By John Whitesides
DES MOINES, Iowa (Reuters) – Latinos in Iowa, overlooked as a political force for years in the state that kicks off the U.S. presidential race, have been getting unprecedented attention in a too-close-to-call Democratic White House nominating fight.
The predominantly white state has seen the Hispanic share of its population more than double to 6.2% since 2000, making it Iowa’s biggest minority group and a crucial voting bloc that could spell the difference in Monday’s state caucuses and in the November election.
The population growth has spurred many Democrats seeking the nomination to face President Donald Trump in November to hire Latino or Spanish-speaking staff and tailor some campaign events to court Latinos, while activists have scrambled to register new Hispanic voters and maximize their clout.
It has also changed the nature of life in some cities and towns in Iowa. In West Liberty, a small Hispanic-majority community with 3,700 residents, the school system has a dual-language program and some churches hold two services, one in English and one in Spanish.
“It has strengthened the town to have two cultures living and working together, with mutual respect, and it opens the door to more people moving here,” said Brenda Arthur-Miller, the high school principal in West Liberty and director of the dual language program.
But the growth in Iowa’s Hispanic population, a community largely of Mexican heritage, so far has not been matched by progress in its political power. Language barriers have hindered participation, particularly in the sometimes confusing caucuses.
Hispanic activists estimate as few as 3,000 Latinos participated in Iowa’s 2016 presidential caucuses, out of more than 50,000 who were registered to vote.
To help remedy that, the state Democratic Party has agreed to at least five Spanish-language satellite caucus sites on Monday. Some local officials are scrambling to get interpreters in place at other locations.
The League of United Latin American Citizens, a Hispanic advocacy group known more commonly as LULAC, launched a registration drive it says has signed up 10,000 new Hispanic voters ahead of Monday’s caucuses. It also held mock caucus sessions to spread the word on the process and help train potential voters on how they work.
“Our long-term goal is to keep doing the same thing through the November election and beyond. We want to keep the momentum going,” said Nick Salazar, state director of LULAC and state co-chairman of the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign.
Salazar said the Democratic Party has sometimes taken the Hispanic community for granted.
“I’ll be the first to admit that we have not done as much as we need to as a party to organize and emphasize the Latino vote,” said Troy Price, chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party, who said the party was trying to bolster its Hispanic appeal with new staff and programs.
The crowded field of Democratic presidential contenders has made up for it in this campaign, however, heavily courting Latinos in the state ahead of a general election campaign likely to be influenced by Trump’s divisive rhetoric and policies on immigration.
For instance, the Sanders campaign, which has hosted more than a dozen “Unidos con Bernie” events around the state, created a Spanish-language digital ad featuring Sanders’ father, who immigrated to the United States from Poland.
With the Hispanic population expected to more than double again by 2050, according to the State Data Center of Iowa, Salazar said the community was trying to build a tradition of civic engagement.
“When people think about rural Iowa they think of white farmers, but many of these communities will keep becoming more diverse and more Latino,” Salazar said.
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(Editing by Soyoung Kim and Franklin Paul)