GASTONIA, N.C. — The faded, low-slung Greenview Meadows townhouses hidden behind a suburban neighborhood here represent both the challenge and opportunity for President Obama as he tries to repeat his win of this generally conservative state.
Spanish speakers dominate the apartments here, part of a Latino population that has risen to 8 percent of North Carolinians. Registered Latino voters have doubled since 2008, to roughly 100,000.
Those voters represent a crucial opening for the president in a state where, on the face of it, Obama should not hope to win again. North Carolina, which will host the Democratic National Conventional next month, was his slimmest win four years ago, the state has the fourth-highest unemployment rate in the nation, and Democrats have struggled here in recent years.
Yet recent polls show a tight race, and the Obama campaign believes it has a shot, particularly if it can increase turnout among Hispanics.
But finding Hispanics who are eligible to vote won’t be easy. Getting them to register and then, months later, cast a ballot for Obama will be harder. Only a fraction of North Carolina’s booming Hispanic population is eligible to vote. An even smaller number actually does.
“Are you a citizen?” Mattie Adams, an Obama volunteer with clipboard in hand, asked a young man getting into his car at Greenview Meadows. He looked at her quizzically and drove off.
Adams approached another man, Jose Martinez, a U.S. citizen who was born in Mexico. “I kind of do want to vote,” Martinez said. That was all Adams needed to hear: She helped him fill out a voter-registration form.
Finding voters in Gaston County is step one of the Obama campaign’s strategy to win North Carolina. Step two is persuading them to vote for Obama. Their names, addresses, phone numbers and more are entered into a campaign database so that campaign workers can reach out by phone, mail and e-mail again and again between now and November.
Some of the outreach is simpler, like what Edwin Gil, a Charlotte-based painter from Colombia does week after week: visit fellow Latinos for coffee in their homes to talk about getting involved. Sometimes it’s just Gil and his host; sometimes it’s a roomful of 20 people.
“The Latino culture, it’s very hard to make them vote because maybe the corruption, maybe they don’t have the education, maybe you never told them before they have something where they can make a difference,” Gil said, alluding to perceptions Latinos bring to the United States from their native countries.
Both Obama and his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, are running Spanish-language ads.
The Romney campaign has recently begun building its North Carolina field operation, which now boasts 20 offices and a corps of volunteers that campaign officials say includes large numbers who voted for Obama four years ago. Romney also is replicating Obama’s model of reaching Latino voters with weekly house parties, but the Republican’s effort focuses largely on business owners, not on reaching the new voters the Obama campaign believes could tip the balance in November.
Romney officials believe that the poor economy will be the key to remaking North Carolina red.
“Voters down here are very tired of the broken promises that President Obama delivered the first time,” said Rob Reid, Romney’s North Carolina spokesman. “As people start to pay closer attention, they’re going to start to understand that this election is about very big issues. The very biggest issue is the economy.”
The economy may be the biggest issue, but Obama is taking every opportunity to contrast his positions on immigration with Romney’s. Obama advisers are quick to point out the president’s support for the Dream Act and his recent order for a stop to certain deportations of young people with no criminal histories who came to the U.S. illegally as children.
They also take every opportunity to note that Romney
opposes the Dream Act and has declared that a tough law cracking down on illegal immigration in Arizona should serve as a “model” for the country.
“He’s the most extreme presidential nominee on immigration in modern history,” Gabriela Domenzain, part of the Obama campaign’s Hispanic outreach team, said in an interview.
While the Latino population here is booming, only about one-fourth of Latinos are eligible to vote, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. And only about one-fourth of those actually do. “The Hispanic population has grown, but it’s got a lot of young people, people under 18, and it’s also got a lot of newcomers who may not be U.S. citizens,” said Mark Lopez of the Pew Hispanic Center.
Other factors are working against the president in North Carolina. The state struggles under the weight of 9.4 percent unemployment, and the president’s approval rating dipped below 50 percent, according to a Civitas poll published July 20.
“His real problem is that the young people that were such a big part of this in ’08 are not as motivated and are not as excited,” said Dallas Woodhouse, state director of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group founded by magnates Charles and David Koch.
Woodhouse also believes Obama will fare poorly in some of the Republican-leaning suburbs that he won four years ago. “White women in the suburbs, they are dealing with the higher cost of fuel, food, higher unemployment,” Woodhouse said.
That hasn’t stopped AFP and the Romney campaign from investing heavily in North Carolina.
Through mid-July, Romney and his allies, including AFP and Crossroads GPS, an independent group co-founded by Karl Rove, had spent more than $20 million in broadcast television advertising in North Carolina, according to data from Kantar Media/CMAG. Obama and other Democratic groups spent $7.3 million. The Romney campaign itself has spent $5.2 million, compared with Obama’s $6.5 million.
Staff writer T.W. Farnam and polling analyst Scott Clement contributed to this report.