On an evening in September, former Madison Ald. Ricardo Gonzalez leads a meeting to brainstorm ways to get out the Latino vote. Those attending represent three countries of origin - Mexico, Cuba and Peru - and various Latino organizations.
"There are five of us here," Gonzalez tells the group, gathered in the newly renovated cafeteria at Memorial Union. "But it's like 50 people are here because we're plugged into many groups. We feel the pulse of our community."
Among this group, that pulse is clearly beating for Barack Obama; the challenge is getting people to vote. The attendees toss out ideas: Set up voter-registration tables at popular Latin nightclubs; get Obama ads on the local radio station La Movida (where spots for John McCain are already airing); get articles in Spanish-language publications; canvass Latino neighborhoods; distribute yard signs; hold a community-wide dance.
"We all need to get deputized," says Berta Armacanqui, referring to the process through which citizens are empowered to do voter registration. "Then we can register people to vote and tell them to get deputized. We can create many leaders that way."
Armacanqui, the Peruvian-born owner of a small west-side Spanish-language school, has never before given money or time to a presidential candidate. But she's fired up about this election. So is Gonzalez, a leader of Madison's sister city pact with his hometown of Camaguey, Cuba.
"There will be no hope of improving the situation between Cuba and the U.S. with McCain," says Gonzalez. "It will be more of the same or worse. Obama will bring about the engagement with Cuba that is needed."
Both Gonzalez and Armacanqui contacted the Obama campaign, and agreed to coordinate a local effort to get out the Latino vote. They say the Obama campaign has declined to work directly with the local Latino community.
"It was a little shocking to me at first," says Armacanqui, who now sees this as a positive. "We are used to having others organize us, and to being the obedient followers. Now we are taking all the initiatives. The ideas are coming from us."
Hispanics are a potential swing vote in the 2008 election, largely because of their strategic locations on the Electoral College map. In swing states like Wisconsin, a strong Hispanic turnout could prove decisive.
After the historic ties between Hispanics and the Democratic Party loosened earlier this decade, the pendulum seems to be swinging back. A national survey last fall by the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington, D.C., found that 23% of Hispanics surveyed identified as Republican, compared to 57% registered as Democrats. A USA Today/Gallup poll around this same time put the margin at three-to-one.
Curiously, neither campaign seems interested in discussing this issue. When asked why Latino voters should support their candidate, Wisconsin spokespersons for both candidates - Matt Lehrich for Obama and Kirsten Kukowski for McCain - said they needed to research the question, and left it at that.
Both campaigns, however, have organized get-out-the-Latino-vote campaigns spearheaded by volunteers. The nearest such McCain effort is in Fond du Lac, coordinated by a social conservative from Puerto Rico who was not available for comment.
The campaigns are also trying to reach Latino voters through Spanish-language media.
"The McCain campaign bombards us with press releases," says Dante Viscarra, publisher of La Comunidad, a weekly Spanish-language newspaper in Madison. "We probably get one [via email] every 30 seconds."
Viscarra says his paper's editorial board will likely endorse Obama, based on six key issues: safer communities, economic opportunity, quality education, access to health care, immigration reform and job opportunity.
"Our community is so young," says the Bolivian-born Viscarra. "The average age is 23. We are hard-working people and want to live in safety. There is a big need to reduce youth violence. We need a comprehensive program that offers better options than punishment. We need treatment, prevention, intervention and suppression." He calls Obama, whose roots are in community organizing, "the right choice in this area."
But some Latinos who back Obama have misgivings.
Salvador Carranza, the Mexican-born president of LUChA (Latinos United for Change and Advancement), says neither candidate has been addressing the issue that could really bring Latino voters out in force.
"Hispanics who are eligible to vote overwhelmingly support immigration reform," he says. "As it stands, it's a bad law, like the segregation laws were."
Obama's stand on this issue - or, rather, his lack of one - is, for many Latinos, a keen disappointment. Carranza believes the Democratic nominee is "missing a huge opportunity to pin McCain down on this if he wants the Hispanic vote." As a senator, "McCain supported a just and humane immigration law with Sen. Kennedy. But as a presidential candidate, he has been flip-flopping to bring back his base."
Carranza notes that Hillary Clinton went out of her way to court Latino voters; when she didn't get the nomination, "they felt disenfranchised." Obama has not put them at ease. Attests Carranza, "I wish Obama would say, 'I'll represent you. You're part of the community. You deserve rights, even the undocumented.'"
Absent this direct appeal, he thinks some Latinos may stay away from the polls, thinking it "won't make a difference." But most of those who do go will vote for Obama: "There's no other choice. They are attacked by the Republican right. They are discriminated against because of their race and made to feel unwelcome, even though they contribute enormously to the economy."
Alfonso Zepeda-Capistrán, past LUChA president, agrees Obama's effort to woo Latino voters has been lacking. But he admits there's another factor.
"There is a big rift between the Hispanic and African American communities," says Zepeda-Capistrán, who is originally from Mexico. "There is a lack of trust, in large part because of ignorance. Many feel that an African American will not be so supportive of Latino issues."
And while Zepeda-Capistrán says some strongly religious Hispanics will vote for McCain based on issues like abortion or gay rights, he predicts most Hispanic voters will go for Obama. So does Dora Zúñiga, the Mexican-born executive director of Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Dane County. She cites Obama's positions on the economy, education, health care and the war.
"Health care is an incredibly critical issue in the Hispanic community," she says. "Diabetes, in particular, is a huge problem. Latinos are dying of diabetes in disproportionate numbers and at very young ages."
Latinos are also dying in disproportionate numbers in Iraq and Afghanistan. "We are one of the most patriotic groups in this nation," says Zúñiga. "But the senseless nature of this war is really challenging. We want it to be over."
The local get-out-the-vote effort is gathering steam. There are Obama ads on La Movida now. Plans for a community dance are moving forward. But still, Armacanqui does run into cynicism.
"I met a Mexican lady who was born here. She told me she didn't believe anything in politics, that she isn't going to vote. She said, 'Next time if he does something, I'll vote for him.'
"There are a lot of Latinos who don't think their government is going to help them," says Armacanqui. "I try hard to change their minds."