From Florida to Virginia, Massachusetts to California, candidates and political parties seeking to squeeze every vote from a divided electorate are targeting America's newest citizens. It's a relatively small bloc but one that can be substantial enough to make a difference in razor-close presidential swing states and competitive congressional races.
In Florida, which President Barack Obama won by less than 5 percentage points four years ago, a new analysis of U.S. Census data shows people who naturalized as Americans since 2000 make up 6 percent of the population of voting-age citizens. For months, the Obama campaign has been sending volunteers to citizenship ceremonies to register people and canvassing Miami-area neighborhoods where immigrant families live.
In California, where new citizens comprise nearly 9 percent of potential voters, Republicans hope House candidates Ricky Gill and Abel Maldonado can reach that group by highlighting their families' journeys from India and Mexico, respectively, in search of the American Dream.
Georgina Castaneda, a home-care worker who grew up in Veracruz, Mexico, and now lives in Los Angeles, is the type of person the campaigns are targeting. After years of waiting for her citizenship application to go through the bureaucracy, she passed the U.S. civics test and swore her allegiance to the flag along with thousands of others at a ceremony in March at Los Angeles' Staples Center.
Castaneda said Democratic Party workers walked down the aisles handing out brochures to the crowd. She filled one out while still seated.
"My idea was that one more vote could do something, so I registered at the ceremony," she said.
Political parties have tried to engage new arrivals since at least the 1790s, when New York City's fabled Tammany Hall political machine organized immigrants, especially the Irish. In this final stretch of contemporary campaigns, the influence of new voters is magnified in several battleground states, where small shifts can produce large impacts on the electoral vote count.
"The trick with politics is to get to people early, so what you want to do is make sure that your party gets in on the ground floor of any new citizen's thinking," said Stephen Farnsworth, a professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va. "So instead of meeting people at the docks like the political machines of a century ago, political parties and campaigns are meeting potential voters right after they take the oath."
Overall, first-generation citizens historically have leaned Democratic and registered at lower rates than U.S.-born voters. But during the past decade that gap in registration has narrowed, partly because the newest Americans have been motivated by the immigration debate, said Manuel Pastor, director of the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration at the University of Southern California. The center released the data last week, after performing a first-of-its kind analysis made possible because the Census Bureau in 2008 started asking people more detailed questions about when they became citizens.
Nationwide, there are an estimated 7.8 million people of voting age who naturalized since 2000, or 3.6 percent of all potential voters, according to the study. Two swing states — Florida, at 6 percent, and Nevada, at 5.1 percent — have higher concentrations than the national average. Virginia is at 3.5 percent, and Colorado at 2.1 percent.
States such as California, Massachusetts and Illinois that are considered likely to go for Obama also have significant populations of new citizens who could make the difference in congressional races.
In Massachusetts, where the newest Americans make up 5 percent of all potential voters, GOP Sen. Scott Brown often emphasizes his support for legal immigrants who have "played by the rules" as he competes with Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren for the swath of undecided voters.
In downtown Oakland, Calif., the Alameda County Republican Party has been erecting folding tables bedecked with American flags and voter registration forms in Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog and English outside naturalization ceremonies at the Paramount Theater.
"We want to be in places where we are reaching the minorities or ethnic blocs," said Sue Caro, the local GOP chairwoman.
The success rate for Republicans in this traditionally Democratic stronghold is unclear — Caro noted sometimes new citizens pose with the party's cardboard cutouts of Mitt Romney and Ronald Reagan, then walk down the sidewalk to the Democratic Party's table and take family photos with likenesses of Michelle and Barack Obama.
In Florida, the Obama campaign for months has sent volunteers to the conference halls where the federal government holds its citizenship ceremonies, and has been seeking out new citizens willing to host house parties.
"Our campaign is about inclusiveness and to that end we encourage all citizens, including our newest citizens, to get involved in the democratic process," Obama campaign spokesman Adam Fetcher said.
To be sure, campaigns and parties say courting undecided new citizens is just one element of the numbers game, which ultimately will turn on how many people show up to vote. Republican National Committee spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski said new Americans represent a piece of the GOP's registration program, but their turnout efforts are focused on registered voters because they more reliably go to the polls.
California is considered a sure bet for Obama, but there are an unusually large number of competitive U.S. House seats. Republican and Democratic Party officials say new citizens could boost their turnout, and both sides are targeting them.
Maldonado, a former lieutenant governor whose father came to the U.S. from Mexico, is locked in a fierce campaign against longtime Democratic Rep. Lois Capps in a new Santa Barbara-San Luis Obispo district that has a voter registration edge for Democrats of just 3 percentage points.
Maldonado, a wealthy farmer, said he has been talking to new citizens at house meetings in the agricultural region of his district.
"I think they're very proud to see that someone can come here to this country of ours poor, and work hard, save, plan, pay taxes and see their son eventually become lieutenant governor," he said.
Eight-term incumbent Capps said her voting record reflected her strong alliance with Hispanics and said as a former school nurse she understands immigrant families' challenges.
In Virginia, immigrants from India make up a substantial portion of the newest citizens.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who is Indian-American, has campaigned for Romney multiple times in northern Virginia, where a sizable Indian population has settled. Obama made a campaign stop at a high school in Leesburg in August, and on Friday went to Sterling, the same town Haley addressed.
"That part of Virginia that is home to a lot of striving recent arrivals," said Farnsworth. "And for the parties it represents time and money very well spent to approach new voters, because as close as the polls tell us this race will be, that last 3 percent may be the percent that makes the difference."
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