Martin Mendez’s small printing company sits in a little suburb outside Denver, Colo., right next to the Rocky Mountains.
This entrepreneur is the embodiment of a voting group that Republicans hope will boost their party's presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s chance for victory in the swing states – Latino small business owners.
Each candidate has been courting that demographic, and it’s no surprise.
Enterprises launched by Latinos make up one of the fastest growing segments of U.S. small businesses, according to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Between 2002 and 2007, the number of companies owned by Latinos grew by 44 percent and in 2010 Hispanics owned nearly 8.5 percent of the businesses in the U.S., according to data from the Census Bureau.
I’m torn because as much as I want to believe in Romney’s business mindset and approach, Obama’s social issues resonate with me as well.
- Glenn Llopis, founder of the Center for Hispanic Leadership
And with President Barack Obama having an almost near lock on the Hispanic vote – a recent Fox News Latino poll showed 66 percent of Latino voters said they will vote for Obama – Romney has been heavily courting Hispanic business owners, hoping that his economic proposal, free enterprise plan and proposed tax breaks for small businesses will resonate with them.
“When I worked with the McCain campaign, there was nothing trying to point to Hispanics and trying to get them to vote Republican,” said John Ortega, who chairs an Iowa-based Romney outreach effort called Juntos con Romney. “The emphasis this year is more than I’ve seen in other campaigns.”
Many Latinos, though frustrated with Obama over his failure to pass immigration reform, have been turned off by the Republican Party’s recent tone on immigration. But Romney has been hoping that this subgroup of Latino voters will focus on how much they have been affected by the recession when they go to the ballot box.
“Everybody seems to be struggling,” said Mendez. ““Hispanic-owned restaurants are really struggling. People aren’t going out to eat because don’t have the money to spend. There’s that that’s going on here in Denver.”
A Republican at heart, Mendez has spent the better part of the last few months knocking on doors of fellow Latino entrepreneurs, distributing fliers entitled “No mas Obama” and holding rallies on street corners in areas dominated by Latino businesses.
His efforts are just part of other movements brewing nationally, especially in swing states. Small business supporters of each candidate have been active on social media and campaigning in their local communities to push for their favorite candidates.
In Des Moines, Iowa, also a battleground state, both parties have had booths at the Latino heritage festival and local candidates are giving interviews to Hispanic radio shows -- unprecedented efforts, according to small business owner Jose Laracuente, who is Puerto Rican.
Laracuente owns a software company used in the agricultural world called AgVision. He said Romney’s focus on the importance of small business helped sway him to vote for the candidate.
“In the big picture, there’s recognition that Latinos and the Hispanic vote is important,” said Laracuente. “Hispanics and Latinos have the same dreams as everyone else – they want to live the American dream.”
But not every Latino business owner thinks Romney will help them reach the American dream.
Louis Barajas, a California financial adviser, is an Obama supporter. His allegiance isn't tied to economics as much as it is to social issues, a sentiment he said his clients share. Barajas provides financial guidance to many Latino small business owners who view some social issues as a critical component to the growth of their business -- providing healthcare for their employees, for example. Understanding the importance of social issues and how it relates to the Hispanic culture is something that the Romney campaign hasn't yet mastered, Barajas said.
"I think Romney’s campaign has been inclusive of Latino small business owners, but they’re approaching more the Republican type of Latino, the higher income Latino like the east coast Cubans," said Barajas, a Mexican-American. "But when it comes to approaching the Mexican or Mexican-American population, I don’t think they’ve done a good job of that."
While polls show the Republican Party has not been able to gain traction in the Latino community in a significant way (the Republican National Convention featured many prominent Latinos and the GOP has aggressively sought Latino support, yet Latinos still seem to heavily favor Obama), Hispanic small business owners say the party is beginning to make meaningful inroads among Latino small business owners, a growing segment of the Latino population.
“I think most politicians try and pander and say, ‘I like the Hispanic community,’ or ‘I have a friend who is Hispanic,’ but we can see through that,” said Robert Ramirez, a small business owner and consultant who is now a Republican state legislator in Colorado. “I think Romney is starting to say we have common problems, we can work together and get that common goal and that is success. We can do it together and Latino small business owners, they get that.”
Not all small business owners agree on who is being more sincere.
Hector Bauza heads an outreach campaign for the President called the Hispanic Small Business Owners for Obama. He said that a tax cut under Obama's administration helped him expand his Hispanic marketing firm -- he branched out of Hartford, Connecticut and into Orlando, Florida. As a Massachusetts resident, Bauza said the former Governer, Romney, didn't pay as much attention to the Latino community then as he is now.
"I think now that [Romney] is running for office, reaching the Latino community is an afterthought, not something that drives him like it does with Obama," he said. "In my humble opinion, every presidential election cycle at the end of their campaigns, maybe one month, maybe three weeks before November is when they really put an effort and really sit down and talk with the people and try to understand the issues."
But others are more skeptical about the efforts made to reach Latino entrepreneurs by both candidates. Glenn Llopis, founder of the Center for Hispanic Leadership pointed out that many studies have shown that Latino small business owners are not as likely to get loans as white counterparts and are one of the largest unbanked communities. He said there hasn’t been adequate understanding demonstrated by either candidate to offer solutions or resources to grow businesses with these specific underpinnings.
The candidates are appealing to the community in terms of political issues, such as immigration, rather than reaching out to small business owners as a source of great economic growth, a pitfall which may be stopping him from committing his vote.
“I’m torn because as much as I want to believe in Romney’s business mindset and approach, Obama’s social issues resonate with me as well,” said Llopis, who insisted he was undecided. “I’ll have an answer on election day.
Soni Sangha is a freelance writer based in New York City.