It’s a recent Tuesday morning at Fiesta Jalisco Mexican Restaurant in Columbus, Ohio, and Victor Sandoval is preparing the daily food specials.
As you walk into the kitchen, your eyes may sting from the aroma of the freshly-chopped onions but instantly feel refreshed as you walk by a man chopping cilantro. They are key ingredients in the house salsa, a recipe Sandoval has used for decades.
Sandoval, who spoke to CNN after the final presidential debate had taken place, came to the US as an immigrant from Mexico in 1986, when he was 18 years old. He became a citizen in 1993 and lived in a few places around the country, but eventually moved to Ohio.
“Columbus is a good market for restaurants,” he said. “It’s growing like crazy. We have Latinos everywhere.”
Sandoval now owns two restaurants and says that’s why on November 8 he’ll vote for the presidential candidate that will make life better for him as a businessman.
He’s registered as a Republican, but adds that “doesn’t mean I have to vote for that one because I always go with the party that offers more benefits for me and my family.”
Sandoval says he never votes a straight-party ticket. When Barack Obama won in 2008 and 2012, Sandoval was one of the Latino voters who helped the first black president capture the Buckeye State. He believed Obama was going to change immigration policy, something Sandoval says remains a high priority for him.
For the last two decades, attention has been focused on Ohio during presidential election years. In a City University of New York study commissioned by CNN en Español, 1.8% of total voters who cast their ballots in Ohio in 2012 were Latino. Obama won the state by 1.9%.
Four years later and the state’s population increase indicates about 2.2% of votes around Ohio will come from Latinos. Despite the fact that the Hispanic population is so small in the Ohio, the study shows Latinos could very well be the decisive factor in the election.
“The Latino vote is important not because it’s a big number, but because it represents a big impact when it comes to the elections,” says German Trejo, a political consultant with experience running campaigns on both sides of the aisle. He says Ohio’s electorate is, for the most part, set — with the exception of about 100,000 voters, most of whom are undecided Latino voters.
“Out of those 100,000, Latinos have a big chunk of that population and if they go and cast their ballot, they’ll account for between 20% and 80% of that margin of victory,” Trejo said. “These are voters that traditionally stay at home, but in this election, because of the nature of the political candidates and rhetoric that is going on between the two parties, I think the Latino community is motivated and will go and vote in their best interest, whatever that interest is.”
Ohio also outpaces the rest of the country in one aspect when it comes to Latino voters. According to the CUNY study, Ohio registration rates for Latinos in 2012 were at 69%, well above the national average of 58.7%. For 2016, that rate is expected to increase.
“Elections are won and lost by the slimmest of margins and we provide that margin of victory to most of the electorate,” says Juan Molina Crespo. Crespo heads up the Hispanic Alliance of Cleveland, a grassroots, non-profit group that works to increase voter registration. He knows the importance of the Latino vote in the northeastern part of the state.
“When you look at the state of Ohio, we have three counties out of the 88 counties that typically vote Democrat, and in those three counties we also have the highest number of Latinos in the state,” he said.
Crespo looks at Cleveland, in Cuyahoga County, with the highest density of Latinos in the entire state.
“President Obama won Ohio in the previous two elections in large part by very, very slim margins,” he says, “and that slim margin was predicated upon the Latino vote.”
But Crespo points to problems in political camps with their last-minute push for the Latino vote here. “It’s critical,” he says. “Unfortunately, I think both parties do a dismal job of courting the Latino vote until the 11th hour.”
Now, with just a few days until the election, some voters in Ohio are already casting their ballots, forcing local Latinos to decide now which candidate has their best interests at heart.
“I just want to encourage all the Latinos to be more united,” says Yasin Cuevas, a Puerto Rican transplant to Ohio and entrepreneur. “To vote for those who can’t, to understand that we are a community of unity, family-oriented and to see the candidates and watch which one more embraces our values and morals.”
Cuevas moved to Northern Ohio a decade ago and teaches modeling techniques as the director of Miss Ohio Latina. She says politics comes into conversation with her clients a lot.
“I remind them they have the right vote. Before we didn’t, and this is something really important that can affect who we are as women and what rights we have in the society,” she says.
Cuevas says she’s learned that most Latino families have similar priorities in what they want from a commander-in-chief, regardless of how small the number may be.
“We are a powerful community and (we’ve grown) so (much) in the last years and it’s really important,” she says.
Experts like Trejo point to Obama’s narrow victory in Ohio four years ago as an example of why all candidates know the importance of winning the state and why they spend so much time and money here.
“The state of Ohio has 18 electoral votes out of the 270 needed to win the White House,” he said. “The state of Ohio is one of the top two important states to win the White House, and that’s why presidential campaigns pay so much attention to this state in particular.”
But with only a 2% voting base, it’s a wonder Latinos in Ohio can make such a major difference on Election Day.
“Here in Ohio that 2% could be decisive,” Trejo said, “And as we know: as Ohio goes, so goes the nation.”