Friday, Oct. 31, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Jorge Ramos, news anchor for Univision, the nation’s top Spanish-language television network, asked Republican presidential candidate John McCain the same question twice — but the Arizona senator answered each time that he didn’t understand.
Ramos referred to building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, an idea McCain backed in a 2006 congressional vote.
For days after the Sept. 18 interview, McCain’s wavering response echoed in Spanish-language newspapers across the nation, cited as an example of why the candidate couldn’t be trusted on immigration, a touchstone for Hispanics.
But the interviewer’s questions, along with others on English-only laws and relations with Cuba, also demonstrated an undeniable truth.
During these long months of presidential campaigning, the millions of Hispanic voters who read, watch and listen to media in Spanish have been gathering impressions that often differ in content and tone from those being communicated to the rest of the country in English.
Ads and coverage have focused on family, jobs, health care, education, relations with Latin America and, of course, immigration.
Another difference: There are no nationally syndicated conservative radio talk shows, and no local ones either. The Spanish spots on the dial include no Rush Limbaugh.
These differences are interesting to note in Nevada because the Democratic Party scheduled its state’s first early caucus here for January in part to reach Hispanic voters. And the role of Spanish-language media for those voters is unquestionable: Seventy-nine percent of Clark County’s Hispanic voters watch Spanish-language TV, according to a survey by Democracia USA, a Florida research and advocacy group.
Experts say advisers from the campaigns and anchors such as Ramos aren’t just translating from English. They’re tailoring what they say to their audiences.
And the number of ads and the amount of airtime the candidates offer to Spanish-language television, not to mention print and radio, have reached levels that were unimaginable as recently as the 2000 Bush-Gore race. The Barack Obama campaign, for example, has spent $20 million on reaching Hispanic voters, more than both candidates combined in the 2004 presidential race.
And Ramos told The Miami Herald recently he has done more one-on-one interviews with the candidates than any other anchor, in Spanish or English — two with Obama and three with McCain. Four years ago, he got only a few minutes with Democratic candidate John Kerry.
Ramos also landed the only interview on Spanish-language television with McCain’s vice presidential pick, Sarah Palin. In the Oct. 21 interview, he asked Palin whether her daughter Bristol’s pregnancy served to underscore the need for educating teenagers about birth control. (She said yes.) He also asked whether Palin talks to her son, Track, who is serving in Iraq, and what they talk about.
Hernando Amaya, associate editor of El Tiempo, one of the valley’s two Spanish-language weeklies, called the interview an example of how subjects such as the family are given more play in Hispanic media.
The same is true of education and health care, he said, adding that Hispanic media will drill into those issues to get at what interests their audiences. For example, though the economy ranks tops in most Hispanic voter surveys, Amaya said the issue is most often framed in terms of jobs, not bigger-picture topics such as the stock market on Wall Street.
Similarly, when it comes to education, Hispanic media are likely to ask candidates about school vouchers or bilingual classes, for example.
Immigration is the proverbial elephant in the room. In a recent Public Radio International show on Spanish-language ads, Pilar Marrero, reporter for La Opinion, the 82-year-old Los Angeles daily, noted that neither campaign has addressed the issue much in English. Both, however, seek to convince Hispanic voters that they would reform immigration laws soon after being elected.
An interesting problem has occurred for McCain’s campaign, Marrero noted. In English, the candidate says borders must be tightened first and that he would no longer vote for his own 2006 bill that included legalizing millions of illegal immigrants. But in Spanish he has voiced support for the idea of offering a pathway to citizenship.
When it comes to radio, no one is bigger than Eddie Sotelo, nicknamed “El Piolin,” or Tweety Bird. Credited with whipping up many of the first marches backing immigration reform in 2006, he has also asked McCain and Obama about subprime mortgages and immigration, pushing each to commit to revisiting the issue that drew hundreds of thousands to the streets from coast to coast.
Another unusual development in the world of Spanish-language media is the planned Saturday appearances of both candidates on Univision’s “Sabado Gigante,” which has aired every Saturday evening since 1962, giving it the Guinness record for the world’s longest-running show. It features songs, corny skits and short skirts. And host Don Francisco has more than 100 million viewers in more than 40 countries, so this is a major, last-minute platform for both campaigns. It is the third time the show has hosted presidential candidates.
What will Obama and McCain talk about?
Amaya predicts the discussion will center, once again, on family, jobs, health care, education and immigration — “the subjects our people care about.”
The 2008 race has not just brought Hispanics more ads and coverage than ever before, with their own content and tone. Obama recently became the first presidential candidate to record an entire television ad speaking Spanish. The ad, which remarks on the American dream of jobs, health care and education, has not escaped the attention of Hispanic observers across the nation.
Eddie Escobedo, owner of El Mundo, the valley’s oldest Spanish-language weekly, said he was impressed with Obama’s effort — and his accent.
“This means he understands he needs to reach us — and that he respects us,” Escobedo said.
Lisa Garcia Bedolla, associate professor of political and cultural studies at the University of California, Berkeley, said a presidential candidate speaking in Spanish has symbolic value for many Hispanic voters. “It’s like you’re speaking to them on their terms. It matters.”