Mistakes Campaigns Make Courting The Latino Vote
March 30, 2012

"Viva Bush" signs were prevalent when then-Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush made a campaign stop in Mesilla, New Mexico in 2000.

LAS VEGAS -- One of the earliest Spanish-language political ads dates back to 1960, when a young Jackie Kennedy spoke into the camera in Spanish, urging voters to elect her husband, then-Senator John F. Kennedy.

Voten ustedes por el partido Demócrata el día 8 de noviembre,” she said, adding “Que viva Kennedy.”

Her husband’s “Viva Kennedy” clubs were some of the first efforts to energize Latino voters in a presidential race.

These days, courting that voting bloc is a must for anyone running for president, or any office in the Southwest.

But syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette, Jr. says too many political operatives are still clueless about this country’s diverse Latino population.

“They feel now obligated to learn about it,” Navarrette said. “But we really are sort of this foreign entity to them, and they are just like walking on the moon trying to figure it out.”

So to get their bearings, campaigns and candidates have historically reached for a few familiar props to help them connect with these voters. The most obvious prop? Mexican food.

Though Navarrette says he is sick of campaign events that come with a side of salsa.

“There are a lot of different ways you can relate to me, things we may have in common,” Navarrette said. “You don’t necessarily have to break it down to — ‘you know, you like tacos, I like tacos, let’s have a conversation about tacos’.”

In fact, that brand of superficial campaigning is known as "taco politics." That is according to Stephen Nuño, a professor of politics and international affairs at Northern Arizona University.

Latino Perspectives On The 2012 Elections

Read some thoughts from voters on how candidates have addressed Latino communities this campaign season.

But taco politics can backfire.

“One of the most famous moments was when Gerald Ford ate tamales,” Nuño said.

Ford was in front of a Texas crowd in 1976, during the Republican primary. But he didn’t know a tamale’s corn husk wrapping isn’t edible.

“So he took a bite out of the tamale with the husk still on it,” Nuño said. “And of course that doesn’t look good, it doesn’t taste good, and it only shows just how distant President Ford was to the Hispanic culture.”

Nearly a half-century later, the current Republican presidential contenders have their share of gaffes under their belts.

Mitt Romney used Fidel Castro’s slogan in a speech to a Cuban American crowd in Miami. Rick Santorum told Puerto Ricans they should speak English if they want to be a state. And there was the time Newt Gingrich seemed to call Spanish the language of the ghetto.

“The words I chose to express myself weren’t the best ones,” Gingrich said afterward in a video message delivered in Spanish with a heavy American accent. He explained that he meant to say that English is necessary for progress and success in this country.

While criticizing Spanish speakers may be a sure way to lose Latino votes, it’s not clear how effective reaching out to voters in Spanish really is.

Stanford University political scientist Gary Segura estimates that around 70 percent of the Hispanic electorate uses English as their main language.

“Even if you advertise in Spanish, that doesn’t necessarily mean you are reaching the preponderance of voters,” Segura said.

Plus, producing ads in Spanish can be risky if campaigns don’t get the wording just right. Because of regional language differences, certain Spanish words can sound innocent to one audience, but obscene to another.

Take this ad from Shelley Berkley, a Nevada Democratic congresswoman running for the U.S. Senate. The ad, in Spanish, attacked her Republican opponent, Sen. Dean Heller, on his immigration record.

Her ad said Heller opposed immigration reform and would even deport grandparents and separate children from their mothers—or "hijos de sus madres."

It is subtle, but that phrase unintentionally sounds the same as the Spanish equivalent of ‘S.O.B.’s.’

In a way, most of these examples could be chalked up as cosmetic missteps. But Ruben Navarrette says there is a fundamental problem with how presidential campaigns are reaching out to Latinos.

“The number one reason campaigns are struggling is they need to shut up and listen,” Navarrette said.

His advice circles back to the Kennedy family, the pioneers of Latino voter outreach.

“Famously in 1968, Bobby Kennedy went before the Mexican-American community and he asked two questions, ‘What do you want, and how can I help?’” Navarrette said.

“Think about that for a second. Nobody does that anymore.”

Jackie Kennedy's Spanish Ad