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Don’t say “papaya” in Miami, and other lessons for wooing Latino voters

Thumbs up, President Obama.
Thumbs up, President Obama.
C. W. Griffin/Miami Herald via Getty

In August 2012, Mitt Romney gave his only interview on Spanish-language radio of the presidential campaign — with a station Democratic strategist (and Martin O'Malley adviser) Gabriela Domenzain calls "the most conservative Cuban radio station in Miami." With only one chance to make a good impression in a swing state — one in which Latinos are a little more open to Republicans than in other states — he just needed not to screw up. And he got through the policy questions without major error. But "at the end of it," says Domenzain, "the guy's like, 'You're in Miami — are you excited? What do you like about being here?'

"And Romney," she continues, "is thinking about — he's going to a fruit stand later." So he told host Carlos Santana, "I am a big fan of mango, papaya, and guava."

Record scratch. "Papaya" is Cuban slang for female genitalia, in the nastiest way. The gaffe turned Romney into a tremendous punch line among Latinos.

Could better preparation from a Latino communications team have saved Mitt Romney from his love of tropical fruit? Maybe, maybe not. One of Romney's major Spanish-language TV interviews, on Univision, turned out similarly badly; the audience was more interested in whether Romney had intentionally darkened his skin with makeup than in anything he said.

The two stumbles might not have made as much of a splash if Romney had been more generous with Spanish-language media in general (earlier in the campaign he'd gotten attention in the English-language press for how little access he was giving to Spanish media). And if his campaign had been more effective at reaching Latino voters by other means, the candidate himself would have mattered less. But by Romney's own admission, his operation underinvested in reaching out to Latino voters — a mistake he's called the biggest of his campaign.

papaya

Poor Mitt Romney. If only he'd known to call this fruta bomba. (Viktar Malyshchyts via Shutterstock)

This problem isn't just Mitt Romney's. National candidates in both parties are still trying to figure out how to campaign effectively in the Latino community.

Campaigns have gotten a lot better at it over the past decade — but that's largely, if not exclusively, due to the efforts of a group of Latino strategists. Latinos on the inside of campaigns have figured out the challenges with reaching out to Latino voters; designed smarter communications and get-out-the-vote campaigns to reach them; and, sometimes, fought with (or simply worked around) campaign bureaucrats to execute their plans.

The Obama 2012 campaign was a rousing success for them. Not only did Obama trounce Romney among Latinos 71 to 27 percent, but a record 11.2 million Latinos turned out to vote — making up 10 percent of the electorate for the first time ever. But the aftermath of that election hasn't worked out exactly as Latino strategists hoped. They hoped other political professionals would be spurred by their success to start learning about Latino outreach and integrating it into all aspects of campaigns. Instead, Latino strategists often find themselves siloed into "Latino work" — and see Latino work cut off from the rest of the campaign.

Presidential candidates who are already looking toward the 2016 general election are definitely thinking about how Latinos fit into his or her campaign — not just as voters, but as staff. And conversations with several veteran Latino strategists earlier this year showed that they're looking at this election as a chance for candidates and political elites to prove 2012 was just the beginning. The strategists are willing to work as hard as always to reach out to their community and get them to the polls, but they feel the jury's still out on whether the DC political establishment understands what Latino voters — and Latino operatives — have to offer.

Campaigns need to start working on Latino outreach, like, yesterday

Voter registration Latinos

Sometimes organizers can find Latinos just by "getting in the car." (David McNew/Getty)

Veteran strategist Fernand Amandi was a lead consultant for Hillary Clinton in 2008 and Obama in 2012; his firm, Bendixen and Amandi in Miami, is the longest-established Latino pollster. In other words, he knows how to tell a mediocre Latino outreach effort from a sincere one. When I asked him the difference, he answered immediately: "Beginning research and paid media in the last three months before election day, as opposed to a year and a half or two years out before the election."

It sounds obvious. But as recently as 10 years ago, it wasn't something political campaigns were doing. Amandi points to the John Kerry campaign (where Amandi himself worked as a staffer in Florida) as an example of a "very inferior Hispanic outreach effort," especially when put up against the "superior" Latino outreach of George W. Bush's re-election campaign. Bush got 44 percent of the Latino vote in 2004 — a high-water mark for the party.

In early 2015, some Democratic Latino strategists and advocates were uneasy about the whiteness of Hillary Clinton's inner circle. When I asked them what indications they were looking for to indicate that Clinton was serious about Latino voters, they told me they were watching to see when she hired her first Latino/a staffer and who that person was. Clinton has more or less cleared that hurdle: in the early months of her campaign, she's hired former congressional candidate Amanda Renteria, formerly-unauthorized immigrant activist Lorella Praeli, and former Harry Reid staffer Jorge Silva.

Even get-out-the-vote efforts — which, unlike advertising, tend to start much earlier in the campaign cycle to register as many potential voters as possible — have often put off Latino outreach until late in the cycle. Alida Garcia, a strategist who was national Latino vote deputy director for President Obama's reelection campaign, explains that's partly because Latinos are especially hard to reach. "The current voter file [records of registered voters] is stacked against a productive Latino voter engagement program, because half of us aren’t registered in the first place — and the data we do have gets inaccurate quickly, because we move around. Or we’re talked to less because we’re not at home, we’re at work."

