If ever there was a sign of how crucial the Latino vote will be in the upcoming presidential election, look no further than the fact that Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has been tapped as the chairman of the 2012 Democratic National Convention.
An estimated 12.2 million Latinos will vote in the election, according to projections from the National Association of Latino Elected Officials, a 26 percent increase from 2008. They are the nation's fastest growing voting bloc.
"I will be reaching out to Latino voters," Villaraigosa said on a conference call today. "There's a benefit to being bilingual."
Latinos tend to side with Democrats. They backed Obama by a 2-1 margin in 2008, but Obama has failed to enact comprehensive immigration reforms in his three years as president despite promising to do so during the campaign. Coupled with the nation's economic struggles, that could be enough for some Latinos to side with Republicans this fall. It will come as comfort to the White House, though, that in recent polls Obama has maintained huge leads among Latino voters.
To date Villaraigosa has been a trusted surrogate for Obama, ripping into his possible Republican rivals in the past few weeks. In an appearance on CNN late last month, Villaraigosa claimed that the GOP candidates have veered so far to the right in an effort to secure their party's nomination that in the process they have alienated Latinos.
"America is a big tent. We come from every corner of the earth. Our values should represent that and our politics and our actions, our policies should represent that," Villaraigosa said. "And I think, when you talk about the question of immigration as an example, many of the policies that you see articulated right now in those debates are just out of the mainstream."
"When it comes to policies and actions, it's the president who has helped to create 2 million jobs that Latinos have right now, 6 million overall with the Recovery Act, so it's not just immigration," he added. "I would agree with respect to rhetoric, however, that some of that divisive polarizing rhetoric that you see and hear in the Republican debates are turning off a lot of voters, including a lot of Latino voters."
According to a poll released last month by ABC News and Univision, registered Latino voters nationwide would back Obama over GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney by 67 percent to 25 percent. At a speech last Wednesday in Washington, Villaraigosa ripped Romney as "a presidential candidate who has abandoned immigration reform and instead advocates self-deportation."
"We have a candidate who on Martin Luther King Day, a day celebrating racial reconciliation, had the architect of Arizona and Alabama's draconian anti-immigration laws campaign for him," Villaraigosa said.
"This is beyond the pale. And we are obligated to say so."
The DNC is planning to release a video from Villaraigosa in Spanish, although it has yet to be posted on their website.
Matthew Jaffe is covering the 2012 campaign for ABC News and Univision