WEST LIBERTY - Four years ago, Jose Zacarias let campaign workers for Barack Obama stay at his home for two weeks before the Iowa caucuses. An enthusiastic Obama supporter who couldn't vote, he could do little else.
Since then, Zacarias has become a U.S. citizen, been elected to his city council and gone door to door to persuade neighbors to vote for Obama, exemplifying the growing political influence of the Latino community in the state.
"The Latino vote could be a decisive factor in the next election, at least here in Iowa," said Zacarias, who moved to West Liberty in 1984 after leaving Mexico. "I see a lot of enthusiasm."
It's not just Iowa where Latino voters could make a difference. Virginia, North Carolina and Ohio are other presidential battlegrounds that don't have huge numbers of Hispanic voters - unlike Nevada, Colorado and Florida - but where polls show close races in which any factor could determine the outcome.
In Iowa, behind a population boom and an influx of newly enfranchised citizens, the number of Latino voters is expected to increase in November, bringing a new sense of importance and more campaign attention to a part of the electorate that has been little noticed in many states. Nobody knows how many more Latinos will vote in Iowa, but the League of Latino United Citizens, or LULAC, which is conducting a major registration drive, is aiming to boost Latino turnout in Iowa from the 35,000 in 2008 to 50,000 this time, or about 3 percent of the state's overall total.
Even such a modest share could be meaningful if the race in Iowa is close, as recent polls suggest it could be, and if the Democratic president carries the two out of three Latino votes that he did in 2008. Republicans working for Mitt Romney's campaign are trying to reduce Obama's advantage, as both parties woo Latinos in a place typically portrayed as an all-white farming state and that is now one of the key Midwestern battlegrounds that will determine the election's outcome.
Iowa's Latino population, though far smaller than the Sunbelt states, increased 84 percent from 2000 to 2010 to more than 151,000. That's about 5 percent of the state's overall total. It's a similar story in other key toss-up states, with the Hispanic population rising to about 8 percent in North Carolina and Virginia. Ohio's Latino population is 3.1 percent but has grown by 63 percent since 2000.
The full influence of the larger Latino population still won't be felt. Less than half of those in Iowa will be registered to vote this fall, since many are too young or not U.S. citizens.
Hispanic voter turnout is traditionally low. But those who are eligible say immigration policies from both parties that they consider to be harsh and fallout from the recession may help drive turnout.