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The Latino vote is a diverse cultural cross section of Central and South American views. According to a recent poll taken of Virginia’s Latino citizens, who make up about 8 percent of all state residents, the top issues concerning Latinos this election cycle are immigration followed by economy and jobs.

The poll was conducted by Latino Decisions for America’s Voice, a Washington D.C.-based think tank.

“Growth in Latino community, specifically where people come from, matters,” said the Center for American Progress’ Director of Progress 2050 Vanessa Cardenas, who spoke at George Mason University Monday as part of a panel discussion on the Latino vote. “Obviously, Virginia is very important and is going to play a key role in this election. But I think moving forward, Virginia is also going to play an important role [in] immigration and how Latinos view this issue in Virginia as well as nationwide.

Cardenas added that the three biggest Latino groups in Virginia are from El Salvador, Puerto Rico and Mexico, and the rest are South American nations such as Peru, Bolivia and Colombia.

“I think that’s very distinct from other regions in the country especially those states that are seen as Latino focused, like Florida, Texas, New Mexico, and California,” she said.

Knowing the country of origin in the Latino community can help understand why an immigrant moved to the U.S., Cardenas said.

“For example when you talk about those who came from central America — particularly El Salvador and Guatemala — they were escaping civil war and that is a little bit different than the people who came from South America — Peru, Colombia and Bolivia — who came mostly for economic reasons,” she said, adding that this could also influence their political views and explain why some Latinos ranked immigration policy over the economy as key issues this election.

In the U.S., residents identifying as Latino or Hispanic comprised about 17 percent of the total population.

In Virginia, about 8 percent of residents identified as Latino. Of these, only 5.6 percent said they were among the citizen population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. About 19.5 percent of Virginia Latinos claim El Salvador as a country of origin, a nation that was in civil war from 1979 to 1992. Puerto Ricans claimed 16.3 percent and Mexican-Americans 15.9 percent of Virginia’s Latino community.

“We’re quite confident that Latinos are poised to be influential,” said Latino Decision’s Matt Barreto, who is also a professor at the University of Washington.

“On the outset, the Republicans have not made huge strides with the Latino vote in 2012 with some of their rhetoric during the primary,” he said. “However, enthusiasm and turnout may ultimately be the key question.”

In Fairfax County, Republican and Democrat campaign leadership teams say they are trying to energize the base in order to stimulate voter turnout.

The Obama For America campaign has held several outreach events, including a rally at GMU headlined by San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro in September.

Republicans too are reaching out to voters through grassroots efforts.

“It’s been more of a ground game; lots of groups and Latinos have stepped up to the plate to recruit folks,” said Fairfax County Republican Committee member Lolita Mancheno-Smoak, an Ecuadorian-American whose parents immigrated to the U.S. in the 1960s. She said the Republican outreach effort has been focused on connecting with Latinos on shared family values and education concerns.

During Tuesday night’s second presidential debate, candidates squared off on immigration policy issues. While President Obama has been praised by the Latino and immigrant communities for his support of the DREAM Act, Mancheno-Smoak said Romney made an attractive case for holistic immigration reforms.

“What the Republican perspective is really about is having the freedom to compete,” she said, adding that growing the economy and job creation are important to Latino-Americans. “These are the kinds of things that attract Latino voters.”

However, down-state politics, like the GOP primary, may swing voters away from the Republican national candidate, as well as U.S. Senate candidate George Allen (R), former governor of Virginia.

“Over the last three election cycles, we’ve seen very conservative individuals get elected to the Virginia General Assembly — incredibly conservative with anti-immigrant sentiments,” said Del. Alfonso H. Lopez (D-Dist. 49) of Arlington. “And the legislation that was put forward over the last nine years has been decidedly anti-immigrant; and it’s based not so much on inherent beliefs but polling data. Polling data says that we can make a niche; we can actually succeed if we demonize one group. 2006, it was gay, LGBT, community. Before that and since then it’s been the immigrant community.”

According to the polling results by Latino Decisions for America’s Voice, about 34 percent of respondents said they were Democrats, 15 percent Republican and 30 percent independent. This could mean a large group of votes are up for grabs.

The survey, however, also asked respondents questions to see which way they lean on issues. In this case, 63 percent leaned Democrat, while 23 percent leaned Republican, according to GMU Professor Michael McDonald, who moderated Monday’s panel discussion as well as described the poll’s findings.

“Forty-eight percent of all respondents indicated that immigration was an important issue to them,” he said. “Forty-seven percent said it was economy or jobs in some form. And then, in much lower percentages you see education and healthcare at 19 percent and 13 percent...”

On the presidential election: 67 percent said they were voting for President Barack Obama (D), 22 for Gov. Mitt Romney (R) and 7 percent were undecided.

In the U.S. Senate race: 64 percent said they were voting for former-Gov. Tim Kaine (D) and 24 percent for former-Sen. George Allen (R). Kaine’s support could be higher than Allen’s because of his open support of the DREAM Act.

“We see a high level of enthusiasm from Virginia Latinos and a higher level of enthusiasm compared to 2008,” McDonald said. “So certainly, it looks as though these issues could be very important to the election… We see that immigration is an important issue and that immigration, that support, even permeates people who don’t mention immigration as one of their top issues. As a result, we see overwhelming support for the Democratic candidates.”

hhobbs@fairfaxtimes.com