How to woo a Latino voter

Updated 5:23 PM EST, Fri February 14, 2014

Story highlights

Latino voters' political clout expected to grow come 2016

Here are five tips on what to do and not do to "woo" the Latino voter

Effective candidates show up in Hispanic communities, don't wait for campaign season to begin

Speaking Spanish, while not essential, is certainly a bonus for any candidate

(CNN) —  

Come 2016, Latino voters may hold enough political clout to make or break any presidential hopeful.

If the White House is hosting the big dance, Latinos are holding the guest list at the door, and if a candidate isn’t on the VIP list, there will be no fiesta in the Oval Office.

But how do you get an invitation? It is a question that has baffled many contenders-in-chief, Republicans in particular, in recent years.

Granted, it is no easy task. For one, there is no one size fits all strategy. Latinos are not monolithic. There are great socioeconomic, educational, cultural and demographic variations that exist both between and within Latino ethnic groups.

An approach that might work with Dominicans may not fly with Colombians. A sombrero and a pava jibaro may both be hats, but beware if a candidate wears the wrong one to the Mexican Independence Day Festival or the Puerto Rican Day Parade.

Here is what some folks have done, and refrained from doing, to win the seemingly coy, not easily cajoled, Latino vote. Call it, if you will, “The politician’s guide to wooing Latinos.”

Learn Español

“Hola Newo Yorko! El stormo grande is mucho dangeroso,” read the first tweet from @ElBloombito, a popular parody account aimed at poking fun at former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Spanish speaking alter ego, Miguel Bloombito.

Bloomberg, a Republican turned independent, was frequently lampooned for his Spanish pronunciation, or lack thereof. Yet, despite his frequently mangled, oftentimes hilarious, attempts at communicating with the city’s Spanish-speaking residents, Bloomberg found a way to connect.

Latino New Yorkers didn’t always agree with the policies of the billionaire, outspoken mayor, but they appreciated his efforts and found them endearing.

“There was nothing funnier than Bloomberg having a press conference in Spanish,” said Luis Miranda, a managing partner at MirRam Group, a political consulting firm, “but now it’s the standard for mayoral press conferences in NYC.”

Despite an overwhelmingly Democratic electorate, Latinos in 2009 gave Bloomberg almost half the vote in an unexpectedly close race against Democrat William Thompson Jr.

“Latinos, even those that are English dominant, see it as a sign of ‘respeto’,” meaning respect, Miranda said. “A couple of words in Spanish can go a long way; fluency is gold!”

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus also recently noted that speaking Spanish, while not essential, would certainly be a bonus for any 2016 presidential candidate. He announced that the GOP is willing to spend $10 million to reach Latino voters.

A word of caution, however: Use this strategy wisely. You can’t just put a sweater on a Chihuahua, call it Tequila and get a sexy Latina to comment on your man parts, even if she does it in Español.

California Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Donnelly and the Latina actress he featured in a controversial campaign ad that did just that only managed to get an onslaught of criticism from the Latino community.

Get to know the familia

Latinos tend to have strong family bonds. Most family gatherings center around food and usually the entire clan shows up, invited or not.

It’s no wonder, then, that during New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s 2012 re-election campaign, he spent a lot of time in Union City, home to the state’s largest Hispanic population.

Whether it was sipping a cortadito Cubano, taking voter questions or announcing a major initiative at many of the area’s restaurants, Christie aggressively pursued Latinos and found a meaningful way to get their vote: show up, listen and always answer “si” when someone offers a cafécito.

Christie won 51% of the Latino vote, a 19% improvement over four years, to defeat Democrat Barbara Buono and her Hispanic running mate in a Democratic-leaning state.

“The most successful candidates show up in Hispanic communities and don’t wait for campaign season to begin. Christie worked on Latino engagement for years,” said Bob Quasius, president of the national Latino group Café Con Leche Republicans.

After his victory, Christie said, “Find me another Republican who’s won the Latino vote recently. It’s about the relationships.”

So much so that, despite the recent scandals that have rocked Christie’s administration, most Latinos say that for now, they’re sticking by the Republican governor.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, however, is “Taco Mayor” Joseph Maturo of East Haven, Connecticut, who taught us all a lesson on how not to incorporate food into a discussion about Latinos.

When asked what he would do for the Hispanic community after four East Haven police officers were arrested for discrimination and abuse against Latinos, Maturo responded, “I might have tacos when I go home, I’m not quite sure yet.”

A few days later, offended community groups delivered hundreds of tacos to his office.

Speak to the corazon

So, now that you’ve shown up and picked up a few key Spanish phrases, it is time to speak to the heart.

“For Latinos, immigration is an issue ‘prendido en nuestro corazon’ (or ‘pinned to our hearts’),” Miranda said.

