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In Majority-Latino West Liberty, Iowa, No Presidential Candidates Inspire Much Support

People talk about the whiteness of Iowa. However, with the rise of Latino labor, particularly in food processing plants, the minority population has been rising around some factory clusters. In fact, Univision found a town called West Liberty with a majority-Latino population. So how are they viewing the caucuses tonight, and more broadly the Presidential election?

Four years ago, Obama won the state in the caucuses and general election with the help of a small cadre of Latino voters scattered throughout the state. Just under two percent of all eligible voters in Iowa are Latino, a far fewer percentage than nationwide, to say nothing of other key early states such as Florida and Nevada. But political observers have begun to doubt if Obama can generate the same enthusiasm among Latinos – in Iowa and elsewhere – due to frustration over his record, especially on immigration and deportation policies.

(Jose) Zacarias said he only became a citizen a few weeks ago, but he’s long been involved in politics. He helped organize for Obama during the 2008 caucuses and he’s also on board to support the president this year, even though he shares many of the frustrations about Obama that are common among Latino voters.

“I think it’s right. It’s there and it has a lot of reality,” Zacarias said of the disappointment Latinos have when it comes to Obama. “Mr. Obama made a lot of promises to Hispanics in 2008, immigration reform, to get a chance for more people to become legals.”

“The president should have focused more on Latino issues like immigration and the famous DREAM Act,” he added. “He spent too much time politically on the issue of universal healthcare and almost no time on Latino issues.”

The President definitely arrived at the DREAM Act late, though much of that was the fault of Latino members of Congress, who preferred an “all-or-nothing” immigration scenario rather than breaking up the issue into discrete parts. The deportation issue, where the President has deported over 1 million non-citizens and used the Secure Communities program to catch many Latinos in the deportation web, despite claims that only criminals would be targeted, is more specifically under the purview of the President, and where Latinos have a strong argument. More broadly, the Latino unemployment rate is 11.4%, so jobs seems to be a factor for the community.

Republican candidates for the most part (with the possible exception of Newt Gingrich) aren’t trying to appeal to this community, at least not in West Liberty. Because of the demonizing rhetoric toward immigrants and staunch opposition to any immigration reform on the part of the Democrats, I think Hispanic voters see their choice as between Obama or staying home. But the latter is definitely an option in November, and it would have major ripple effects, if not in Iowa then in many Southwestern states Democrats are looking to pick up in 2012, like Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico.

The experience of West Liberty is a reminder that the claims of the homogenous heartland aren’t exactly true in 21st-century America. Presidential candidates have to appeal to all groups and cannot take any community for granted.

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David Dayen

David Dayen