Pueblo, Colorado — Mitt Romney swung through this staunchly Democratic city recently with a bold, if familiar, message: “We're going to win Pueblo, big time," he promised the crowd of some 1,000 supporters.
Pueblo has become a perennial campaign stop for Republican candidates hoping to attract some of the Latino voters who make up nearly 50 per cent of the population here.
Previous appeals have ranged from emphasising shared views on cultural issues to simply nominating state-level candidates with Hispanic names. John McCain stopped here in 2008 and made what some locals recall as an unfocused pitch to voters, touching on everything from abortion to water.
None of this has helped much: Barack Obama won Pueblo County by a 14-point margin. "Republicans have not done a great job of capturing this Latino spirit," jokes John Rodriguez, the editor of PULP, a community newspaper here.
But where politicians have failed, the stagnant economy is starting to sway voters like Arnold Gallegos, the owner of a shuttle service with six employees. He ferries passengers to and from the airport in Colorado Springs, an hour north of here, and to other destinations.
His gas bill has nearly doubled over the last few years – to more than $3,800 a months – and the business is now operating on borrowed money from the bank.
So for the first time, this lifelong Democrat says his politics have wavered. He’s decided to support Obama, but it wasn’t an automatic decision – he laboured over it for months.
“I’m still behind Obama, but it’s getting tougher and tougher for me to make a go anymore, with the cost of everything going up so much,” he said. “He’s got the right ideas. I just wish he would put them into effect a lot sooner. It’s taken too long.”
Colorado's Hispanic community has suffered the most from the economic downturn of the past few years. The unemployment rate for Hispanics in Colorado last year was 11.5 per cent, compared to 7.9 per cent for whites; one in four Latinos lives in poverty, compared to one in ten whites.
They remain a solidly Democratic constituency, but the stagnant economy might be taking a toll on voter enthusiasm.
“Latinos, like most of the public, are concerned about the economy,” said Robert Preuhs, a professor of political science at Metropolitan State University in Denver. “The Latino community here in Colorado, generally they fall at the lower socioeconomic range, and those are the groups that are hurt the most."
'We never really reinvented ourselves'
The Pueblo skyline is still dominated by the hulking steel mill which used to provide the bulk of the city's jobs. The owners shut most of it down in the 1980s, when it became cheaper to produce steel in Asia, and sold it about a decade ago to a Russian steel conglomerate. Part of the mill continues to operate – but it generates nowhere near the 20,000 jobs it did during its heyday.
Preuhs talks about the Latino vote in Colorado in 2012 in these extended interview clips
Nor does any other employer. Pueblo's abundant sunshine and wind could make it a natural base for Colorado's growing renewable-energy industry, but the city hasn't attracted the needed investment. A few companies have built call centres here, but those are low-wage jobs with little guarantee of stability.
“After the mill left, we never really reinvented ourselves,” said Rodriguez. “We can’t produce the education to attract businesses… so what we’re left with is just manufacturing and low-tech sector jobs.”
Agriculture remains a major employer for the region’s population, particularly the Hispanic community. The local produce – corn, peppers, tomatoes – was on display at a farmer’s market on a chilly Tuesday morning earlier this month.
Business was slow, though, and there wasn’t much optimism among the farmers and merchants, most of whom said the last few years have been a struggle.
Costs have skyrocketed: Diesel fuel now costs more than $4 per gallon, up from about $1.80 a few years ago. And the price of corn seed has more than doubled, from between $80 to $100 for a 50-pound bag to more than $200.
But farmers can’t raise their prices, because cash-strapped consumers in Pueblo don’t have more money to spend on food. "They'll just go shop at Wal-Mart," says Joey Musso, the co-owner of a family farm here. So their profits have suffered.
Merchants have, too: Daniel Gonzales, a Colorado native of Mexican descent, was selling homemade tamales at the farmer's market out of the back of his pickup truck. He expected to sell just 15 dozen of them – “four years ago, we would bring 50 dozen to the market” – a meager sale which, at $3 per tamale, would barely cover his costs. “And our costs to make the tamales have gone up about 35 per cent since the last four years,” he said.
Gonzales, like Gallegos, said he has always voted Democratic. “But to be honest with you, at this point… I haven’t made up my mind completely about who I’m going to vote for.” Gonzales was critical of the president’s stimulus package, which failed to help the working class, he said.
'Democrats are not really capitalising'
Democrats have tried to appeal to Latino voters on immigration, particularly as Republicans move to the right on the issue to appease an increasingly-nativist base.
Obama issued an executive order earlier this year, for example, which blocked the government from deporting many illegal immigrants who were brought to the United States as children. This was a longtime Democratic goal, but his election-year timing was widely seen as an effort to curry favor with Latinos.
But the issue didn’t come up once in interviews with Latino voters in Pueblo. Pete Lopez, a retired army veteran, waved off a question about Obama’s immigration policy, and said he was mostly worried about a lack of jobs for the next generation. “I’ve got four sons,” he said. “Out of the four I’ve got two working, two looking. It’s just hard, it’s not like it used to be... there's nothing for young people here."
Lopez said he was frustrated with the election – "dirty politics," he called it – and with inaction from the current Congress, the least productive in a generation.
Residents of Pueblo have good reason to be angry at their lawmakers: Another major employer here is Vestas, a Danish wind turbine manufacturer. The company’s Pueblo plant, which produces towers for the turbines, employed more than 450 people in what locals said were well-paying manufacturing jobs.
But the company started sacking workers in August, because Congress failed to renew a tax credit for wind energy producers. If Congress doesn’t act soon, Vestas may have to sack 1,700 people statewide – including one of Gallegos’ sons. “He survived that first layoff but he’s not sure about the second go-around,” Gallegos said.
The frustration over the economy has state Democrats concerned about the turnout among Hispanic voters. They’re already one of the lowest-voting demographics, partly because so many are not US citizens. “Latinos make up about 20 per cent of the population in Colorado, but the expectation is that they’ll make up maybe 9 to 10 per cent of the electorate,” Preuhs said.
Early polls found that a plurality of Latino voters were more excited about the 2008 election, suggesting turnout would be low. Those numbers, it seems, finally started to shift this month: A recent Latino Decisions poll found that 44 per cent were now more excited about this election, compared to just 29 per cent who were more enthusiasic about 2008.
Still, that enthusiasm was hard to spot in Pueblo, where many frustrated Latinos said they wished Obama would be more aggressive about pushing his economic policies.
“Democrats… are not really capitalising on it,” Rodriguez said. “It’s just the same – vote for us, because I’m a Democrat.”