This week, the Sunshine State and community of Central Florida will play host to the largest gathering of Hispanic policymakers in the country.
The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials annual conference is a three-day event that serves as the nation's premiere Latino political convention. This year's convening, Thursday through Saturday, is bringing together more than 1,200 Hispanic officials and supporters from all levels of government for an exchange of meaningful ideas and solutions to the country's most pressing policy issues.
In recent years, the NALEO conference has emerged as the pre-eminent forum for candidates and campaigns to directly engage Hispanic officials and the millions of constituents our membership represents nationwide. We hosted presidential candidates in 2003, 2004 and 2007. In advance of the 2008 election, Sen. John McCain and then-Sen. Barack Obama addressed our membership as the presumptive nominees of their parties.
The NALEO 29th annual conference will continue that rich tradition, with the president and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney joining the nation's Hispanic leadership in Florida. The conference will mark the first time the president and the former governor will address the same Hispanic audience in back-to-back events this campaign season. Interest is high, with both candidates expected to outline their plans for the direction of the country and the Hispanic community.
With the Hispanic electorate increasing in both size and diversity, Obama and Romney will need to take this opportunity to directly address the issues that are of the most importance to Hispanic policymakers and our constituents. Like many Americans, the Hispanic community is facing a number of challenges, making it critical for the candidates to present real strategies that will make the American dream more accessible to this growing population group.
As leaders in our communities, we want to know about the candidates' respective plans to create jobs, fix the immigration system, improve schools and foster healthy communities. These issues are affecting the lives of Americans across the country, and they will serve as a driving force behind the Hispanic electorate on Election Day.
The Hispanic electorate's numbers equate to real political clout in 2012. According to projections from the NALEO Educational Fund, more than 12.2 million Hispanic voters are expected to make their voices heard at the ballot box this November.
In California, Texas and New Mexico, Hispanic voters will account for more than one in five voters this election season, making their support a key component of any successful campaign strategy this year.
Here in Florida, we expect 1.6 million Hispanic voters to head to the polls, comprising 18.3 percent of the state's overall electorate. Given the make-up of the electorate and the number of electoral votes at stake in the state, Florida is the perfect setting for Obama and Romney to make a strong appeal for the support of the nation's Hispanic leadership and swing voters. The Hispanic electorate is poised to play a critical role in 2012, likely determining who will be sworn in on Jan. 20, 2013.
Past elections have shown that the Hispanic electorate is not a monolithic or single voting bloc. Our electorate helped secure victory for Obama in 2008, as well as PresidentGeorge W. Bushin the 2000 and 2004 elections. Both Obama and Romney will need to develop a Hispanic strategy that goes beyond translating political ads into Spanish if they hope to win the support of this increasingly diverse and growing electorate.
The NALEO conference has the potential to be a game-changer for the candidates this campaign season. With Hispanic voters across the nation watching, it will up to both individuals to capitalize on their time in front of the nation's Hispanic leadership by presenting a policy plan that engages all sectors of the electorate.
The road to November is not an easy one to travel, but Obama and Romney will have a much smoother trek if they have the Sunshine State and the Hispanic electorate behind them as they head toward Election Day.
Sylvia R. Garcia is the president of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.