LAS VEGAS — During a recent 48-hour campaign marathon, President Obama made a detour to the Bellagio hotel as he headed for the airport after a late-night rally in Las Vegas.
He didn’t stop to gaze at its dancing fountains. He didn’t visit the glittering casino floor. Instead, he descended into the hotel’s basement, where the 8,000 workers who make the tourists’ dreams come true have their cafeteria.
The president used the moment to make his pitch to union members who form the backbone of the Democratic establishment. But he also specifically targeted Hispanics who fill the service-trade ranks, and who have boosted his party’s fortunes in Nevada in recent elections.
“Don’t wait to vote. You have got to go and cash in your chips now,” Obama told the cheering crowd of cooks, cleaners, and card dealers.
Latinos are key players in the political firewall Obama has constructed in Nevada and Colorado to help him withstand any losses Tuesday in big-ticket Electoral College states like Florida and Ohio.
Nevada has just six electoral votes, and Colorado nine, but the late-night results from those two states could be the difference between Obama winning a second term or heading back to Chicago as a 51-year-old former president.
An Oct. 29 poll by Latino Decisions, which tracks the Hispanic vote, found he had the support of 73 percent of all Latino registered voters nationally, compared with 21 percent for Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
The 52-point gap matched the largest difference in Latino Decisions surveys this year.
While the poll highlighted his challenge, Romney has not given up on Hispanic voters. In fact, he, too, has targeted them across the country.
Romney has ditched his primary campaign immigration rhetoric about encouraging “self-deportation.” He has also dispatched his Spanish-speaking son, Craig, to campaign on his behalf in Florida, Colorado, and Nevada.
Romney and running mate Paul Ryan have repeatedly visited themselves, with the vice presidential nominee slated to hold final rallies in Nevada and Colorado on Monday.
“I am concerned about the fact that we have gone for over 50 months with unemployment above 10 percent among Hispanic Americans,” Romney said in September during an appearance on Univision, the dominant Spanish-language network in the country. “I am concerned about the fact that so many young Hispanic Americans drop out of high school, don’t get the kind of education they need for the skills that they have to have for tomorrow.”
The Romney campaign has exhibited its outreach, in part, by opening a campaign office in East Las Vegas, home to an estimated 42 percent of the state’s Hispanic population and many of those service workers Obama addressed at the Bellagio.
“We’ve never had an outreach initiative that’s been this extensive and large,” said Elsa Barnhill, a naturalized citizen who was born in Mexico, grew up in the neighborhood, and now works in the office as the campaign’s director of Hispanic outreach in Nevada.
“People have come in to ask us questions and been happy they can leave with signs and bumper stickers,” Barnhill, 25, said as she stood in front of a table of Spanish-language literature at the office entrance.
After enlisting hundreds of Hispanic volunteers, Barnhill has had them making calls from the strip-mall office, canvassing neighborhoods, and, with the end of early voting on Friday, ensuring that sporadic voters get to the polls Tuesday to cast any remaining ballots.
The challenge is evident in the perspective of Wendy Sorto, a 19-year-old nursing student. A US citizen born to legal immigrants from El Salvador — her father is a cook at the Stratosphere hotel and her mother works there as a maid — Sorto says she cast her first presidential vote early for Obama because she believes he is more committed to the needs of students.
“[Romney] doesn’t seem to care about the people,” she said. “He only seems to care about the US as a business.”
While Romney and Obama have split over the DREAM Act, which would provide a path to legal residency for the children of illegal immigrants who attend college or serve in the military, Sorto says that didn’t sway her vote because she already is a US citizen.
Romney opposes the DREAM Act and said he would not issue new deportation exemptions to young immigrants who qualify for them under a policy Obama set in June, but Romney also said he would not revoke exemptions from young immigrants who have qualified for them. Obama’s policy lets children of illegal immigrants live and work in the United States legally for two years, if they meet certain criteria such as having no criminal record.
“It didn’t necessarily appeal to me,” Sorto said, “but it did to my family. It will affect some of my cousins, and they’re happy about that.”
According to the 2010 Census, there were 50.5 million Hispanics in the United States, about 17 percent of the total population. The group grew by 43 percent during the prior decade, from 35.3 million in 2000.
In Nevada, Hispanics account for about 27 percent of the population — 10 percentage points over the US total — and about 15 percent of the electorate. In Colorado, Hispanics account for 21 percent of the population and about 14 percent of the electorate.
Obama won Nevada in 2008, beating Republican nominee John S. McCain 55 to 43 percent. Exit polls showed him taking about 70 percent of the Hispanic vote.
The president also beat McCain in Colorado by a similar margin. Exit polls there showed Obama taking 61 percent of the Latino vote.
Many of Colorado’s Hispanics live in Jefferson County, a wedge just west of Denver and south of Boulder. Republicans have cultivated them with door-to-door canvassing.
And since Colorado is not a border state and avoids some of the problems that creates, the GOP has focused on Romney’s background as a businessman and his pledge to reduce above-average unemployment within the ethnic group.