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Latino Voter Outreach Breaks New Ground, Putting Obama Ahead

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In this Friday, June 29, 2012 photo, Brian Conklin, far right, a regional campaign director for the reelection of President Barack Obama, briefs volunteers about registering new voters prior to them canvassing a heavily Latino neighborhood in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
In this Friday, June 29, 2012 photo, Brian Conklin, far right, a regional campaign director for the reelection of President Barack Obama, briefs volunteers about registering new voters prior to them canvassing a heavily Latino neighborhood in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

President Barack Obama promised but failed to overhaul immigration during the last four years, and Latino unemployment has left many families in dismal economic conditions.

Making those facts clear was supposed to be enough to allow Republican nominee Mitt Romney to claim 40 percent or more of the Latino vote, his advisors and advocates said this summer.

But, with less than two months left before the election, Obama is sitting on a nearly 40-point lead with Hispanic voters. Obama's campaign efforts seem to be resonating with Latinos. The reason: Five different political scientists, analysts and campaign operatives contacted by The Huffington Post said the Obama team's efforts to win the Latino vote began long before Romney's and rely on a more nuanced, modern plan.

Not long before Obama took office in 2009, his communications team brought in three bilingual press officers to translate most White House press releases and generate memos and other materials in English and Spanish. The team works directly with Spanish-language media outlets and those that reach large numbers of Latinos in English.

One example: The administration created an entire website -– cuidadodesalud.gov -– to answer practical questions and dispel myths about the Affordable Care Act. The law will provide about 26 million uninsured Americans with full access to health care, 6 million to 9 million of whom are Latino.

For the first time ever, reporters from Spanish-language news outlets have been included in small groups that receive background briefings over lunch from the president, meetings that have typically been reserved for the nation's best-known and most well-connected reporters for English-language outlets.

"That's really critical," said Federico Subervi, director of the Center for the Study of Latino Media and Markets at Texas State University, who has studied campaigns and Spanish-language media for more than 20 years, "because what you have is a larger group of people with a lot more information, rapid fire information, fresh information before the campaign season even began."

In May, the White House took some criticism for blurring the line between the campaign and White House communications when the organizers of a Rose Garden Cinco de Mayo celebration and those of an evening campaign event targeting Latino supporters appeared to have made use of the same invite list, The New York Times reported.

Last year, the Obama campaign launched a ground game -- door-to-door voter registration efforts, information sessions and tables at community events -- to register some of the estimated 50,000 Latinos who turn 18 each month and combat the effects of laws restricting early voting, said Gabriela Domenzain, director of Hispanic press for the Obama campaign. Some states also passed laws creating new ID requirements for voters and instituted new rules for those trying to put new names on the voter rolls.

Domenzain took on her role in August 2011. The Romney campaign first announced its Hispanic outreach team, "Juntos Con Romney," in June. The move came almost one year after the Obama team began work trying to reach Latino voters.

In North Carolina, where the Obama campaign has what Domenzain described as one of its most active operations, the number of registered Latino voters has doubled since 2008.

The campaign's ground game has been limited to swing states, a tactic that garnered some criticism from individuals and organizations interested in growing the Latino electorate overall.

Beyond building the base the old-fashioned way, the Obama campaign is also running distinctive Spanish- and English-language TV ads targeting Latino voters.

In states such Florida, home to large Cuban and South American immigrant populations as well as Americans from Puerto Rico, the campaign has aired ads that feature Cuban, Puerto Rican and South American supporters. In the South and Southwest, Obama ads feature Mexican American voters.

"This is a diverse and sophisticated electorate," said Domenzain. "You can't just put out one message and think that speaks to 50 million people. We get that and we try to respect it."

One Spanish-language ad called "No Fue Facil" (It Wasn’t Easy) details the fight Obama faced over the Affordable Care Act and just how many Latinos are expected gain insurance coverage under the law. Some of those policy details are repeated in celebrity-studded ads, including one featuring Cristina Saralegui, a woman sometimes called the Spanish-language Oprah.

Other ads describe the Romney campaign as an operation trying to trick Latino voters.

“Until now, the tradition has been, in English, you attack your opponent and talk a little about your policy ideas,” said Marisa Abrajano, a political scientist at University of California, San Diego. “In Spanish, you talk about your background, your values and who you think Latinos are -- and the American dream."

"What I'm seeing here is pretty novel," she added, referring to the Obama campaign's approach.

Abrajano wrote a 2010 book called "Campaigning to the New American Electorate," after studying thousands of political ads aired on Spanish- and English-language TV from 2000 to 2008. Ad content matters, Abrajano said, because that's where most voters –- too busy with their jobs, children and other commitments to take in every campaign speech, event or promise -– get their information about candidates and their policies.

Beyond an unspecified number of ads, the campaign pushes out, in English and in Spanish, fact sheets, press releases, emails, tweets and smart-phone based texting contests intended to appeal to Latinos.

Domenzain declined to answer questions about ad spending aimed at Latino voters, so it's unclear just how frequently the ads, the tweeted messages and emails reach voters.

The campaign has also created a Spanish-language website with information about the president's views on the economy, taxes, health care, international issues, immigration and other matters, all alongside the tagline, “Adelante, Etamos Unidos” (Forward, We Are United). There is a Spanish-language website describing Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan and their budget ideas as "a step back." And there are calculators and pages that allow Spanish speakers to calculate their tax bills under Obama and Romney, and to consider the impact of the Buffett rule, Obama's health care reform or Romney proposals on a voter's family.

Subveri described the campaign's social media efforts as "groundbreaking" because of their frequency and the links to calculators and websites leading to detailed policy information -– in Spanish.

But not everyone sees the Obama team's tactics the same way.

Mike Madrid, a California-based political operative who helped bring record-setting Latino support to President George W. Bush, says the Obama team is operating with a small set of cynical, time-limited tactics.

The campaign's decision to focus on what government has done for Latinos may appeal to new citizens and their children. But those messages will bring diminishing returns as the number of foreign-born Latino voters shrinks, he said. And the economic recovery remains weak.

"I would caution anyone who thinks it's over, that Obama has Hispanic voters in the bag, to remember that there is a big difference between a poll and a vote, someone who really shows up on Election Day," said Madrid. "That's when we'll really know what difference all the outreach really made.“

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