For our series First and Main, Morning Edition is traveling to contested counties in swing states to find out what is shaping voters' decisions this election season. The latest trip took us to Larimer County, Colo.
The presidential race has become much tighter in recent days, and in Colorado, a recent poll puts Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in the lead.
Colorado is one of several swing states where campaign efforts will be concentrated in these past few weeks before the election. Of those efforts, actually getting people to the polls will be one of the most important.
In Colorado, both the Romney and Obama campaigns have an eye on Latino voters in particular. The state has seen a tremendous amount of growth in the Latino population. According to census data, that particular demographic grew by 41 percent between 2000 and 2010. Latinos make up about 21 percent of Colorado's overall population.
They're a smaller percentage of the population in Larimer County — only about 11 percent — but in a hotly contested swing county, it's a voting bloc that neither candidate can afford to ignore.
On a rainy evening in downtown Fort Collins, we met with three Latino women — Betty Aragon, Guadalupe Salazar and Jan Barela-Smith — at their favorite Mexican restaurant. They'd been caught in a downpour on their way to meet us, and by the time we arrived, they were drying off and warming up with bowls of hot chili verde.
All three women are Democrats, which puts them in sync with most Latino voters. Polls show Latinos support President Obama at a rate of more than 2 to 1.
Aragon, a self-employed resident of Fort Collins, explains to us why she thinks that is: "We're talking about the DREAM Act," she says. "We're talking about the immigration issue. These are issues that really impact the Hispanic community."
But Salazar and Barela-Smith — both of whom work in higher education — think that it's more than just traditional issues that keep Latinos in the Democratic camp. Salazar points out that the Romney campaign has raised the idea of cutting back on Pell Grants for higher education. That, she says, disproportionately affects Latinos — either preventing them from pursuing education or forcing them to take out more loans.
"Since Obama has been in office, the Pell Grant went up from $4,300 to $5,550," she explains. "That's a lot of money. That pays a full tuition, books and fees at Front Range [Community College] for a student to go. Without that money, they're not going to be able to go to college, and then they will take loans."
While the Democrats are counting on Latino support, Republicans are trying to prove that their party is the natural home for Latino voters. One man who agrees with that is Joe Andujo, an information analyst for a health care group and a member of the Northern Colorado Hispanic Republicans.
"Faith, family, freedom" — those are the values that he says he believes are held by both Latinos and by the Republican Party.
"None of us," he says, "want handouts. We want a hand up. We want to be able to work hard and keep what we earned. And I think the Republican Party best demonstrates, or best helps us to achieve those goals of retaining what we have and living the American dream, which is why most immigrants come to this country to begin with."
Andujo says he thinks the Republican Party could do much more to educate Latinos about who Republicans are and what the party stands for. That strategy could one day pay off for Republicans in attracting larger numbers of Latino voters.
In the meantime, there's no guarantee that Latinos will turn out in great numbers. Both campaigns will be using these remaining few weeks to get out the vote.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.
Debates between vice-presidential candidates have made for good political theater over the years, but they generally do not make or break elections. Tonight's debate between Vice President Joe Biden and his Republican rival, Paul Ryan, should get extra attention because of the way the race has been shifting. President Obama was leading. Now polls show him tied or even trailing Mitt Romney.
MONTAGNE: What will matter in this presidential election is swing states. And key constituencies. This year there's a lot of talk about the expanding voting power of Latinos. For our final story in our series First and Main, we go to Colorado.
INSKEEP: There Latinos make up more than 20 percent of the population. And they are polling two-to-one in favor of President Obama, even as he and Mitt Romney are in a statistical dead heat in the state overall.
MONTAGNE: In contested Larimer County, we listened to both sides. Starting with three Latina Democrats in the college town of Fort Collins, just after a downpour.
BETTY ARAGON: It must have rained 10, 15 minutes straight.
MONTAGNE: Yeah, you're soaking wet.
LUPE SALAZAR: Yes, I am. My pants are soaking wet. My feet were soaking wet. And I had to go across the street and buy me some socks.
MONTAGNE: So we're in a nice cozy restaurant. And it's some nice food in front of you.
SALAZAR: Well, this is one of our favorite restaurants - Pueblo Viejo. And I ordered a green chili bowl, spicy, Perfect for today.
MONTAGNE: That's Betty Aragon and, with fresh socks, Lupe Salazar, active supporters of Mr. Obama, along with Jan Barela. In common with many Latinos, these women are not themselves immigrants but willing to vote on the issue. Still, what they seem to prize the most is education. For Lupe Salazar especially, the issue of student loans is a deal breaker with Mitt Romney.
SALAZAR: Romney has said that he will cut back on the loans. He will cut back on the Pell Grant. He will cut back on these opportunities the students have to further their education. For example, I serve Latinos at Colorado State University. I direct a program for students to stay at Colorado State University and graduate. Today, the conversation around our table was that if Mitt Romney wins I won't be able to afford to attend college. I will not be able to further my education because I can't afford it.
