With the intersection of Cinco de Mayo and an election year in which Latino voters are likely to play a definitive role, President Barack Obama’s quick pivot this week from a party to immigration policy isn’t unique.
For candidates across the country, the act of publicly consuming a cafecito (a small, strong cup of coffee), donning a sombrero or managing the ones foisted upon them in jest, has become a de rigueur part of running for public office.
“I have to give it to President Obama. He’s actually been pretty smart about this stuff,” said Marc Campos, president of Campos Communications in Houston, referring to the annual White House Cinco de Mayo reception and the president’s Rose Garden push for immigration reform on Thursday. “But you just know some politician is going to show up somewhere this weekend in a guayabera (a type of shirt) or a sombrero at some party with the fajitas and the guacamole and no knowledge whatsoever of what the people in that room are really concerned about. That’s, unfortunately, how it’s often done.”
Campos, a Mexican American who has worked as a political strategist for dozens of for Democratic candidates since the 1970s, has seen so many politicians try to appeal to Latino voters with cultural celebrations and food that friends this week called him to joke that that they wished the White House reception included the bacon-wrapped shrimp that are a standard of Washington parties. Instead, pork and fish tacos, pico de gallo, sopes and various mole-marinated meats were on the menu.
In 2000, Campos did “truth-squad” research on George W. Bush’s accomplishments in Texas. And, he served as a deputy campaign director for the Democratic Party’s get out the vote effort the last time a Democrat carried Texas. The candidate was Jimmy Carter and the year, 1972.
The Latino population has grown so large that it would now be seen as a slight if a politician fails to show up at a party or parade with a Latino-cultural theme, Campos said. But in the age of social media, a flub can be shared rapidly with millions, so it’s essential that politicians know what they are doing. And those symbolic outreach efforts must be part of a larger policy platform that appeals to Latinos, he said.
“Look what happened with Gerald Ford in '76,” said Campos. “People are still talking about that down here.”
Ford visited San Antonio’s famed Alamo and bit into a tamale –- with the corn husk on. Tamales, seasoned and slow-cooked Mexican compilations of corn and meat, are steamed inside corn husks. The standard way to eat one involves first peeling back the husk.
Ford’s flub remains so infamous that after a November Republican presidential debate in which Texas Gov. Rick Perry forgot the names of the federal agencies he would eliminate if elected, some compared it with Ford’s “Great Tamales Incident.”
“Ford’s attempt to show that he understood Latinos, it backfired, which is probably why today, candidates usually stick to eating tacos,” said Marisa Abrajano, a University of California Davis political scientist.
Since the start of the primary season, several Republican candidates have made the seemingly required sojourn to the Miami Cuban eatery, Versailles Restaurant.
While there, one-time pizza company executive Herman Cain indulged in cafecito and croqueta, a deep-fried treat. Cain asked a question indicating that he was unfamiliar with the American policy of giving only Cuban refugees who manage to make it to U.S. soil asylum. He also asked how one says delicious, “in Cuban.” The incident bolstered critics’ claims that Cain was not fit for the presidency.
With the primaries basically behind them, both the Obama and Mitt Romney campaigns have made clear their hunger for the Latino vote.
Among each side’s more telling efforts are their Spanish-language television commercials, said Abrajano, who wrote the book “Campaigning to the New American Electorate,” after studying thousands of political ads aired on Spanish and English-language TV from 2000 to 2008.
TV content matters because it's how most voters -– working people with jobs and kids and other commitments -– get information about candidates and their policies, Abrajano said. In her research, Abrejano discovered politicians who run relatively detailed policy ads or just old-fashioned attack ads on English-language stations almost never do so on Spanish–language TV. Instead, they pay for gossamer advertising dealing with well-worn narratives such as the American dream and hard work on Spanish-language TV.
“In that sense, Spanish-speaking voters are often getting shortchanged, “ Abrajano said.
The Obama campaign recently rolled out Spanish-language television ads featuring Latino campaign volunteers and supporters who speak policies put in place by the Obama administration that have been helpful to them or members of their families, Abrejano said. Early this year, the Romney campaign also released an ad featuring Romney’s bilingual son, Craig Romney. In the ad, Craig Romney describes his father and his commitment to core American values, Abrejano said. Craig Romney also turns to three well-known Florida Spanish-speakers to do the same.
Campos, the Democratic political strategist in Houston, often struggles to convince candidates to buy ads on the local Spanish-language stations, even though one has higher nightly news ratings than the local ABC, NBC and CBS stations. Houston’s population is nearly 44 percent Latino. That reticence is part of the reason Democrats lost hold of Texas, he said.
Some candidates –- those who speak Spanish, understand Latino political concerns or have knowledge that comes with serving as a public official in a border state -– have skills to mobilize Hispanic voters, said Mike Madrid, a Sacramento-based political strategist and former California Republican Party political director.
The most recent and successful example: George W. Bush, said Madrid. Madrid was part of a three-man team of Latino politicos that developed and implemented Bush’s Hispanic voter strategy in 2000.
Bush spoke more Spanish than many presidential candidates. But his ability to speak in English about the, “soft bigotry of low expectations,” and call for widespread use of standardized tests in evaluating teachers, students and schools resonated to the Latinos and African Americans who supported his campaign, said Madrid.
To appeal to Latinos in this year's election, the Republican Party will have to incorporate Latino concerns into every piece of the party’s platform –- not just immigration, Madrid said. With that, Republicans will begin to lay claim to larger swaths of second, third, fourth and too-many-generations-to count Latino American voters, he said. That’s what’s happened in Texas, he said.
“What Republicans don’t need to do,” said Madrid, “is stand on the floor of the convention and speak a few lines of Spanish and demonstrate their Hispanicity. And I’m a huge fan of Marco Rubio, but there is no Moses that is going to lead us to the promised land and no amount of eating at the right taqueria (taco shop) that is going to save us. It is going to take a comprehensive reorganization by the party.”
While the widespread use of food and other signposts can be irritating, their persistence also points to the role that the nation’s growing Latino population will play in shaping the country’s future, said William Nericcio, a cultural critic who is director of the master of arts in liberal arts and sciences program at San Diego State University.
“The fact is that America is getting a little bit browner,” said Nericcio, who pens the blog TextMex, examining the nation’s “pathological addiction to Mexican stereotypes.” “So, I won’t be at all surprised this year to see everybody out looking for Latino celebrity endorsements and speaking a few lines of broken Spanish.”
Almost nowhere have the political symbols of that new America loomed larger this year than in California’s recently redrawn 10th Congressional District, Nericcio said. There, the Modesto, Calif.-area race features white incumbent Republican Rep. Jeff Denham; independent Chad Condit, who is white and the son of former congressman Gary Condit; and Democrat Jose Hernandez, a Mexican American. Also involved in the campaign: a law firm with ties to the state’s Republican Party.
The law firm went to court to keep Hernandez from listing his occupation on the ballot as “astronaut/ scientist/engineer.” Hernandez, the son of farm laborers who moved frequently as a child and learned English when he was 12, flew on a mission to the International Space Station before leaving NASA last year.
“Yeah I think that he’s got like the ultimate American tale, a rags to riches story, a hero’s career,” said Nericcio. “I think they thought those symbols were just too powerful, and would attract too many voters, especially when it comes with a name like Jose Hernandez”.
In late March, the law firm lost its claim.