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For now, Democrats lead the way when it comes to appealing to Latino voters, but these four strategists say neither party has nailed it just yet.

This issue's shoptalkers: Adrian Pantoja, senior analyst at Latino Decisions, an opinion research and data firm; Luis Alvarado, strategic advisor at the Republican firm Revolvis; Adriel Hampton, vice president of business development at NationBuilder; and Leslie Sanchez, founder and CEO of Impacto Group, LLC.

C&E: Will President Obama’s punt on immigration reform define this cycle?

Adrian Pantoja: I’ve heard anecdotally, people saying, when Obama issued DACA (the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) that got me really excited to register to vote. They started to see how the political world impacted their families on a very intimate level. But continued delays on executive action over [broader immigration reform] will have immediate consequences. This will deflate Latino enthusiasm and turnout during the midterms and that may carry over into the presidential election, where it will be more difficult to mobilize a demobilized electorate. These actions are slowing the Latino electoral momentum.

Luis Alvarado: There’s no doubt that Latinos will not forgive nor forget this last betrayal. In the June announcement in the Rose Garden President Obama had drawn a line in the sand promising he would make a major move by end of summer to bring relief to the immigrant community. It was a dangerous calculus that was aimed at punishing Republicans and placating Latino organizations. But the tealeaves began to change with the border crisis and demands of vulnerable Democratic senatorial candidates; the president walked back his words.

In the end, Republicans in those Senate races were already fired up and seemed poised to win regardless of the immigration pull back. Democrats in down-ballot races in non-toss up states may have the most to lose when Latinos choose to stay home. The question today is how does the GOP take advantage of these new Latino sentiments, use them to maximize its reach in the midterms and lay the ground for 2016?  It’s a softball pitch; I’ll leave it at that.

C&E: The conflicts in Iraq and Ukraine are in the headlines. Do Hispanic voters care about the ongoing foreign policy debate?

Pantoja: For many years, Latino academics have been saying that Latinos should care about foreign affairs. If there’s conflict abroad, Latinos are in the armed services, they’re the ones who are going to be directly impacted. Therefore, shouldn’t we be more active in foreign affairs? But in terms of surveys we don’t really pick that up. They care about foreign affairs. But the more pressing domestic social issues are the ones that resonate with Latinos.

Leslie Sanchez: I frame the conversation slightly differently. Very much to Adrian’s point, there has been a misreading of the tea leaves when it comes to what interests Latinos have globally or on international issues for a long time. There’s a tremendous interest in the Western hemisphere. There’s pressure to make the Western hemisphere a key issue for any presidential candidate. Latinos want to ask: When was the first time you went to Mexico or Latin America? What are your positions on trade policy going back to Bill Clinton and NAFTA? They have questions about the devaluation of currency.

Latinos have come here for either economic or political freedom. That lingers within the family for a very long time. I think there’s a Republican advantage for a future nominee to be talking about the Western hemisphere, strengthening our ties, strengthening our borders, our infrastructure, and our national security. There’s tremendous opportunity to take leadership on that. 

C&E: Do you think the GOP should be waiting to message around immigration?

Sanchez: Absolutely not. But the second part of that, which is the underlying truth, is that you have a vast third of the constituency in the Republican Party that feels if you do pass an immigration reform plan, it basically concedes the Latino vote to the Democratic Party. These are individuals who are automatically going to be voting straight-ticket blue. Republicans, to their fault, are not taking any steps to be aggressive on the issues they can win on because they feel they have to talk about immigration. And if they talk about immigration, they’re going to just lose the vote anyway. There’s a lot of education that has to happen on the right to explain that’s not the case; it’s a new demographic and a tremendous opportunity.

Pantoja: We’re not consultants to the Republican Party or the Democratic Party, but we do see opportunities on the part of Republicans to reach out and get Latino voters. I think that’s where Republicans can make some inroads with someone with familiarity with trade with Mexico and how it affects the economies of Texas and other states.

C&E: Recent studies show Latinos are more likely to vote when asked to by a member of their community. Are Republicans recruiting Latino supporters to carry their message to friends and family?

Alvarado: Unfortunately, what I’m hearing is that there is no serious investment on the Republican side in getting Latinos to come out and vote. And you can’t just do one component of a campaign and expect it to satisfy all the other needs. You need a ground game that’s inclusive of the Latino community. Your media has to be well written and well produced. You can’t just go to Photoshop and get a Latino-looking person. You actually have to spend the money and have a photo session so people can recognize that you’re actually photographing people in that community as part of your campaign. There has to be a shadow campaign that’s integrated into your regular campaign. You have to build that link between the community and the non-Latino candidate.