JAN BARELA: This is Jan and I'm third generation native of Fort Collins, first generation to go on to college. Romney's campaign talked about there was no proof - when people got Pell Grant money, there was no proof that they were benefiting from this. There was more proof showing that people were in debt by getting loans.
So their idea was saying, OK, let's not have you go on to get your four year, your Bachelors, your Masters, your PhD. Let's have them focus on being trade and associates. And I thought, you know, where are we going? Are we going back 50 years ago, that our people are going to be just in trade again and in service jobs? No.
Are you yourself first generation and your immediate family?
First generation college student.
MONTAGNE: That's what I meant.
MONTAGNE: Third generation living here.
BARELA: In Fort Collins. But my family's been around since like 1568, when it was Mexico before and then the United States.
MONTAGNE: Betty, you had an answer.
ARAGON: Yeah, Betty here. You know, when Mitt Romney - I mean, he is just somebody that I - I don't trust him. You know, I feel like he says one thing and now he's changing it a little bit, you know, so that maybe there's more favor as far as the Latino vote. He stood pretty firm coming into this, saying self-deport - how many Mexicans that are here? Really? He thinks he's going to self-deport all of them? I don't think so.
MONTAGNE: You know, Mitt Romney said recently on Univision - he said the Republican Party is a natural home for Latinos. And the reason he said that was the notion that Latinos can have very conservative views on all kinds of issues that have to do with the family. So why isn't the Republican Party a natural home?
BARELA: This is Jan. When I was young, we always laugh that our goal was to be Republican one day when we became rich, because that's how we viewed it. You were rich and you were Republican, because it was always in their favor. As a Democrat, we really held with the services of other people who did not have as much money.
In fact, my mother worked for social services for 30 years. And she'd always tell me, during that time, when a Republican president came in, the services always went down. And she always knew - when there was a Democratic president, she knew the services were going to be better.
MONTAGNE: To get a Republican view, the next day we drive out to the countryside around Fort Collins to the town of Loveland. There, in a storefront that serves as the county's Republican headquarters, we meet Joe Andujo. He tells us he was born in Mexico, but because his grandfather was born in the U.S. back in the 1920's, Joe Andujo's parents were able to immigrate with their family, legally - although, it did take seven years to get green cards.
JOE ANDUJO: As Hispanics, a lot of the values, that are inherent in the Republican Party are values that we hold - faith, family, freedom - none of us, I don't think, want handouts. We want a hand up. We want to be able to work hard and keep what we've earned.
MONTAGNE: Why do you think you ended up a Republican and so many others ended up a Democrat?
ANDUJO: I think Ronald Reagan had a lot to do with how we thought of ourselves, as far as party affiliation.
MONTAGNE: What about your parents? What about the rest of your family?
ANDUJO: Every member in my immediate family - my parents, my siblings - we all consider ourselves conservatives.
MONTAGNE: Joe Andujo spent 20 years on active duty in the Air Force, before getting a masters degree in health care administration. He's a big believer in small government, and thinks his own industry is now overregulated. But the issue that he really holds against President Obama turns out to be immigration.
ANDUJO: If President Obama was a Hispanic, as a Hispanic I would be tremendously embarrassed by what he's done since he's been in office. When he was campaigning, he promised that one of the first things he was going to do was immigration reform legislation. As of now, he hasn't done anything with that. And I know that he tends to want to blame Congress for that, but he had a super majority in both Houses for the first two years that he was president, and nothing, you know, I think he panders to the show Hispanics, you know, with his backdoor amnesty that he's instituted with the Dream Act - not really the Dream Act but, you know, with allowing, what's it, children who are here illegally. For you to be able to have true immigration reform, you need to secure the borders, number one; and then you need to have an immigration plan that is going to allow people to come to this country to work and to be able to become legal residents and then natural citizens.
My dad has always worked hard labor jobs, you know, jobs that a lot of people wouldn't take. And my parents were willing to come and work to do that kind of work so that my siblings and I would have a much better life than they had. And truthfully and honestly - but when I think about how my children's future is going to be with President Obama, I just don't see - I see things going back - backwards instead of forward.
MONTAGNE: Early voting in the swing state of Colorado begins in 11 days. Everyone we've heard from this morning will be looking to get out the vote among their fellow Latinos. And political scientist John Straayer, over at Colorado State University, says it's at least possible to imagine the presidency hinging on this community.
JOHN STRAAYER: You can develop a plausible - I wouldn't say overall predictable - but a plausible scenario, that would say that the Latino vote in Colorado could turn the election. Now, I'd be real careful with that...
STRAAYER: ...but it does matter.
MONTAGNE: And when it comes to how much it matters, turnout is critical - which is true for all the key constituencies in all the swing states. You can hear other voters in contested counties in the states that we visited in our series First and Main at NPR.org.
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MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.