ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- New Mexico used to enjoy its status as a fiercely fought presidential battleground. Al Gore won the state by just 366 votes in 2000. George Bush beat John Kerry by 6,000 votes in 2004.
But four years ago, Barack Obama won New Mexico by 15 percentage points, driving the state firmly into the Democratic column. Obama is expected to easily win New Mexico's five electoral votes on Tuesday.
In many ways, New Mexico is a portrait of America's increasingly diverse demographic future.
The United States is 16.7 percent Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And by 2050 that figure is expected to increase to about 30 percent. But the demographic transformation is far more pronounced in New Mexico: Hispanics are already 46 percent of the state's population and 39 percent of those eligible to vote, the highest percentages in the nation.
Latinos are changing the electoral map in states across the West, from California to formerly red-leaning states like Colorado and Nevada -- both of which have become swing states.
Nationwide, a record 24 million Latinos are eligible to vote this year, up by more than 4 million since 2008, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Hispanics make up 38 percent of the population in California, 27 percent in Nevada and 21 percent in Colorado.
Immigration reform has emerged as a key issue in the contest between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney. Nationwide, Latino voters support Obama by 3-to-1, according to the Pew Hispanic Cente. But they've historically lagged non-Hispanics in turning out to vote.
In a recent interview with the Des Moines Register, Obama bluntly stated that Latino support would be key to his victory on Tuesday.
"Should I win a second term, a big reason I will win a second term is because the Republican nominee and the Republican Party have so alienated the fastest-growing demographic group in the country, the Latino community," Obama told the Iowa newspaper.
Gabriel Sanchez, a political science professor at the University of New Mexico, noted that the state's Latino population has grown increasingly Democratic in recent years. But, she said, while voters feel they know Obama better than Romney, enthusiasm for Obama has waned amid a slow economic recovery, and voters are not afraid to voice criticism of both candidates.
"Latino voters who were moderate Democrats are now solidly Democrats," Sanchez said. "A lot of Latinos say that Romney's comments about 'self-deportation' turn them off. At the same time, they feel like Obama hasn't done as much as he promised on immigration reform."
In California, more than 80 percent of the Latino population is of Mexican descent -- and 63 percent of Latinos are native-born. In New Mexico, 75 percent of Latinos are native-born, and many families trace their ancestry to the years of Spanish rule. Immigration from Mexico is a relatively new phenomenon.
"New Mexico has a completely different Latino population than states like California. They call themselves Hispano, which is what they have called themselves for generations," said Gary Segura, a professor in the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity at Stanford University. "There is an immigrant population there, but it is a fairly recent one."
New Mexico's unique demographics have also affected its politics. Roughly 70 percent of Hispanics in the state are registered as Democrats, but they tend to be independent-minded and often vote for the candidate, rather than his or her political affiliation.
Despite Obama's resounding victory here in 2008, two years later the state elected Susana Martinez, a Republican, as the nation's first Latina governor. Gary Johnson, a former Republican governor of New Mexico who is now the Libertarian candidate for president, also has support among Latinos.
And developing relationships with the Latino community matter: One of the reasons why Obama has strong support here is because people have a personal comfort level with the president that has grown since his election in 2008.
"In New Mexico, the Hispanic population is very politically engaged," said Hector Balderas, the state auditor and New Mexico's highest-ranking Democrat, as he ate breakfast at Barelas, a popular breakfast spot south of downtown Albuquerque. Obama visited the restaurant in 2010, ordering huevos rancheros deluxe green with a side of chicharrones.
"We're very used to having Hispanics as local elected officials, and we demand more of our national politicians," Balderas said. "What's happening in New Mexico is representative of how states like California and Texas will evolve."
The Romney campaign has largely abandoned New Mexico, moving staffers to Colorado instead. The Obama campaign has 13 field offices across the state in an effort to lock in turnout from supporters.
"Hispanics are firmly behind the president, and we are often under-counted in the polls," said state Sen. Linda Lopez, a Democrat who is running unopposed for her fifth term. "When the pollsters call in the evenings, a lot of my constituents are still at work."
That's one of the reasons early voting is popular here. Election officials in Bernalillo County, which accounts for one-third of all voters in the state, say that 149,277 early voters have cast their ballots, surpassing the 126,000 record set in 2008.
As Coors Plaza, a weathered strip mall on the city's West Side, about 500 to 600 voters cast ballots on a recent Saturday.
In interviews, the voters expressed a wide variety of political views, often displaying their independent streaks.
"I already voted for Obama. I don't want to have to wait in line on Election Day," said Che Montoya, 20, a student at Central New Mexico Community College who was excited to be voting for the first time. "The economy hasn't been perfect, but the Romney approach doesn't work."
Marleen Apodaca, 61, and Rosemary Parea, 58, have been partners for 38 years. The women, both Latinas, are disgusted with the influence of money on elections and cast their votes for Johnson, who served two terms as governor beginning in 1995.
"I don't like Obama, and I don't care for Romney," Apodaca said. "But I feel like I have to vote: Women fought for the right to vote. Gary Johnson is independent, and he did a good job as governor of New Mexico. He balanced our budget."
Vic Taylor, 47, is a registered Republican, but said "here in New Mexico, we vote for people, not party."
Taylor, who is African-American, said: "I am a Republican who likes my rifles. But it's very hard to get down with my party right now. Romney doesn't do facts very well. He's a great businessman, but on foreign policy I'm not so sure.
"Obama didn't do a terrible job. He didn't do a great job. But he stabilized something that was really broken, and I'm probably going to vote for him. It will take more than four years to fix the problem."
Contact Dana Hull at 408-920-2706. Follow her at Twitter.com/danahull.