DES MOINES, Iowa — On Saturday at noon, several dozen Latino voters will fill the Mary J. Treglia Community House in Sioux City for a mock caucus ahead of Monday’s statewide vote. They will be greeted by a registration table, representatives from the Jeb Bush, Hillary Clinton, Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders campaigns, and 33-year-old Christian Ucles, the political director of the Iowa chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC, a national Latino anti-discrimination organization.
The event will be one of dozens that LULAC Iowa has held throughout the state in recent months as part of its campaign to mobilize at least 10,000 Latino voters to participate in the caucuses on Feb. 1.
Historically, political campaigns haven’t reached out to Latinos, which is one of the reasons Latinos haven’t shown up to cast ballots. And as campaigns have become more data-driven, they’ve increasingly relied on tapping the well of people with prior voting history, further excluding Latino voters. Although campaigns have been focusing more on Latinos nationally, especially in the wake of their turnout for President Obama in the 2008 and 2012 elections, Latino outreach in Iowa still lags.
Ucles said that as a result, many Latinos in the state don’t know what it means to be politically active, or where to start to become more engaged. LULAC hopes its campaign will educate these prospective voters as well as draw attention to the need for Latino engagement both from the public at large and from the presidential campaigns.
The push for 10,000 Latino voters on caucus night is the first in LULAC’s five-phase plan, according to Ucles. After the vote, the group will focus on getting voters engaged with the state legislature. Next will be participation in the general election in November, followed by identifying leaders in the Latino community who can run for political office themselves. Winning a political seat is the ultimate goal.
“Eventually I want to get a state legislator, whoever that may be, and maybe one day we can get a congressman out of it,” Ucles said. “So those are the plans, and eventually, we want to make it so it’s a constant flow” of Latinos participating in the political cycle on the local, state and national levels.
LULAC and other Latino political groups hope to elevate issues particular to the Latino community in Iowa — like offering college financial aid or driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants.
“Though we have a growing Latino population, it’s not as big as California or some of the other states, so a lot of our issues aren’t really brought up in the national media, and we really want to make sure we’re not forgotten,” said Hector Salamanca Arroyo, a grassroots engagement coordinator for the American Friends Services Committee, a Quaker organization that advocates for issues like immigration reform. Arroyo is a member of both LULAC Iowa and DREAM Iowa, a group that advocates for immigration reform.
Although Arroyo is undocumented and therefore ineligible to vote, he hopes to have an effect on the election in other ways. “That’s the focus of DREAM Iowa — we really want to push those who are in power to take up our issues,” Arroyo said. “And if not, we’re gonna get them out of office. We’re gonna find a way to show that DREAMers can influence the elections here in Iowa.”
Iowa’s lack of diversity is no secret, but the Hawkeye State’s demographics are slowly changing. The Latino population has been growing faster than the national rate, as well as Iowa’s population as a whole, for the past decade.
Still, when you factor in age and citizen status, just 39 percent of the Latino population in Iowa is eligible to vote in this election — meaning 2.9 percent of the electorate is Latino — according to the Pew Research Center. Although only 25 percent of total Latinos over 18 in Iowa voted in the general election in 2012, that share represented 42 percent of Latino citizens over 18 in the state; this rate puts Iowa 34th among all states for Latino turnout.1
One of the key tools of LULAC’s campaign is a comprehensive database of Latino voters in Iowa, which the organization has been building since 2007. Unlike some other states (such as California and Florida), Iowa doesn’t ask about race or ethnicity in the voter registration process. To build its database, LULAC acquired voting records and looked for those with the 1,000 most common Latino surnames. Organizers also visited communities across the state to identify registered Latino voters who (like Ucles) don’t have one of those common surnames.
A LULAC Iowa spokeswoman said Friday that 10,000 Latinos had committed to caucus; all in all, the campaign has reached out to over 43,000 registered Latino voters. While the number may seem small in a state of 3.1 million people, it would constitute a significant share of caucus-goers. In 2000, a total of 146,000 people showed up to both the Republican and Democratic caucuses. In 2008, a record total of 359,000 people participated.
Precincts don’t track the race of caucus-goers, so to determine Latino turnout, LULAC will cross-check the caucus precincts’ registration lists with its own database; Ucles said this process will take about a month.
One factor that may be helping LULAC’s cause is Donald Trump’s dominance in the polls and the reaction to his attacks on immigrants. “Trump has encouraged people to get out and do something, which is good,” said María Alcívar, who founded the Ames chapter of LULAC Iowa and has been a key part of the campaign there. “It’s made the Latino community more aware about the importance of getting involved.”
Most of the politically active Latinos I spoke with in Iowa touted the “Trump effect” as having a significant role in increasing Latino engagement in this election, but Sylvia Manzano, who conducts data analysis and demographic research at Latino Decisions, a firm that specializes in Latino political opinion research, sounded a word of skepticism. The type of anti-immigrant policy positions and rhetoric that Trump has adopted in his campaign haven’t correlated with higher Latino turnout in the past. Specifically, she cited the April 2010 passage of Arizona’s SB 1070, one of the nation’s toughest laws on undocumented immigration. Arizona Latinos protested the law, but it didn’t result in higher Latino turnout in the state’s midterm elections that year.
“The fact of the matter is that this might be the first time the national electorate is hearing this stuff, but Latino voters have heard this all before,” Manzano said. “Insulting Latino voters or immigrants is not in and of itself a reason that people turn out to vote. It gives them an idea of who they would not support, but it’s not a reason to vote for someone else.”
Trump’s comments do give other candidates an opportunity to react in a way that attracts Latino voters instead, she said. “Either those campaigns take advantage of it, or not,” Manzano said. “Once those people vote, it’s a high predictor of turning out again.”
Campaigns on both sides of the aisle have tried to take advantage of that opportunity, and LULAC is banking on their ability to capture Latino voters who will turn out on caucus night and continue to be politically engaged.
This year, about 200,000 people are expected to participate in the caucuses. If the 10,000 Latinos LULAC says have committed to show up Monday really do, Latinos will represent 5 percent of total caucus-goers.
“That’s gonna create a buzz,” Ucles said. “Not just a buzz. That’s gonna turn some heads. We’re really pushing for the candidates to reach out to the Latino community … Once they start seeing more of our faces and more of our people getting involved, then they’ll start realizing, ‘We need to actually pay attention. We actually need to reach out to them.’”