In New Mexico, a possible look at the politics of the future

Fernanda Santos / New York Times News Service /

LAS VEGAS, N.M. — The volunteers fanned out in pairs last week, swarming the heart of this old settlers’ outpost in the north-central part of the nation’s most Hispanic state.

Julio Maestas, 25, whose ancestors were among the area’s original residents, and Anayeli Rivera, 22, whose mother was born in Mexico, knocked on doors along Valencia Street, taking the campaign message of President Barack Obama to veterans and retirees whose speech is a mix of English and Spanish.

New Mexico Democrats are intensifying their efforts to increase Hispanic voter turnout, a perennial quest in the state and across the country for a rapidly growing ethnic group that tends to vote in significantly lower percentages than other groups.

The results are being closely watched by national party leaders. The theory is that, with the Hispanic population growing in many states, the way New Mexico looks today is the way many states will look in elections down the road.

“The work we do in New Mexico will inform campaigns in the future, not only about how we go out and register Hispanics, but also from a messaging standpoint — what is it that Hispanic-Americans care about,” Adrian Saenz, the Obama campaign’s national Latino vote director, said in a telephone interview.

When the Obama campaign first planted a flag in New Mexico five years ago, the landscape presented both a challenge and an opportunity. Outreach strategies of proven value in other states — like Spanish-language advertising, or even the notion of advertising in the Spanish-language news media — seemed to have minimal impact on New Mexico’s Hispanics, who are more likely to speak English.

Voter-registration efforts were not as crucial; Hispanics, who are 47 percent of the state’s population, make up nearly 40 percent of its electorate, the highest rate in the country. Get-out-the-vote efforts could not be discarded, but had to be tweaked: Hispanics still lagged in participation but had deep political roots, influence and familiarity with the electoral process.

“We’re well beyond the ‘We’re happy to be here’ stage, well beyond ‘Si se puede,’ ” Hector Balderas, the state auditor and a Democrat, said over a breakfast of beans and scrambled eggs in Albuquerque, referring to the Latino rallying cry “Yes, we can” during immigration law protests.

New Mexico might be the least contested among the battleground states, even though a poll by The Albuquerque Journal from early September showed the race as close. Still, its unique demographics hold weighty significance for both campaigns, which have been on the ground trying, proving, improving and disproving strategies to engage Latino voters — eyeing both the November elections and the future.

The Obama campaign will open its 13th office in New Mexico soon, more than doubling its presence in the state over the previous month even as it leans toward Obama. Eight of them are strategically positioned in areas with large numbers of Hispanics. On the ground, organizers have been given more latitude to experiment.

The state’s secretary for economic development, Jon Barela, a Republican, said that “New Mexico can offer a lot of clues as to where the country is moving,” as well as “validate the notion” that there is nothing incongruous about being Hispanic and being Republican. (Like many Hispanic elected officials here, Barela traces his roots to the settlers who were granted plots of land by Mexico before New Mexico became part of the U.S.)

Just a little over a week ago, though, the Republican National Committee, which has been leading Mitt Romney’s efforts in New Mexico, pulled the campaign’s Hispanic-outreach and communications directors out of the state. One Republican legislator complained, in private, that Romney “has given up” on New Mexico, while conceding that it may just not make sense to spend resources in a state that can deliver only five electoral votes.

Gov. Susana Martinez, also a Republican, criticized Romney’s comment that 47 percent of Americans are government “dependents” who will vote for Obama, saying the poor “count just as much as anybody else.” Already, she had declined to join him for his energy policy speech last month in Hobbs, a conservative enclave in New Mexico’s oil country.

She is, however, going to campaign for him in Florida and Nevada, states where the Latino vote could tip the scale in November.

Bettina Inclan, Romney’s director of Hispanic outreach, said the campaign still had a robust presence in the state, holding house parties, volunteer training sessions and round-table discussions for small-business owners.

The Obama campaign, meanwhile, has been here since 2009, when some of the same staff members who had led the efforts in the state ahead of the 2008 elections started making the rounds.

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