Why Latino Voters Will Swing the 2012 Election

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Photographs by Marco Grob for TIME

Arizona has a history of offering up extravagant political characters who sweep into the national conversation and proceed to upend it--from "Mr. Conservative" Barry Goldwater to Joe Arpaio, the sheriff who reinstituted chain gangs, to Jan Brewer, the sitting governor, who championed the most incendiary immigration law in the country. But when it comes to understanding what is about to happen in Arizona and a host of other crucial states in the coming campaign, you have to meet a barrel-chested Phoenix firefighter named Daniel Valenzuela and hear how he won a seat on the city council representing this city's mostly Latino west side. In a season when Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum have courted a Latino backlash with nativist appeals, the source and shape of Valenzuela's victory explain why Latino voters may choose the next President.

His story is a cautionary tale for a party that claimed 44% of Latino votes as recently as 2004, when George W. Bush led the ticket. Unless Republicans quickly change their tone and direction, they will be lucky to approach the percentage Bush won, much less match it. In the balance hangs the White House.

Valenzuela, 36, began his campaign last spring with a pitch to five Latino students at a local college. "It's not just to win a city-council seat," he told them. "The idea is to get people registered to vote." The students needed no encouragement. They had already seen their friends and families detained by Arpaio's deputies in routine roundups. They had faced state-college tuition hikes for not having proper immigration papers. Within weeks, the five students recruited nearly 100 others, almost all under the age of 30. They called themselves Team Awesome, and they walked the streets of west Phoenix five or six days a week last summer, when temperatures topped 118F. By Election Day in 2011, the group had made about 72,000 visits door to door, returning four or five times to many homes. Even so, the results stunned the experts: Valenzuela beat his Republican opponent by a ratio of nearly 3 to 2, with nearly 14,000 votes cast. Latino turnout in his district increased 480% from the previous off-year election, giving Phoenix two Latino members of the city council for the first time. Having watched for years as both parties ignored what are known as "low-propensity Latino voters," Valenzuela, a political independent, had rewritten Arizona's political textbook overnight.

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