In 2014, then-Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) decided against implementing a robust Hispanic outreach effort. In 2018, then-Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) launched a Latino outreach effort in the last couple of months of his campaign, ignoring his own playbook from 2012, and only after public criticism mounted. Both are now former senators.
That Hispanics are now a pivotal block of voters is not news. But making effective outreach, to some campaigns unfortunately still seems to be a novel approach. According to a recent Politico piece, the websites for most Democratic presidential primary candidates were riddled with mistakes, including what appeared to be heavy use of Google Translate. Some of the errors were egregious, such as referring to women in the masculine, or a candidate saying she had “wasted her life” in public service in a bungled translation.
Some will argue that a campaign website is but a small part of voter outreach. But the care placed on web presence is a window into the culture within a campaign, which is often reflected in other areas.
This will surface in a lack of investment into Spanish media advertising, a fear of tackling issues of importance to the community, or not making the effort to frame issues through a Hispanic lens. And of course, there’s the perennial issue of not hiring competent Latino talent for senior positions on the campaign. All of those components add up to either a robust, or lack-there-of effort to capture Latino hearts and minds.
Nelson, for example, launched his Spanish website and hired staff to focus on Hispanic outreach only after reporters started asking him why he didn’t have one. By contrast, now-Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), Nelson’s challenger, had a Spanish language website early on, regularly did Spanish-language media interviews, turned trips to Puerto Rico into a political milk run and had Spanish-language operatives focused in south and central Florida, the two areas with the state’s largest concentration of Latinos.
The result was a decrease in the Democrats’ share of the Hispanic vote compared to the previous midterm (a cycle that was also lackluster for Democrats) from 58 percent in 2014 to 54 percent in 2018. The gap between Democrats and Republicans in the Sunshine State shrank from 20 points in 2014 to 10 points in 2018. That swing alone would have been enough for Nelson to win a race he lost by some 10,000 votes out of more than 8 million cast.
Back in 2014, Udall’s campaign decided that it would give Spanish-language TV ads a light touch. Finally, when they did air their one an only commercial of the campaign, it was about veterans’ issues. Not that the issue isn’t of interest to Hispanics, but chances are that most Latino veterans are fluent in English, making the topic optimal for English-language stations. Meanwhile, immigration was left untouched, with 41 percent of Hispanic voters not being aware that his opponent, now-Sen. Cory Gardner (R), had an anti-immigrant voting record.
Udall wound up bleeding away 10 points in Latino support compared to previous Colorado Senate midterm race in 2010 (Udall earned 71 percent compared to Sen. Michael Bennet’s 81 percent of the Latino vote). He lost the race by 39,000 votes out of more than 2 million cast.
Campaigns, and some of the campaign committees, often tell themselves that Hispanics can be reached just as easily through English language media, as most are bilingual. But a recent study by the polling firm Latino Decisions reports that exposure to Spanish language media leads to higher voter turnout and that Hispanics trust Spanish language TV more than English language TV.
Two instances where Latino outreach was implemented across the board took place in Nevada in 2016 and 2018. In those two races, now Sens. Catherine Cortez-Masto and Jacky Rosen won the Hispanic vote decisively. Mariela Hernandez, who was political director for Cortez-Masto and deputy campaign manager for Jacky Rosen, said Latino outreach started early and was consistent.
This included earned media operations in Spanish, paid media ads, bilingual mailers, digital media ads, Spanish street signs, and the advice of community councils that represented the Hispanic community from both Clarke and Washoe Counties. This was all supplemented with bilingual organizers fielded by the coordinated campaign.
When we spoke last week, Hernandez told me that there's now no question that activating Latino voters is the key to victory, but that outreach can't rely on a single Latino staffer. It takes a comprehensive effort to communicate effectively.
Extrapolating this to a presidential race that means netting north of 70 percent of the vote is paramount. But to achieve those numbers, token initiatives like a Google translated web sites are simply not going to cut it. Real, respectful investment in the Latino community is where the path to victory lies. And that shouldn’t be news to campaigns that are really interested in winning.
José Dante Parra is CEO of ProsperoLatino. Before founding his firm, Parra was a senior advisor to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. He also led Sen. Reid’s Hispanic media efforts during his 2010 reelection in Nevada, when the Latino vote was the largest deciding factor in the swing in the middle of the Tea Party wave. He was also an advisor for President Obama’s reelection campaign in 2012. Follow him on Twitter @JoseDanteParra