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July 31, 2014

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DAILY MEMO: VOTING:

Hispanics prefer personal touch

Expert says advertising might reach potential voters, but as comedian shows, face time has no substitute

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Sam Morris

Comedian George Lopez bags groceries while campaigning for Barack Obama at a North Las Vegas supermarket. He says personal contact is the key to getting Hispanic votes.

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  • Comedian George Lopez talks about how candidates can improve their relationships with the Latino community.
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  • Lopez on the importance of seeing candidates in person.
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  • Lopez talks about getting a phone call from Barack Obama and emails from Hillary Clinton's campaign.
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  • Lopez on believing in Obama.
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Comedian George Lopez had just spent an hour squeezing baby cheeks, signing the T-shirt of a chubby kid -- “for ‘El Gordo’ (the fat one)” and tossing free sweets, with a wink, into shopping bags at the checkout counter.

Lopez, the first Hispanic entertainer to have a network TV series bearing his own name, was making the rounds on a recent Saturday, unannounced, at Mariana’s Supermarket in North Las Vegas, stumping for Democratic candidate Barack Obama.

But mostly he was being himself, with his people. At one point, he turned to no one in particular and said, “This is it. This store is so powerful.” And the feeling was mutual: He beamed at the people and they beamed back.

Out front, a nonprofit group was registering voters, hoping to enlarge the Hispanic electorate, which now accounts for 12 percent of the Clark County rolls. Together, the volunteers and Lopez are trying to reach a goal that has proved elusive for at least a decade: persuading Hispanics to vote in large numbers.

The buzz is undeniable. The Obama campaign and Dem Nevada are on the front lines of that outreach. Which brings us to the central question: Just how do you get Hispanics to the polls?

Adam Segal, director of the Hispanic Voter Project at Johns Hopkins University, drew a deep breath when asked the question, which he has been researching since 2000.

“Very complicated,” he said, exhaling.

But maybe not. Sure, many Hispanics are turned off by events of the past seven years -- the war, the economy, immigration crackdowns. But Segal believes they can be reached.

But how?

For one, Segal says not all advertising and outreach have to be in Spanish. At least half of all Hispanic voters will respond to appeals through mainstream -- read English-language -- media, as long as they’re reached “as Hispanics.” By this he means the messages have to address their concerns -- the economy, education, the war and immigration. Also, they ought to use respected voices from the Hispanic community.

But what may be more effective with Hispanics is old-fashioned flesh pressing, person-to-person communication, Segal said.

Of course, that matters to everybody. In an ideal world voters could meet the candidates before going to the polls.

But Hispanics, despite their differences in country of origin and immigration status, tend to have in common a predilection for word of mouth. They favor personally acquired information before making important decisions.

“If all the $20 million went into paid media and outreach efforts and not enough into community support networks ... it would miss a key opportunity,” Segal said.

The solution is to send forth Hispanics who have backgrounds similar to those of the voters they are trying to reach, he said.

In a limousine outside Mariana’s, Lopez said basically the same thing.

“You could spend $50 million or $100 million, but until you get to the ground level -- like in a supermarket -- you’re not going to get Hispanics to vote,” he said.

“It’s not high school Spanish in ad campaigns that does it. We need to feel like we’re significant. We need face to face, we all want to see the body.”

As evidence, he noted that Hillary Clinton sought his support by having staff members send him four messages. Obama, however, called him personally -- and that made a difference in his decision to support the Illinois senator.

Put another way, money may be important in drawing the Hispanic vote, because it pays for ads and staff. But what may go further is time and shoe leather.

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