So campaigns often start with the "low-hanging fruit" — voters who are already registered, or who are easily reached — and turn toward harder-to-reach voters only afterward. But Garcia points out that's a backward strategy. The challenges that Latinos pose "aren't insurmountable," she says, "they just require eyes and ears primed to Latino vote needs on the front end."

"We can't find the Latinos"

You can only start Latino outreach early if you know where to start. Political campaigns have gotten immeasurably better at using data to target voters and potential voters over the past several elections, but their tools are only as good as the quality of their data. When the data is incomplete or underdeveloped, as it is with Latinos, there isn't much the analytics can do.

obama campaign computers

Sometimes data "can't find the Latinos." (Frank Polich/Getty)

Garcia talks about going to "one battleground state with a statistically significant Latino population" in 2012 (she won't say which one) to watch a presentation from the campaign's analytics team — only to hear them say that they "couldn't find the Latinos."

"And no one reacted," she said. "It was crazy."

Her solution? "Getting in your car, driving around a neighborhood, and talking to people." It might seem more scattershot and less sophisticated than the data-based work a modern campaign is used to, but that data-based work wouldn't be possible if campaign operatives of the past hadn't gotten out in the car to figure out where people were. And that's just what Garcia did with campaign staff in 2012, in the swing state where the data hadn't been able to identify Latino neighborhoods.

Even at a national level, doing independent research on Latinos can be surprisingly rewarding. Amandi says that in the Obama 2012 re-election campaign, "early polling and focus groups revealed that far from being an albatross, or something to run away from, the passage of the Affordable Care Act was something to run on when it came to the Hispanic community." That was a surprise to the campaign — and it was one they struggled with. "I don't want to say it was a source of tension within the campaign," says Amandi, "but it was certainly a source of controversy, because they were very reluctant to lead with that accomplishment in the general market. But in the Hispanic market, it was what we led paid advertising with." And those ads, adds Gabriela Domenzain (the campaign's national director for Hispanic press), actually came out ahead of any ads the campaign released in English.

"I've been a journalist for 25 years. Never have I been contacted by a presidential campaign."

After the 2012 campaign, Domenzain says, she wrote a thank-you email to the reporters on her press lists — in both Spanish and English. Many of the Spanish-language reporters, she says, wrote back — saying things like, "'I've been a journalist in,' say, Georgia, 'for the past 25 years for a periodical that comes out weekly. Never have I been contacted by a presidential campaign, nor have I been given the info in the language that I need it.' Or, 'Thank you for this information. We want it, and it never comes to us.'"

"Can you imagine?" she continues. "A DC reporter saying, 'I don't get information'?" (To the contrary, she points out, English-language political reporters are famous for complaining about the volume of email they get from campaigns.)

rick scott reporters

Sure, but what language do your press releases go out in? (Joe Raedle/Getty)

Some campaign staff can even make it harder for Spanish-language materials to get out into the community. Garcia says that in 2012, some "organizers on Latino turf couldn't get their managers to realize they needed Spanish-language materials." They ended up going directly to Garcia at campaign headquarters, over Twitter direct message or Facebook chat, to request the materials and get them sent directly, without going through their managers. "Call it entrepreneurial," she says with a shrug.

In Spanish, you have to start with "What is Obamacare?"

Political insiders have started becoming more aware of the concept of "cultural competency." The long definition of "cultural competency" is starting with what your target voters are like and working backward from there, rather than using a one-size-fits-all approach or assuming whatever resources you have are what the campaign needs. The short definition is: "Don't just translate your English stuff into Spanish."

That's not just a metaphor — it's a specific piece of advice about campaign communications. In 2004, says Amandi, "the messaging that was done going into the general election was wholesale translated into Spanish." That's still often the case today.

si se puede obama

Not every message is as easy to translate as this one is. ((Brian) via Wikimedia Commons)

An audience that consumes mostly Spanish-language media is going to know about different things than one that watches the news and reads newspapers in English. "You're dealing with a community that is not reached out to consistently," Domenzain says. And that means certain hot-button issues and phrases just blow right past them. "The Latino community in Spanish-language drive-time radio doesn't know who the Koch brothers are."

"If you say, 'Oh my god, Romney's going to kill Obamacare,' in English it might work — because they've been plastered with Obamacare and the political fight. But Spanish — especially Spanish on the radio and television — it's, 'What is Obamacare?' And then you can go into the benefits of how it helps you, and then you go to the contrast of 'Republicans want to take it away.'"

To deal with the information gap in 2012, Domenzain and her team ended up drafting, casting, and recording totally independent ads in Spanish. Ironically, that meant it was Domenzain's job to try to translate those ads into English — so that top campaign staff could approve the ad's content. "Before, they'd try to translate into Spanish and approximate the English," she says. "Here, it was, 'Look, heads up, this is what it says [in Spanish]. It's the truth. I don't know how to translate it well, because this is not about translation."

