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Decision 2016: Democrats Battle for Iowa's Latinos

Welcome to the 2016 battle for Iowa’s Latinos -- at least for Democrats.

In the week leading into Labor Day Weekend, a majority of the Democratic presidential campaigns stumped in places not usually associated with the Iowa caucuses.

Former Governors Martin O’Malley and Lincoln Chafee joined a panel discussion with not just a local pastor, but also an undocumented Mexican immigrant in Storm Lake, Iowa. The very next day, Rep. Joaquin Castro, in support of former Secretary Hillary Clinton, took questions not in a Pizza Ranch, but in a Mexican restaurant in Des Moines. A few days later, Sen. Bernie Sanders followed an evening speech at a county fairgrounds with a morning roundtable at a boxing club in Muscatine, Iowa that gives free boxing lessons to dozens of Hispanic children.

Welcome to the 2016 battle for Iowa’s Latinos -- at least for Democrats.

“There is a shift that is happening on the national political scene, and it’s Latinos” said Joe Henry, the National Midwest Vice President of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), who was at each of the events. “[Iowa] is going to be a part of that, and it’s going to be more of something than ever before.”

It is no surprise that the rapidly growing national Latino electorate is expected have a large impact on the upcoming presidential race. Latinos make up almost 17 percent of the U.S. population today. Since 2012, experts have projected that a presidential candidate will need as much as 40 percent of the Latino vote to win in the general election.

But what’s perhaps less obvious is why candidates are paying attention to the small population of Hispanics in the overwhelmingly white state of Iowa.

While they make up only about 5.5 percent of Iowa's population -- 170,000 people -- Latinos represent the state’s largest ethnic minority group, according to the State Data Center of Iowa. This number has more than doubled over the past 15 years, and is expected to do so again between now and 2040.

Furthermore, the median age of this increasing Iowan demographic is 22 years, almost 16 years lower than the state’s median age. Today, there are about 50,000 registered Latino voters in Iowa out of a potential 73,000 who are eligible, according to LULAC estimates.

Mobilizing the Latino Vote

"It is critical mass right now…and we have a roadmap, a blueprint on how to get things done,” said Henry, the Iowa-raised activist grandson of a Mexican immigrant.

His goal is to mobilize between 5,000 and 10,000 of those registered Latino voters to caucus in February of 2016.

But why are Democratic candidates competing over such a small slice of the Hawkeye State?

According to Drake University political science professor Dennis Goldford, when only about 120,000 Democrats and 80,000-120,000 Republicans turn out to caucus on average, it doesn’t take much to tip the scale. In the 2012 GOP Iowa caucuses, Sen. Rick Santorum edged out eventual nominee Mitt Romney by just 34 votes.

"In any tight election, a feather on a scale can make a difference," explained Goldford.

The only problem is that Latinos have historically not turned out to caucus in Iowa.

From Voter To Caucus Goer

One prominent Des Moines business leader remembers that in his 2012 caucus in Polk County, home to the highest number of Hispanics in Iowa, he was one of just two Latinos present.

In fact, in NBC News' 2012 and 2008 exit/entrance polls for both parties' caucuses, the “Other” race category (as opposed to the only two groups -- “Black” or “White” -- for which data was available) never rose higher than three percent of total participants.

“We’ve not really seen the emergence of a significant Hispanic vote yet. It’s more potential than actual at this point,” Goldford noted.

Other Latino activists in the state have argued that the caucuses are intimidating.

Sandra Sanchez, the Immigrants Voice Program Director of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), emphasized that lack of clarity on how the caucuses work is an issue.

“The biggest barrier mostly is that the process is not clearly understood by most Latinos,” explained Sanchez, who immigrated to the United States from Mexico over two decades ago.“They are intimidated when they go for the first time."

Joe Henry is not deterred, and knows the challenges he is up against.

“People are going to say, ‘What? We vote!’ And we want to say, 'No. We want you to spend two hours in February sitting down at a location that’s next to your house. We want you to sit down, and caucus,'" said the LULAC VP.

With a new influx of funds from a number of donors (including a sizable amount donated by Henry himself) LULAC, and a number of other local organizations including the AFSC hope to organize a “grassroots” movement to mobilize the most politically engaged Latinos in the state and bring them to the caucuses.

If that means Sanchez and Henry have to be on speed dial to answer questions come caucus night, both said they are available.

The Candidates

Of the presidential candidates, Iowa Latino activists and leaders agree that former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley has done the best outreach to their community thus far. O’Malley was quick to RSVP for a recent immigration panel in the Latino-dense city of Storm Lake that included a local pastor, an undocumented Mexican immigrant, and Sandra Sanchez herself.

Other contenders, however, are now rushing in to tap into this growing young potential voting bloc.

“This political season, Latinos have become a piñata,” Rep. Joaquin Castro told voters at the immigrant-owned Mexican restaurant where he stumped for Clinton.

Castro accused Sanders of not doing enough to reach out to Latinos.

"Senator Sanders has not reached out to the Hispanic Caucus in Congress, has not reached out to me, I’ve never met the gentleman,” he said. “And especially in this moment, this moment when the community is getting kicked around, it concerns me that there hasn’t been any outreach, hardly at all.”

As if on cue, five days later, Sanders sat down in a predominantly Latino boxing club in Muscatine, Iowa to conduct a roundtable discussion with community leaders, including several people who were also in attendance at Castro's event.

While the bulk of the battle has been between the Democratic candidates so far, on the Republican side, Hispanic activists and leaders agree that former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has been the most proactive with the Latino community in Iowa, though some think he could still do more. That includes using his surrogates, including his Mexican-American on George Prescott Bush more effectively.

“I went into [Jeb] Bush’s office several weeks ago, and there was George Prescott Bush. And I said, ‘George, why aren’t you making yourself visible?’” Henry said.

For Latinos, it’s personal

Latino activists in Iowa say that the election has become more personal for Latinos here, as campaign rhetoric about immigrants and Latinos becomes more controversial.

Asked about the use of a term such as “anchor baby” by Donald Trump or Bush for example, they agreed that such language is unacceptable.

“It’s a sin, it’s wrong. It strikes at our family,” said Henry of the use of that term, which is considered a pejorative term for U.S. citizen children of undocumented immigrants .

"Do anything to me, but not to my kids, not to my grandchild that is a baby,” Sanchez pleaded.“What is at stake right now is the future of them.”

Armed with growing numbers, a grassroots organization, and a newfound passion due to Latinos being thrown into the forefront of this early election, these leaders hope to boost their caucus participation.

And while it’s not clear yet how many will ultimately come to caucus in Iowa in 2016, it appears that candidates will be paying close attention to Latinos in Iowa as February approaches.

“The next year will be decided by the Latino community,” Henry insisted. “It will.”