The Ad Wars: Obama’s special message in Spanish

A review of Obama’s and Romney’s Spanish-language TV ads finds contrasts in style, strategy, and sophistication

Barack Obama gazes directly into the camera and speaks in his warmest baritone.

“In the young people known as the DREAMers,” he begins, referring to the young undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children who have led a movement seeking a path to citizenship, “I see the same qualities that Michelle and I try to instill in our daughters.”

Images of Obama with his family, followed by intently studying Latino students, fill the screen. “As a father, they inspire me,” Obama concludes. “And as President, their bravery has reminded me that no obstacle is too large, and no road is too long.”

If you haven’t heard the President speaking these words, it’s probably because he said them in Spanish. The message came in a campaign ad that aired earlier this month in Colorado, Florida, Nevada, Ohio, and Virginia, five swing states with large Latino populations. The spot is part of a finely tuned Spanish-language ad campaign launched by President Obama: a campaign whose strategy, style and sophistication contrast sharply with the Spanish-language ads of his Republican rival Mitt Romney.

CJR’s review of both campaigns’ Spanish TV spots found dramatic disparities in their approaches. The Obama campaign’s ads focus on issues specific to the Latino community—such as the DREAM Act and immigration—while the Romney spots echo his national messages about the economy, deficits and broken promises by the president. Obama ads often feature Latino narrators, whose national origin sometimes mirrors a particular community targeted by the spot, while Romney ads tend to show the candidates and statistics and images related to the economy. In short, President Obama has a special message for Latino voters—which his campaign is communicating in Spanish.

An Obama ad that aired in September in Florida—where Democrats are hoping that a growing Puerto Rican population in the Orlando area will balance the conservative Cuban voting bloc in Miami—focused on Puerto Rican Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor.

“My name is Nydia. I am a lawyer and I am Boricua [Puerto Rican],” begins narrator Nydia Menendez. “When [Sotomayor] was nominated by President Obama, we all celebrated—Puerto Ricans and all Hispanics.”

Menendez then expresses her anger that Mitt Romney opposed Sotomayor’s nomination. She finishes: “Mister Romney, the time has come to pay the bill.”

Even Obama ads that make familiar arguments by his campaign—that he is moving the economy forward while Romney would restore the policies of the Bush Administration—do so with a special flare in Spanish. A spot entitled “De Eso Nada” (“None of That”) that aired in five swing states in September features Cristina Saralegui, a television personality sometimes referred to as the “Hispanic Oprah.”

In the ad, Saralegui credits the president’s leadership with reversing the recession and warns that Romney and Ryan would bring back the policies that caused it. “Going backward? None of that!” she proclaims. “Forward—with Obama!”

In Spanish, the message rhymes: “Pa’tras? De eso nada!” Saralegui declares, snaking her neck in disgust. “Pa’lante—con Obama!” she concludes with a wink and a smile.

By contrast, Spanish-language advertisements by the Romney campaign have largely mirrored both the message and the style of his national spots. An ad released in early October called “Merecemos” (“We Deserve”) featured Romney speaking in English with Spanish subtitles and addressing Latinos as entrepreneurs.

“America’s entrepreneurial spirit is alive in the Hispanic community,” Romney says. “Our economic recovery needs the success of the Hispanic community, but President Obama’s misguided policies are dragging down businesses. You deserve better. We must end unnecessary regulations and cut taxes. I’ll work to help you create jobs.”

Three Spanish-language spots by Romney hammer Obama on the growing national debt and what they describe as a legacy of broken promises. One spot begins with Obama declaring “Si se puede!” (“Yes we can”) to a large crowd and then switches to close-ups of a succession of Latino voters lamenting that he has failed to create jobs or keep his promises. Another ad entitled “No Podemos Mas (“We Can’t Take Anymore”) cites current Latino unemployment and poverty rates and finishes on a pointed note: “When Obama and his Democratic allies tell us ‘Yes we can,’ we have to tell them, ‘We can’t take anymore,’” says the narrator.

While most of Romney’s Spanish ads are translations of his national messages, several have made direct appeals to Latino voters. Two spots released in July featured Romney’s son Craig, who speaks excellent Spanish and looks almost as if he could be Latino. Craig warmly introduces his father and in one ad highlights that his grandfather—Mitt’s father George Romney—was born in Mexico. A third Spanish ad released in four swing states in September features popular Florida Senator Marco Rubio reassuring voters that Romney’s Medicare plans will strengthen the program for senior citizens like Rubio’s mother.

Last week, a Romney advertisement sparked controversy by criticizing Obama for failing to deliver on immigration reform and pledging that Republicans would deliver a permanent solution for undocumented youth. A fact check by ABC News/Univision noted that while Romney has supported easing the process of legally obtaining a visa, he has opposed the DREAM Act, pledged to end the Obama administration’s “deferred action” policy that allows some undocumented youth to avoid deportation, and as Governor of Massachusetts vetoed a bill that would have allowed undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at public universities.

Overall, the Obama campaign has not only crafted more distinct messages in Spanish, but it has invested much more in getting them out. An October 18th article in The New York Times—which examined the two campaigns’ differing Latino outreach strategies—reported that the Obama campaign and its supporters had spent an estimated $8.9 million on Spanish-language TV stations in Florida, Nevada and Colorado, nearly double the $4.6 million spent by the Romney team. The figures were compiled by Kantar Media, a private research firm that tracks campaign ads as they air and estimates their cost based on market ad rates.

A September article in The Huffington Post noted that the Obama campaign hired a Latino media coordinator in August 2011, nearly a year before the Romney camp launched a Latino outreach team. “This is a diverse and sophisticated electorate,” Gabriela Domenzain, the Obama campaign’s Latino media coordinator, told HuffPost. “You can’t just put out one message and think that speaks to 50 million people.”

Whether it is partially an effect of the ad campaign, or a preexisting preference based on the candidates’ policies and records, polls show Obama winning big among Latinos. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released on Monday showed Obama leading by a whopping 45 points among Latino voters. Unlike polls of the overall electorate, which have showed the race tightening in recent weeks, Obama’s advantage among Latinos has held steady.

As the presidential race reaches the final sprint, some commentators have predicted that the Obama campaign will rely on targeted messages aimed at key groups rather than a single overarching theme. If that is the case, some of the president’s crucial closing arguments are likely be delivered in Spanish in places like Colorado, Florida, Nevada, Ohio and Virginia. Reporters in these swing states and beyond should be ready to translate the president’s words to the broader public and examine the accuracy and fairness of his claims—and to watchdog with equal vigor should Romney respond with any special messages of his own.

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Sasha Chavkin covers political money and influence for CJR's United States Project, our politics and policy desk. He has written for ProPublica, the Center for Public Integrity, and The New York World. Follow him on Twitter @sashachavkin.