Forget Rachel, Bill, Anderson, and Sean. The broadcaster who will most determine the 2012 elections is Jorge Ramos.
On January 25, a week before the Florida primary, Mitt Romney sat down for an interview with Univision, the nationwide Spanish-language television network that reaches 97 percent of Latino households. It was a risky move for Romney, who, in a bid for conservative support, had gone farther than any of his remaining Republican rivals in denouncing reforms that would help undocumented immigrants gain legal status. His positions put him sharply at odds with the vast majority of Univision’s audience, with the network’s own editorial line, and most definitely with the opinions of its star news anchor, Jorge Ramos.
Yet there was Romney, opposite Ramos on a stage at Miami Dade College, trying to convince Univision’s viewers, many of whom live in Florida, that he was all for immigration—so long as it was done the right way. The questioning was civil but pointed at first. Then Ramos threw a curveball. The veteran broadcaster wanted to know whether Romney felt that he was a Mexican American, since his father was born in Mexico. The question put Romney, whose great-grandfather had fled the United States to avoid arrest for practicing polygamy, in a supremely awkward position. If he said yes, conservatives might think him even more suspect. But if he said no, he would lose one of the few opportunities he had to connect with a vitally important audience. “I would love to be able to convince people of that, particularly in a Florida primary,” Romney responded. “But I think that might be disingenuous on my part.” It was probably the best answer he could have given, but it provided the mainstream press, which covered the interview, with yet another squirm-inducing anecdote about the candidate. And it certainly didn’t help him with Latino voters.
If the Univision interview illustrates the rough road Romney has had to travel in his quest to become the GOP nominee, it also highlights what may be the biggest obstacle he’ll face in the general election: winning a significant share of the Latino vote. Hispanics are one of the fastest-growing minorities in the country, accounting for more than half of the total population growth over the last decade. (More than 50 million Hispanics now live in the United States—up from 35 million just ten years ago, according to census data.) In 2008, close to 10 million Hispanics voted—roughly 70 percent supported Barack Obama—and thus far their support for the president has not waned. More than 12 million Latinos are expected to vote this time around. Moreover, Hispanics are clustered in key swing states like Colorado, Nevada, North Carolina, Virginia, New Mexico, and Florida. Their influence could even put red states like Arizona into play in the presidential race, and might help determine control of Congress. In 2010, despite the Tea Party uprising that enabled Republicans to retake the House, Latinos helped the Democrats hang on to the Senate by propelling Harry Reid and Michael Bennet to victory in Nevada and Colorado, respectively.
Connecting with Latinos is now a top priority for both parties, and Univision is the main conduit. No other network comes close to its scope. On any given night, Univision draws in about 65 percent of the viewers watching Spanish-language TV; the network’s nearest competitor, NBC-owned Telemundo, recently broke briefly into the low thirties. The network is the fifth largest in the country in terms of prime-time ratings and routinely beats the big four—ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox—on Friday nights and in certain markets like Los Angeles and New York. Its offerings include everything from soap operas to political talk shows to investigative documentaries, all with a focus on the issues, themes, and personalities that are important to Hispanics. The company has built a relationship with its viewers that few other media organizations could even hope to understand. “Based on our research, there are two institutions in the Latino immigrant community that rank as highly trustworthy,” says Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democratic Network, a think tank based in Washington, D.C. “They are the Catholic Church and Univision.”
If Univision is the most important Spanish-language network, then Ramos is the biggest, most trusted on-air personality on Spanish-language TV. Often referred to as the Walter Cronkite of Hispanic news, he connects with viewers on a nightly basis. An immigrant from Mexico with olive skin, green eyes, and silver hair, he has interviewed every sitting president since George H. W. Bush and most of the major White House hopefuls during that time, with the exception of Bob Dole in 1996. Along the way he has won eight Emmys and written eleven books, including A Country for All: An Immigrant Manifesto. Ninety-three percent of Univision viewers have a favorable view of him.
The GOP, of course, faces considerably lower favorables among Hispanics, and it’s easy to understand why. Rank-and-file Republicans have applauded controversial immigration laws in Arizona and Alabama that give police a mandate to detain people who look like they might be in the country illegally. They have embraced racial profiling and Joe Arpaio, the Maricopa County sheriff who rounded up undocumented Latinos and put them in an outdoor detention facility. For the past seven years, conservatives in Congress have been openly hostile to any immigration-reform bills that would provide a path to citizenship. The Republican presidential candidates have tripped over each other this cycle trying to turn hard right on immigration issues, supporting the idea of self-deportation and joking that the border fence should be electrified. Romney pilloried Newt Gingrich for suggesting that seventy-year-old undocumented grandmothers who have lived in this country for decades should be shown mercy, and he denounced Rick Perry’s support of a Texas law that provided undocumented college students with in-state tuition breaks. These were shrewd tactical moves that helped kill off both campaigns, but Romney has paid a price. Republicans need at least a third of the Latino vote to win the White House. McCain got 31 percent, and lost the electoral college by the biggest margin since Bill Clinton beat Bob Dole in 1996. Romney has been polling in the high teens and low twenties.
Romney desperately needs to turn these numbers around. And one way he’s widely expected to try to do so is by picking Marco Rubio, the junior senator from Florida, as his running mate. The theory is that, as a young, charismatic Cuban American, Rubio can reach out to the Latino electorate and narrow the rift between them and the GOP. But the most important venue for reaching those voters is Univision, a network that many Republicans think is biased toward Democrats, and with which Rubio in particular has a checkered history. Indeed, despite a standing request from Ramos, the Florida senator has refused to go on his show. If Rubio in fact becomes the nominee, he won’t be able to avoid Ramos much longer.
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