MIAMI — Even before the presidential debate ended Monday night, the national media descended on the candidates’ surrogates at Lynn University in Florida. Among the official boosters for President Obama was Fernando Amandi, a member of Miami’s Defense Business Board, who was spinning away for a segment on Univision, the Spanish-language television network.
“Florida voters actually watch Spanish-speaking television,” Amandi said. “Hispanic network television is one of the largest-growing audiences in the country, and for the working community, Spanish-speaking radio is huge.”
But whether Spanish-language media is a must to reach the state’s burgeoning and evolving Hispanic population is — like so much in the home stretch of this presidential race — a point of contention.
Mitt Romney’s campaign, for instance, is airing some Spanish-language ads, especially on the radio. But it has argued that it can reach Florida’s Spanish-speaking voters through other means.
“A lot of Hispanics get their news from English-language stations, too,” said Marco Rubio, Florida’s Cuban American senator and the Republican Party’s poster boy for Hispanic outreach. “It’s just a broader advertising platform. I mean, don’t underestimate the amount of news and information an Hispanic voter gets from Fox News, MSNBC, CNN and ESPN.”
Swing-state Florida, with its 29 electoral votes, remains a critical battleground in a contest that has grown closer as Election Day nears. Hispanic voters are likely to play a key role here, and the degree to which they turn out could determine the election. At the moment, the Obama campaign has a huge advantage: A poll released this week shows the president with a 70 percent level of support among Hispanic voters nationwide.
On Monday evening, though, the Romney campaign and its chief Hispanic surrogates did not seem particularly worried. They acknowledge that Florida’s Hispanic community has expanded beyond traditionally right-leaning Cuban Americans and that many of the new and growing Hispanic communities in the state are more inclined toward Democrats. Yet even in some heavily Hispanic neighborhoods in Miami, it became clear that Spanish-language television isn’t for everybody.
“The channels are for novelas [soap operas] and gossip,” said Tatiana Pino, a 26-year-old Venezuelan who works at Jimmy’z Kitchen in Wynwood, a traditionally Puerto Rican neighborhood that has become home to a fashion district and art galleries. She said she “never, ever” watches Spanish-language television. “It’s something the housekeeper or my mom watches when she gets bored.”
Outside, some Cuban American friends shared a yuca mofongo. Mey-Ling Perez, a 29-year-old banker and registered independent who is leaning toward Obama, said her family often has a Spanish channel, either Univision or Telemundo, playing at home. The Obama ads are just as “nasty” as the ones in English, she said, but they are finding an audience.
“Everybody is not as fluent in English. Those who are focused on working and not learning the language are watching Univision,” she said. To the possible chagrin of the Obama campaign, however, she doubted that all of them would vote.
“A lot of them don’t have the right to vote or don’t have the motivation or think it doesn’t matter,” she said. “They’re listening, but I don’t know if they are voting.”
To her right, Natasha Valle, 30, a real estate broker, said she has perceived more of a Romney presence on radio and billboards than on Spanish-language television. The roads between Orlando and Miami are studded with billboards understandable in any language, such as one that pictures the president bowing deeply to an Arab sheik between two gasoline pumps that show the rise in gas prices since he has been in office.
An enthusiastic Obama supporter, Valle said she has had more contact with the Obama ground game than with ads, receiving an average of four calls a week from campaign workers reminding her to cast her ballot. “It’s like, ‘Guys! You got me!’ ” she said.
The Obama campaign has bet on an aggressive and “culturally sensitive” effort, as one campaign official put it, that embraces the teeming diversity of Florida’s Hispanic community. It has Puerto Rican volunteers to recruit Puerto Ricans, and Cubans to recruit Cubans, and it has registered more voters and reaped more absentee ballots than in 2008, when Obama won the state. But the final push to get those absolutely necessary Latino voters to the polls, the campaign said, will not come just on the ground but in a sustained advertising effort on the airwaves, as a recent ad of the president speaking Spanish directly to the camera makes clear.
“We have had a year and half to build down here, so we are much more organized in the Cuban community, the Puerto Rican community, the Colombian community,” said David Plouffe, a senior Obama strategist. Plouffe’s hopes for keeping Florida come down to one basic point: “There are more Latino voters than last time.”
Jen Psaki, an Obama spokeswoman, says the Romney campaign’s purported strategy to reach Hispanics through traditional media outlets may reflect its unwillingness to devote resources to try to persuade a population that is overwhelmingly unsympathetic.
“When you don’t have a strong record to stand on that Latino families can get behind, it may not make sense to spend money on advertising,” Psaki said.
The Republican’s campaign rebutted that assertion. “Mitt Romney understands the Hispanic community,” said Yohana de la Torre, the national director of specialty media. “His father is Mexican, of Mexican origin.”
Romney’s father was born in Mexico after the family fled the United States at a time when law enforcement officials were cracking down on the Mormon practice of polygamy, which the church has since banned.
Anitere Flores, a Republican state senator from South Florida, said the Romney campaign has made sure that its views are well represented in Miami, Orlando and Tampa on the myriad and influential Spanish-language radio talk shows.
She and Rubio, who depend on Spanish-language media in part for their political livelihoods, were careful not to dismiss its influence. “There’s a role to play for Spanish-language advertising, too,” Rubio said. “I’ve been very pleased with the quality of the ads they have put on the air. I’m in one of them.”