The "strange practice" of forgetting that Latinos speak English, too

Fully 83 percent of Latino voters are fluent in English — and that's higher among young Latinos, who are especially important campaign targets. Sometimes campaigns' communications shops acknowledge that "Latino communications" and "Spanish communications" aren't always the same — one strategist, for example, insisted that the office treat outlets like the Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald as Latino news outlets. But often, they don't.

When it comes to ads, in particular, campaigns usually default to "the strange practice of only communicating to Latino voters about their issue priorities on television in Spanish," in Garcia's words. She has no patience for it, especially in states like Colorado, where many Latinos are bilingual. "This practice does not match the data," she insists.

Furthermore, remembering that Latinos also speak English might prevent campaigns from saying things in English that they don't want Latinos to hear. Republican candidates often get hit particularly hard on doing this with their immigration positions: a candidate will say one thing during the primary (say, "self-deportation"), go silent on the issue in English during the general election, and put out ads in Spanish touting support for some sort of "reforma migratoria." But Democrats aren't immune. In February 2015, during the shutdown fight over the Department of Homeland Security, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee was criticized for a robocall warning that terrorists were coming over the border from Mexico and Republicans weren't helping stop them.

If you put a Cuban in an ad targeting Mexicans, people will notice a difference

The first thing any Latino-vote expert will say is that there's barely such a thing as the "Latino vote." Latinos in North Carolina have different concerns from Latinos in California; reaching sixth-generation Latinos in New Mexico requires a different strategy from reaching first-generation, newly naturalized Latinos in Nevada. Domenzain emphasizes that Florida alone has 22 media markets — "and each media market is different" in the ethnic and socioeconomic makeup of its Latinos.

So if you just make a single Spanish-language ad, she says, you're not doing cultural competency right. "If you put a Cuban [in an ad] speaking to Mexicans, there will automatically be something in the Spanish that triggers, 'There's a difference.' It's not just translating, it's trans-interpreting something for a particular community you want to motivate to vote."

An Obama 2012 ad featuring a Colombian-American in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. (BarackObama.com via Youtube)

This is something, Domenzain says, that even some Latinos don't automatically understand. "A lot of the bilingual communicators at this level spent a lot of time in Miami, because Miami, unlike anywhere else, is a melting pot of Latino culture. I'm Mexican, but I grew up very aware that not all Latinos in the US were Mexican, because I grew up in Miami."

Domenzain is very proud of the effort she and her team made in 2012 to find appropriate spokespeople in each state. "In Nevada, we used a young Mexican," she says. "In the I-4 corridor [in central Florida], a Puerto Rican woman who was a veteran." And understanding the diversity of the Latino vote can also help a campaign understand what issues matter most to Latinos in the particular community or state they're trying to reach.

Democrats "often hire minority outreach staff just to check a box"

Here's the problem facing Latino strategists right now: they've shown they can use their knowledge to win campaigns, and they've shown that campaigns need them on board to avoid dumb mistakes. But to use the old expression, they hoped 2012 would teach campaigns to fish; instead, campaigns have just kept expecting the same Latino strategists to give them more fish.

"Democrats are better positioned," says Luis Miranda — who worked for the DNC in 2005 to '09 before serving as director of Hispanic media for President Obama — "but often hire minority outreach staff just to check a box. If they're going to keep their lead, they need to empower diverse talent throughout the party, campaigns, and allied organizations — and not just on minority outreach but in every aspect of their operations." This is particularly stark when it comes to hiring consultants: a study from PowerPAC+ found that in 2010 and 2012, less than 2 percent of the money the Democratic party spent on consultants went to minority-owned businesses.

That's frustrating to strategists personally, because it makes them feel like they're being kept from other career goals. (And multiple strategists told me how frequently they've been the only Latino/a in a meeting.) But it's also, to them, an indication that Washington isn't going to learn from past mistakes and get permanently better at Latino outreach.

"I know we talk about hiring and promoting people of color all of the time like a broken record," says Garcia, "but it’s because it really does matter in running culturally nuanced campaigns." Hiring Latino field organizers is one thing, she says; hiring managers experienced with Latino campaign operations to guide those organizers is another. Garcia's one of the founders of Inclusv, an organization that's working to connect political professionals of color – including Latinos — with campaigns.

Florida voter registration

It's not just the ground-level organizers; it's the people managing them. (Joe Raedle/Getty)

Creating a pipeline of diverse talent is hard, sure. But strategists have some suggestions: don't treat "Latino engagement" as a separate arm of the campaign. Don't automatically task your Latino staff with Latino outreach. Don't just hire Latinos in the West. And don't just hire a Latino to have a Latino face among your high-level campaign staff; if strategists can tell that someone is a symbolic hire, they're not going to be confident that your campaign really cares about inclusion.

At the end of the day, candidates who aren't themselves Latino will always be prone to cultural gaffes. They'll always like papaya. But someone in the campaign needs to minimize the effects of those. The question going forward is whether those people are a dedicated, even tokenized, "Latino engagement" operation, or whether Latino outreach is just a part of running a 21st-century campaign.