SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — 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 like 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,