A majority of Latinos are either immigrants themselves or one or two generations removed. Immigrants and their children are expected to make up as much as 93% of the U.S. working-age population growth between now and 2050, according to a 2008 report by the Pew Research Center.

Thus, a successful suitor, er, politician, will be one who speaks to this emotional issue.

“I predict that any candidate that does not support an immigration bill that creates a path to citizenship will fail to make inroads into the Latino electorate,” Miranda said.

In 2012, President Barack Obama made immigration reform a focus of his campaign and introduced initiatives that eased deportation policies for young undocumented immigrants.

That year, he won 72% of the Latino vote, though lately the President has gotten flak for failing to deliver on comprehensive immigration reform and for deporting nearly 2 million people since taking office.

Republicans, however, have struggled, mostly by allowing the most conservative wing of their party to control the message.

“A small minority of Republicans uses rhetoric about immigration that alienates many Hispanic voters, and because this minority is particularly shrill, they are often perceived as the voice of the GOP,” Quasius said.

It was George W. Bush, the last Republican president to win a significant share of the Latino vote, who set the standard for capturing the hearts of Latinos. In 2004, he outlined a comprehensive immigration initiative that was the perfect balance between immigration law and human compassion.

“We shouldn’t be content with laws that punish hardworking people,” Bush said then, “It’s time for an immigration policy that permits temporary guest workers … rejects amnesty … and closes the border to drug dealers and terrorists.”

This, coupled with a massive “Viva Bush” Latino outreach campaign, has today’s GOP leaders reaching for the George W. playbook.

With that said, however, expressing deep concern for the plight of immigrants shouldn’t come with an invitation to self-deport, as former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney suggested.

Romney got the lowest share of the Latino vote of any GOP presidential candidate since 1996, 27%.

Watch out with “con quien andas…”

There is a popular phrase in Spanish that says, “Dime con quién andas y te diré quién eres,” which means, “Judge a man by the company he keeps.”

Solely mastering the first three steps is not enough, as evidenced by Cuban-American Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio.

At first glance, he seems to be the perfect date for the dance: speaks Spanish, probably enjoys a good plate of pernil (Cuban style-roasted pork) and recently has lent support to immigration reform. It doesn’t hurt that he has devilish good looks and boyish charm, either.

Yet Latinos have not been able to fully embrace Rubio.

He was a darling of the tea party and at times has adopted positions that Latinos consider extreme on issues of concern to them and has prompted many to label him a traitor., a Hispanic advocacy organization, formed an online campaign called “No Somos Rubios” (“We Are Not Rubios”). And, Latino bloggers have nicknamed Rubio Mark Blond. Rubio is also the Spanish word for blond.

Before lending support to an immigration reform bill, Rubio opposed measures that would not first secure the border and more strictly enforce the laws already in place. He has also supported initiatives that promote English as the country’s official language.

“The people you associate with is key in politics. You want to be associated with respected Latino leaders and validators of our community,” Miranda said.

Some say, however, that Latinos can shake images of Rubio living it up at tea party rallies in time for the next election.

“Rubio only recently appeared on the national stage but has shown terrific leadership on immigration reform. We believe he’ll gain traction among Hispanic voters if he enters the race and becomes better known,” said Quasius.

Rubio also has shown signs of breaking with the tea party, which recently called Rubio a sellout for his central role in an immigration reform bill that would provide a pathway to citizenship for many of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.

A Judas to Latinos and a double-crosser to tea partiers. Who will Rubio choose as his dance partner? That’s yet to be seen.

Vive la vida

Lastly, vive la vida, which simply means have some fun.

Politicians have few opportunities to show off a more relaxed, fiesta-loving side, but voters seem to value these genuine, unrehearsed moments.

Take Hillary Clinton, for example. In the throes of an uncertain, possibly dwindling presidential primary campaign in 2008, she headed to Puerto Rico.

Obama was polling ahead of the former first lady in most of the remaining key states, so Clinton decided to shed her traditional pantsuit, throw on a festive top and groove to a lively salsa beat and toasted to her newfound amigos.

That same weekend, Obama was also on the island but spent his time shaking hands, praising veterans and marching with supporters.

Clinton, on the other hand, quite literally let her hair down, immersed herself in local culture and gave everyone a glimpse of her human side. Although she didn’t win in the long run, she claimed a 2-1 primary victory over Obama among Hispanic voters both on the island and the mainland.

The key here, though, is to keep it classy.

When former New York Democratic mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner headed to last year’s Dominican Day Parade in a guayabera – a men’s shirt popular in Latin America – and bright red pants while running around with a bullhorn, he was largely dismissed as ridiculous.

There is such a thing as trying too hard, and in Weiner’s case, actually wearing pants should not have been what got “Carlos” in danger.