Sunday's presidential elections in the Dominican Republic highlight the growing strength of Dominican voters living abroad.
Emigrants have been coming to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic in earnest since the 1960s. The 2010 Census counted 1.4 million of them. And nearly half of those are in New York City. They've been a political force in the area for a while.
In recent years, they've been flexing their political muscle back in the Dominican Republic, too. That's particularly true this weekend.
This campaign office on 159th and Amsterdam is a typical one. People huddle and talk about fundraising numbers and voter lists. There's a call center and a TV crew setting up for an interview and a bunch of posters piled in a corner.
But the people gathered in the third-story office aren't talking about Obama or Romney. They're talking about Medina, and they're doing it in Spanish. Danilo Medina is one of the two leading presidential candidates in the Dominican Republic. The other is Hipólito Mejía. Election day is Sunday and the race is tight.
"It's exciting, because if you go around, everybody's campaigning — everybody, everybody," says Frank Cortorreal, the head of the Medina campaign in New York State.
This is the third time Dominicans living abroad have been able to vote in presidential elections back home. Both major parties now have permanent offices in New York. Dominicans abroad make up about five percent of the country's total registered voters, and they could play a decisive role in this race.
The candidates have noticed: both have been making regular visits since the fall, meeting with interest groups, raising money, and taking their message to the streets of Washington Heights.
And it's not just the presidential candidates who have grabbed attention. Vice Presidential candidate and current first lady Margarita CedeÃ±o de Fernández has been a major force in the race. "According to all the surveys—political surveys in the Dominican Republic—she is the most valued candidate," says Ramona Hernandez, Director of the Dominican Studies Institute at the City College of New York. "This is amazing to me."
Hernandez says women are becoming an increasing power in Dominican electoral politics, especially among Dominicans living abroad, where women make up the majority.
The main message in this campaign will probably sound familiar.
That's right, this election is about change. Medina's party has been in power for eight years, and Hipólito Mejía supporters say the party has been bad for country.
"A lot of drugs, a lot of delinquencies, and the food prices are up," says Madeline Martin. "They never go down; they're always up, up, up, up."
Martin was sitting along St. Nicholas Avenue with a group of other Mejía supporters around a card table loaded with campaign literature. She thinks her candidate will make her country safer and the government less corrupt.
But opponents suggest that Mejia's not the face of change. "He was president in 2000 to 2004. He was a disaster, " Frank Cortorreal says.
The number of New York's Dominican voters has doubled since the last presidential election in 2008. But Cortorreal says it's getting tougher to reach out to them. They're becoming less concentrated in Northern Manhattan–gentrification is pushing them out.
And Ramona Hernandez says it's an open question whether New York Dominicans will stay involved in the politics of their homeland. She says it's the first generation that's most active.
"It's really connected to Dominican immigrants," Hernandez says. "The second-generation Dominicans, or those who were born and raised in the US—studies show that they pay very little attention to politics in the Dominican Republic."
Still, Cortorreal says that political sentiment among Dominicans runs deep. "In Dominican Republic, when you belong to a party, you sympathize with a party, it's very inside of you! It's like football. You know, it's something personal. Fanatical!"
If the latest polls are right, Sunday's match will be a nail-biter.
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