Sanchez: We all kind of learned from Lionel Sosa, who was beating the drum on this. He had a formula, Latino Math, which aimed for Latino outreach to be 25 percent of the campaign budget even though we’re a smaller percentage of the vote. He would argue that if you over compensate with Hispanic media, you would get a very good residual and he insisted that the candidates start early in the campaign, put the dollars forward, and go out to all the traditional Hispanic events.

Traditionally, that’s not how it’s done in Republican campaigns. They wait to the last second. They realize they need to move a couple percentage points and they boil a few things up in Spanish. In the last 30 days, they send out a request asking who can be a bilingual volunteer to translate campaign materials. They’re not treating it like a serious, integrated, organized campaign because there’s the false belief you have to change your message. You have campaign operatives who don’t understand how mobile-savvy and communications-savvy the Latino community is and how much of a swing voter they are. I think our challenges are more with the campaign operatives than necessarily the Latino voter. Over time, we can win them on the integrity of the candidate. We can’t do anything if you can’t get the campaign to invest in the technology or the idea.

C&E: What’s stopping the parties from doing more outreach to Hispanic voters?

Alvarado: Now there’s more influence from the political action committees, the Super PACs, who are really being run by three or four consultants who don’t have a clue about the Latino electorate so they don’t invest, even though there may be an opportunity to invest and get some of those votes.

Sanchez: Our blind spot is immigration. We can’t get past thinking if we do something on immigration we’re going to lose the party faithful who are going to believe we’re all in the trenches with the Democrats. It’s the amnesty issue, which has grown larger under the lens of the current humanitarian crisis. The challenge is unless you do something on this issue and you have reform, you’re going to have a base that’s unsatisfied and a Latino constituency that thinks we’re all talk. Eight years ago Latinos were just happy to be invited to the table. But slowly over the course of eight years, Latino consultants, operatives, and journalists began to look at politics with kind of a jaundiced eye. I think there’s a bit of dissatisfaction on both sides. We’re all starting to see this as just a game of politics.

C&E: Can technology overcome the lack of an appealing national message from the GOP?

Adriel Hampton: Yes, but it has to be authentic; it can’t just be an add-on. One of the things we’ll see is that people will say, “Just add Google Translate to my site.” They do that instead of building two different websites. But anyone who’s ever tried to read something in Goggle Translate should know the translation isn’t there yet. But people think that’s a short cut. We dealt a lot early on with French-Canadian politics and one of the first things they do is build a mirror site for the French-speaking audience and they put a lot of money and a lot of time into it. You see very few politicians [in America] putting that same level of effort into Spanish-language websites.

C&E: Are there tools that can help the parties or campaigns with Hispanic outreach?

Hampton: We see a trend of folks who want to capitalize on different interest groups and different ethnic groups aggregating data. The Republican State Leadership Committee ran a big program where they were trying to get candidates to use NationBuilder so they could aggregate data. One of the things they did is they had a more deeply subsidized program for Latino candidates so they could get that data on a nationwide basis. And that’s the kind of movement building you need if you’re going to go back and reach those people with a specific message, like Leslie was talking about, whether that’s an economic message or getting out in front of the immigration issue. One of the things we’re working on is to make it easier for people to syndicate data. The Democrats have had a really good model with VAN.

C&E: Is there an issue with polling the Hispanic electorate?

Pantoja: One of the reasons we’re in business is because surveys on Latinos were so bad and many of them still are. Whenever a reporter asks me whether I saw the latest survey by so-and-so that says a certain percentage of Latinos are saying something specific, I ask what the sample is. You need to have the sample being representative of the population, which means that subsample has to mirror the general population in terms of their Spanish skills—what percentage are native born, foreign born? Economic diversity? Yes, you can weigh the data. But at the end of the day you do have to have foreign-born Spanish-speaking Latinos to be representative and many survey groups overwhelmingly poll English-speaking Latinos because they’re easier to get and their in-shop survey capabilities are obviously English speaking. You’ll get a tremendous skew in the data if you’re largely looking at second generation, English-dominant Latinos. There is a difference.

C&E: Is it more expensive to poll in the Latino community?

