Tune in for even a few moments to Spanish-language radio or TV in Florida these days, and you'll hear ads touting the virtues of Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich.
Neither candidate speaks much Spanish, so the voice-overs are outsourced — sometimes to family members. One of those ads features Romney's son Craig, who spent a couple of years as a Mormon missionary in Chile and spoke fluently on behalf of his father, telling voters that his values and theirs are the same.
But the ads to reach Latinos often aren't, says Matt Barreto, a co-founder of the polling research firm Latino Decisions.
"When we do analysis of campaign ads and look at the similarities and differences," he says, "we usually find big differences in what Republican candidates are saying in their outreach in Spanish-language TV and radio, and in English-language TV and radio."
That's happening now in Florida, where the heavily Hispanic Service Employees International Union launched an ad this week accusing Romney of pandering.
Their ad, called "Las Dos Caras de Mitt Romney" — The Two Faces of Mitt Romney — goes on to say Romney's Spanish-language ads profess to care about the future of Latino children, even as he promises other, non-Latino audiences that he'll veto the DREAM Act, a path to citizenship for undocumented college students.
Gingrich got a crisp public admonition from Florida's junior senator, Marco Rubio, for calling Romney "anti-immigrant" in one Spanish-language ad.
Rubio, perceived by many to be a swiftly rising GOP star and a possible choice for vice president, isn't endorsing either candidate, but he felt the charge was untrue and unseemly. That ad has since been pulled.
It's a serious misstep for Gingrich, who had already raised the ire of millions of Latino voters in 2007, when he made this observation: "We should replace bilingual education with ... immersion in English, so people learn the common language of the country and so they learn the language of prosperity, not the language of living in a ghetto."
He quickly followed that with an apology in Spanish, saying he'd just meant English was the pathway to the key to success — for opportunities in good jobs, education and more. He meant no offense, Gincrich said, and hoped Latinos understood his comments were made with a sincere heart for their ultimate well-being.
Sincerity Trumps Accent
A corazon sincero -- a sincere heart — is essential, says Barreto, in effectively reaching Latino audiences. And voters can tell when a candidate has one — and doesn't.
"Latino voters will see right through a Spanish overlay or a dubbed commercial that doesn't appear to be making any personal or real connection," he says.
Gingrich and Romney might do well to take a page from George W. Bush's playbook, adds Casey Klofstad, a political science professor at the University of Miami.
"If you go back to President Bush's two campaigns, he made a very concerted effort nationally, and especially in Florida, to really make outreach and inroads with the Latino electorate," he says, "and it really yielded dividends."
Bush has Hispanic relatives: His half-Mexican nephew, George P. Bush, barnstormed Florida on behalf of his Tio Jorge, to great effect. Other ads paid homage to Bush's Texas upbringing.
GOP candidates will no doubt continue to refine their Spanish-language ads as they make their way through the primaries. But they'll need to do it authentically, or they'll end up saying "Disculpame" — I'm sorry — a lot more as the months wear on.
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