarias said.
Matthew Jaffe is covering the 2012 campaign for ABC News and Univision.