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Democrats try out their Spanish on TV as they court Latino voters


Sen. Kamala Harris stopped by the set of Univision’s “Despierta América” on the morning before the first Democratic debate in Miami to rip President Donald Trump’s policies at the border, talk about her family and do .

Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro appeared on the same cooking segment Monday. Sen. Cory Booker called into the Univision morning show on the day he announced his candidacy, making his pitch to voters in Spanish, and he, Castro and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg have talked over tacos with Univision correspondent Enrique Acevedo.

Democratic contenders are using Spanish-language television to introduce themselves to a voting demographic that will be crucial to deciding the party’s nominee for 2020 — and that largely has no clue who they are.

Castro ranked third in a Univision poll of eligible Hispanic voters released Tuesday, with former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders — the two candidates with the most name recognition — leading. The other contenders, according to Lourdes Torres, Univision’s senior vice president for political coverage & special projects, “virtually are not known” to the network’s audience.

That could be a problem for Democratic presidential hopefuls. Latino voters are a key constituency in the primary and likely the largest racial or ethnic minority in the electorate in 2020, according to the Pew Research Center. Hillary Clinton’s performance was weaker than expected with Latinos in 2016, and it might have helped cost her the state of Florida.


Just 55 percent of Hispanics eligible to vote say Democrats are doing a good job communicating with them, Univision found. Though Trump and the Republicans fared worse, at 22 percent, the poll also indicated that large chunks of potential voters had either no opinion of or didn’t know many of the Democrats.

“The future of the United States is directly linked to the future of Latinos,” Cesar Conde, chairman of NBCUniversal International Group and NBCUniversal Telemundo Enterprises, said in an interview with POLITICO. He added that “any candidate to reach the White House is going to have to speak to the Latino community.”

Republicans and Democrats have emphasized Latino voters in previous election cycles. White House hopefuls such as Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush gave interviews to Spanish-language networks, and Hillary Clinton appeared on both Telemundo and Univision.

But Democrats’ decision to have Telemundo broadcast the debates in Miami with NBC and MSNBC on Wednesday and Thursday — the first time a Spanish-language network is co-hosting the first debate of an election cycle — shows a heightened emphasis on these platforms.

Trump, who re-launched his 2020 campaign in Orlando and intends to compete aggressively in Florida, last week gave the first sit-down interview with a Spanish-language outlet of his presidency. He told “Noticias Telemundo” anchor and debate moderator José Díaz-Balart that his immigration policies will appeal to Hispanic voters.


That came after years of either largely avoiding this media sector or being openly hostile to it. Early in his candidacy, Trump infamously ejected Univision anchor Jorge Ramos ejected from a news conference.

Torres said it was difficult to get access to Republican presidential candidates in 2016 and noted that Univision didn’t land a primary debate. Univision teamed up with CNN for a 2016 Democratic debate and will partner with ABC News for the third 2020 Democratic contest in September.

“There really is a big difference in terms of access” between the Democratic and Republican parties, said Torres. She said many 2020 Democratic candidates have also been more accessible than Clinton was four years ago.

That’s particularly true of the candidates who are struggling in polls and crave attention, such as Castro and Booker, who are also more likely to give interviews to English-language outlets than the frontrunners. Torres said the Biden campaign had been resistant to the candidate appearing on Univision; he so far has not spoken to a Spanish-language program.

Vanessa Valdivia, the Booker campaign’s deputy press secretary for Spanish-language media, stressed in an interview that outlets like Univision and Telemundo aren’t considered “second-tier” outlets but a key part of their broader media strategy.


“The Latino population is growing and burgeoning and reaching them should be a key priority for anyone running,” she said.

Castro dealt for years with local Univision and Telemundo affiliates when he was mayor of San Antonio. Since arriving in Miami over the weekend, Castro has given interviews to several Spanish-language outlets, according to Jennifer Fiore, his senior adviser for communications and digital. The campaign plans to have a Spanish-speaking surrogate in the debate spin room.

Castro also visited Miami’s Telemundo Center last week for a forum hosted by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren were among the seven other Democrats who appeared.

Spanish-language TV executives stressed in interviews that the Latino community is not a monolith and includes a broad array of views. Hispanic voters said they were most concerned with lowering health care costs and improving wages, according to the Univision poll, with immigration ranking third.

“I think both parties believe that they have positions and arguments that cater to the Hispanic community,” said Conde, “and I think they’re both going to go out there and make their cases heard.”

The interviews also give the candidates an opportunity to show off their skills. Harris used a few Spanish words on Univision Tuesday — she mentioned cooking “pollo” — but Rep. Beto O'Rourke, Booker, Castro, and Buttigieg have given interviews in part or in full in Spanish.

Torres said “people in general appreciate if they try to speak their language,” but she doesn’t expect a candidate’s ability to speak Spanish to be enough to sway voters.

“I think we should probably give the electorate a little more credit,” she said.


Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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