WASHINGTON (CNS) -- On the first weekend in October, hundreds of young people in Maryland, many too young to vote and most ineligible as noncitizens anyway, were laying the groundwork for the largest turnout of Latino voters -- 10 percent of the total -- in any U.S. election.
That Saturday, young adults who call themselves DREAMers held a rally and then marched through busy traffic in the Maryland suburbs just outside of Washington to the University of Maryland, College Park. They told their stories of being brought to the United States as children and now trying to find a path to legal immigration status, a college education and life out of the shadows.
Maryland's voters would be asked on Election Day to validate a law passed earlier in the year giving this group of students the chance to attend state universities at in-state resident tuition rates if they meet various criteria. The DREAMers were out to rally support for the issue.
But they also focused on registering voters and turning out the vote in general. DREAMers around the country participated in similar rallies, voter registration and get-out-the-vote work, even in states without a measure to help them on the ballot.
Turn out they did, and for one candidate in particular. Exit polling conducted for a consortium of news organizations found 71 percent of Latinos voted to re-elect President Barack Obama. A separate pre-election poll of likely voters in 11 states, most with substantial Hispanic populations, predicted a 75 percent vote for Obama among Latinos.
Obama had a majority of Hispanic votes in 2008 as well, but by a smaller margin. While most Latinos told pollsters the economy was their main concern in their voting choice, how the candidates have approached immigration issues was a strong second priority.
Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice Education Fund, an immigration-focused lobbying organization, noted in a post-election teleconference Nov. 9 that DREAM activists around the country rallied the vote by telling people" we can't vote, we need you to do it for us."
One DREAMer, Veronica Sarabia, said in the teleconference that her organization had registered 8,000 Latino voters in Maryland, where just 8.4 percent of the population is Hispanic.
The state's Catholic parishes did voter education on the Maryland DREAM measure and many church leaders were involved in rallies and other efforts to raise awareness of it. The Maryland Catholic Conference, and the archbishops of Baltimore and Washington worked to encourage support for the referendum. The measure passed comfortably, with strong support from African-Americans as well as Latinos. On the federal level, Catholic leaders and those in Catholic higher education have long supported the DREAM Act, introduced in Congress in various forms since 2003.
By the time Obama was declared the winner Nov. 6, analysts in the news media and for the political parties were talking about how important Latino voters were in the victory.
At week's end, Republican leaders who had previously opposed immigration reform legislation were sounding a different tone. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters that "it's just time to get the job done."
Boehner said at a news conference that there's bipartisan interest in solving the problems of the immigration system, but that he expects Obama to take the lead.
According to the exit poll, Latinos accounted for 10 percent of votes cast nationwide, up from 9 percent in 2008 and 8 percent in 2004. They likely made the difference for Obama winning in several states.
And they changed the outcome for which column the majority of Catholic votes will be counted in -- moving the "Catholic vote" into Obama's column by a margin of 50 percent for Obama and 48 percent for challenger former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
According to exit polling, white Catholics were Romney's voters, by 59 percent, to 40 percent for Obama.
But the overwhelming majority of Latino Catholics sided with Obama, at 75 percent, the exit poll found, compared to 21 percent for Romney. Hispanics make up about a third of Catholics in the United States.
Polling of likely Latino voters by Impremedia and Latino Decisions, conducted in the final days before the election in 11 states, predicted outcomes similar to the exit polling, but in some cases with even stronger Latino turnout.
For instance, Impremedia/Latino Decisions had 81 percent of its likely Catholic voters supporting Obama.
The Latino vote may have added 2.3 percent to Obama's margin among all voters, about enough to make the difference in whether he won, analysts said. The polling analysis web site Real Clear Politics lists Obama's winning margin in the popular vote as 2.4 percent.
According to the exit poll, Latinos accounted for larger percentages of voters than in previous years in several battleground states. For example, in Florida, Hispanics made up 17 percent of the electorate, an increase from 14 percent in 2008.
And more Hispanics in Florida voted for Obama than four years ago, including more Cuban-Americans, traditionally a Republican-voting segment.
But this year the exit poll concluded 49 percent of Cuban voters supported Obama, compared to 47 percent for Romney. Growth in the non-Cuban Hispanic population of Florida -- primarily Puerto Ricans who've moved north -- also helped swing the majority of Latino votes into Obama's column.
Florida's Hispanic voters consisted of 34 percent Cubans and 57 percent non-Cubans. Among all Florida Latinos, 60 percent voted for Obama, and 39 percent for Romney, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, which analyzed the national exit poll data. In 2008, Obama carried 57 percent of Florida's Hispanic vote.
According to the exit poll, the Hispanic share of the electorate in Colorado, Nevada, North Carolina and Wisconsin also increased by a percentage point or two over 2008. Of those states, only North Carolina, where 4 percent of the voters were Hispanic, had a majority of votes for Romney.
In the Nov. 9 teleconference, Eliseo Medina, secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union, said the immigrant community's election turnout was evidence that "we are now living in a blended society."
The Impremedia/Latino Decisions poll also asked likely voters about a handful of issues such as Obamacare and immigration policy as well as some related demographic information. For example, majorities said Obama's initiative to grant some undocumented young adults deferred deportation improved their opinion of him, but that Romney's stance on immigration made them less enthusiastic about him. Sixty percent of those polled said they know someone who is an undocumented immigrant.
The Impremedia/Latino Decisions poll was conducted in: Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas and Virginia.