Pantoja: Yes, because of the language issue and particularly as Latinos are becoming more dispersed. It used to be easier when you had certain key states, certain key cities where you had large concentrations of Latinos. Now, I’m finding that clients want to know Latino attitudes in Virginia, North Carolina. Holy smokes, now your incidence rates change dramatically because you have to make more phone calls in order to get Latinos in these newly emerging areas. Latinos in San Antonio? That’s easy. But with the growth of the Latino population, the dispersal of the population is an issue. People are interested in these new cities that are not traditional gateway cities, which makes it challenging. We have to look at Census data.

Sanchez: Cost per interview is about $10 more because the incidence rate goes up. It gets very expensive.

C&E: So campaigns just aren’t investing in Latino polling?

Sanchez: The reality is that polling is dominated by very few players. They’ll manage 80 campaigns. They then want to poll women and African Americans and all the minorities together, so they’ll slap it together, but will occasionally call firms like ours to be the consultant to make sure they’re doing it properly. They’ll allow you to get a piece of the business, but they’re extraordinarily protective of their clients.

Alvarado: My phone is not ringing off the hook. If we didn’t have side work with issue advocacy or public affairs we wouldn’t be doing so well because I don’t think campaigns are actually investing in quality advice on how to win the Latino vote.

C&E: If the parties and candidates are lax on their outreach, what’s driving Latino voter behavior?

Sanchez: What’s driving them now is the national narrative that’s driven more in English than in Spanish. The grasstops have tremendous influence because of social media. There are a lot of misconceptions out there and Latinos rely on their family and friends to tell them what’s going on. They’re just frustrated.

Alvarado: My experience has been that they may not be too well versed on what the issues are, but they know injustice. And the formula Democrats have been using for the last few decades is a call to arms against injustice. They make the Republican brand be the bad guy. The Democrats have been crafty in making sure that immigration clogs all the other issues where Republicans would have a message that would resonate. That’s why immigration is so important.

If you show up in the community and you show respect, you kill the message that [Republicans] don’t like you. By not having a well-constructed website in Spanish, not showing up to these communities, not involving coalitions that are Latino, that’s when you fall prey to the narrative that you’re being disrespectful.

Pantoja: We know that people vote because they have the resources to go to politics or because politics comes to them. I think a key theme is that politics is not being brought to the Latino community by Democrats or Republicans, and the politics that’s going there is being done pretty badly. Consider this: African Americans are a community that has a low level of socio-economic resources, yet they turn out in levels comparable to whites in some elections. Why is that? One of the reasons African-American scholars give is this sense of linked fate on behalf of African Americans. A sense that we’re in this together. I’m not just thinking about myself, I’m thinking about the broader community. We hadn’t really picked that up among Latinos until fairly recently.

Sanchez: African Americans want you to vote for ethnic solidarity, for the community. Latinos have never been that way. We’re from 23 different countries. We all have unique experiences so we don’t see each other as a monolithic group. When I wrote “Los Republicanos,” I got three years’ worth of the race-relations study from Gallup. They gave us like 900 pages of the internal data. They asked Latinos a question: do you feel that you’ve been singled out? When you first looked at it, the response was 10-20 percent yes. But by the end it was 54 percent. I pointed that out and said that’s trouble. As soon as Latinos start feeling like it’s them against us they’re going to form a collective cohesion, they’ll have no choice but to vote together.  

Alvarado: I’m seeing a movement in Fresno, Calif. that should scare the Democrats as well. The UFW, Caesar Chavez’s farm workers union, came to this large farm and tried to unionize their workers. But the Latino farm workers denounced the union as their protectors and said we want nothing to do with you. Now you’re having marches 40 years later not in support of the union but against the union.

C&E: What will be the takeaway from 2014?

Sanchez: I think it’ll get worse before it gets better for Republicans because of the pall of the immigration issue. The border crisis is not resolved. If the president does take action, it puts Republicans in another bad position of not knowing how to handle the constituency and blaming the president even though we’re not part of the conversation. And looking at spring 2015, I think that’ll be when things will really shake out. As these presidential campaigns start coming together, I’m going to be looking at what kind of communications operatives they have, what kind of advisors, and what kind of tacticians that are ethnic. They must have them and they must have them early on.

Alvarado: What I’m watching is the donor base. At the end of the day, political operatives, political organizations respond to their donor base. We need to find a way for donors to understand that this is a pathway to success for political organizations. There has to be an investment.

Pantoja: We’ve looked at races that the Democrats could pick up if they targeted Latinos and if they ran solid candidates, which they’re not. So I think one takeaway could be of missed opportunities by the Democrats. If Democrats come out looking better, I’d say that’s luck and had little to do with a real sustained strategy to win Latino voters.