Latino voters helped re-elect Reid in 2010, and his strategy helped inform Obama for America’s outreach efforts in 2012.
Obama also backed immigration reform and the Dream Act, but he was more cautious. Former Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel was concerned that acting too forcefully on immigration issues would turn off swing voters. Emanuel, who left the White House in 2010, was attacked on the issue during his successful campaign for mayor of Chicago. But after receiving pressure from politically active Dream Act kids and facing low Latino enthusiasm tied to record deportations, the White House in June issued an executive action that now allows the children of immigrants who do not pose a threat and meet certain criteria to remain in the United States.
“Obama . . . finally said, ‘I am not going to listen to the ghost of Rahm Emanuel; I am going to listen to the template of Harry Reid’” and Michael Bennet, said Frank Sharry, executive director of left-leaning immigration advocacy group America’s Voice.
“I can tell you that there were a lot of people in the Obama world, including the White House, that were really concerned that the blow back would be intense,” Sharry said.
But after the June order, enthusiasm among Latinos surged, the liberal base embraced the move and it was surprisingly popular with independents. Because of that, Obama for America wove the issue into stump speeches and touted it at the convention, Sharry said.
“It became a winner for them with the base beyond the Latino community,” Sharry said. “Then in all the public polling that came out . . . it showed that independents were quite favorable towards it . . . and even Republicans were divided.
“It was really a turning point for the Obama folks ... realizing that the Reid playbook works,” Sharry continued.
Tuning Into ‘Drive Time’
In order to win, Obama also needed to surpass previous outreach efforts and engage Latino voters in new ways. Domenzain drew on her experience as a former journalist with Univision, as well as a press adviser for the National Council of La Raza, and she took a few pointers from Reid’s 2010 example, led by Jose Parra.
“I started plugging along, finding every single regional media, all the little nooks and crannies of our media that are so important,” Domenzain said, adding that she was hired a year and a half before the election. “Whether it’s the weekly that is going to stay in the laundromat for two weeks, we can get a front page article there, or it’s the really, really, really regional radio hosts that [are] in areas that analytics . . . [say] that I need.”
After about three months, she ended up with a list of roughly 700 Latino journalists, many of whom had never been engaged in the political process. Because of Domenzain and her team’s efforts, the campaign and its surrogates averaged about 100 Latino media bookings a week around the nation — and 150 on Election Day.
Domenzain tells one story where she put the president on off-the-record conference calls with Latino disc jockeys in Iowa, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, Colorado, Florida and Nevada.
Many of the DJs did not necessarily discuss politics on their shows and had never been contacted by a political campaign. “They didn’t understand their worth because they didn’t know that they are the only people that these folks are listening to in these states,” Domenzain said, adding that Mitt Romney’s campaign didn’t provide the same access.
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