ATLANTA — With Latinos making up just 2 percent of its voters, Georgia isn’t usually a place where presidential campaigns go looking for Hispanic support.
But as she pulls away from Donald Trump in traditional battlegrounds, Hillary Clinton is aggressively wooing Latino voters here and in other states with smaller Hispanic populations in hopes of expanding her margins in November.
The efforts in states such as Georgia, North Carolina and Pennsylvania illustrate the extent to which Latinos are transforming electoral politics beyond competitive states that they have long dominated, including Colorado, Florida and Nevada.
“You don’t take for granted the Latino community in these states that aren’t traditional battleground states, because when you’re deciding states by one, two or four percentage points, you have to lean on them,” said Lorella Praeli, the Clinton campaign’s director of Latino voter outreach. “You have to be communicating to them bilingually; you need to be sophisticated enough to talk about the issues they care about in the state.”
The Clinton campaign announced plans this month to invest more money and manpower in Georgia and Arizona, buoyed by recent surveys showing her trailing Trump by single digits because of overwhelming Hispanic support. How exactly Clinton plans to campaign and organize in those two states — which haven’t been won by a Democratic presidential candidate since Bill Clinton in 1992 (Georgia) and 1996 (Arizona) — is up for debate, according to campaign officials and Democrats in both states.
It can’t happen without voters like Arturo Cerezo. A legal immigrant from Mexico, he decided to become a U.S. citizen and register to vote this year after he and his wife heard Trump again say something about deporting immigrants.
“We don’t know what this guy is going to do in the future, so we said, ‘Why not get our citizenship now just in case?’ ” Cerezo said recently after he took the Oath of Allegiance at a federal building in Atlanta.
“We have to express our disapproval by voting,” he added. “I don’t know how the process works, but I will do whatever I need to do.”
Thanks to Trump’s harsh anti-immigration positions and rhetoric, polls show Hispanics are poised to vote this year for Clinton in overwhelming numbers. But as Cerezo suggested, many will be first-time voters or may struggle to grasp basic details of when and where to vote. That’s why the Clinton campaign recently hired Jheison Nieto, a former Senate aide, to lead Latino voter outreach in Pennsylvania and Irene Godinez, a former Planned Parenthood official, to do the same in North Carolina.
Albert Morales, a former Democratic National Committee official who was responsible for Hispanic voter engagement, said neither of President Obama’s campaigns had Latino voter directors in those states. Given Clinton’s current strength in states such as Colorado, Virginia and Pennsylvania, “they’re hiring because they’re not having to spend millions of dollars on TV in Colorado or in the Philadelphia market,” he said.
Other Latino leaders were more measured in response to Clinton’s moves. Arturo Vargas, executive director of the nonpartisan National Association of Latino Elected Officials, faulted her campaign for extending its Latino voter outreach into new areas “only as those states come ‘into play.’ This strategy still ignores the vast majority of the Latino electorate. We are not a three-state or seven-state population. We are a 50-state population and Puerto Rico.”
Despite attempts by GOP leaders to improve Hispanic outreach, Trump has done little to cultivate Latinos. In the past week, the Republican National Committee launched a new online campaign to reach Hispanics with a series of videos explaining GOP policy positions.
But a new Fox News Latino poll showed Latino party identification shifting further toward Democrats, in part because of Trump’s rhetoric. Sixty percent of Hispanics identify with Democrats and 21 percent with Republicans — a six-point swing since 2012, the poll said.
In Georgia, there were 92,000 Latinos registered to vote at the beginning of the year — just 2 percent of the state’s 4.7 million registered voters, according to the nonpartisan Pew Research Center. That number has nearly tripled since 2004.
“The Latino voting population could be 8 percent, but they don’t all vote at that rate,” said Stacey Abrams, the Georgia House Democratic leader who also leads the nonpartisan New Georgia Project. Her group has spent the past two years registering minority voters, especially the state’s African American population, but is now partnering with other organizations to register the fast-growing immigrant populations in the Atlanta metro area.
“If you just hold steady and increase just a little bit in those populations, add that to the African American vote and add it to the white progressive vote, that’s your victory,” Abrams said. “To the extent investment comes to Georgia, and particularly the work we’re able to do down-ballot, you not only elect Hillary Clinton, you activate voters in those pockets of minority voters where you can take state House races.”
Nearly half of Georgia’s 1 million Latinos are undocumented immigrants, and civic leaders pushing for broader Hispanic civic engagement said that focusing on Trump’s comments about building a Mexican border wall or keeping out Muslim immigrants is likely to resonate.
“When either campaign mentions something about immigration, Latinos in Georgia have been paying attention,” said Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the nonpartisan Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials (GALEO).
Praeli said the campaign’s outreach efforts in Arizona and Georgia are likely to mirror what is underway elsewhere. During the Democratic primary campaign in Nevada, the Clinton campaign focused on organizing Hispanic women, encouraging them to find friends and close relatives to join the campaign and airing a television ad that showed Clinton comforting the daughter of undocumented immigrants.
In Pennsylvania, the campaign is touting her economic message as it mobilizes Puerto Rican transplants who fled the island’s economic woes. Puerto Ricans in Pennsylvania are found primarily along the “222 corridor” — a squiggly stretch that runs along a state highway with that number from Bethlehem in the east through northern neighborhoods of Philadelphia and south toward Lancaster. The region has been a magnet for Puerto Ricans seeking manufacturing and farming jobs and a lower cost of living compared with traditional enclaves in New York, New Jersey and Florida.
In Colorado, North Carolina and elsewhere, campaign officials said that “dreamers” — the children of undocumented immigrants — will be recruited to knock on doors and persuade registered Hispanic voters, especially those living in “mixed-status households,” to vote for Clinton.
Here in Georgia, much of the legwork of finding new Latino voters is done by groups such as GALEO, which has deployed staffers and volunteers to towns such as Gainesville, a poultry industry mecca that is home to thousands of working-class Hispanic families.
The outreach also happens at citizenship ceremonies held by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. At the federal agency’s Atlanta office last week, volunteers from GALEO and the nonpartisan League of Women Voters waited to sign up freshly minted citizens. State officials established the program as a way to ensure that new citizens have an easier time submitting voter registration forms that comply with a strict voter-ID law.
Cerezo was one of 114 immigrants from 51 countries who took the Oath of Allegiance in a ceremony that lasted 15 minutes. When it was over, 93 of the new citizens walked into an adjoining room and registered to vote.
“We’ve lived here for a long time and we now have obligations and rights, and we should do this,” said Idelson Castillo, 54, a Peruvian immigrant who owns a local HVAC company. He said he will vote for Clinton because “my kids are already Democrats.”
Gaspar Sanchez came in 1989 from Guatemala and said that Trump “is throwing all of us Spanish-speaking people under the bridge. We work hard in this country. . . . When he threatens all Latinos, it gives me a bad feeling.”
He said he doesn’t know much about Clinton because “I don’t have time to watch the news.” But from what he knows of her so far, he said, it seems that “she will make the country better.”