If it weren’t for Sens. Harry Reid and Michael Bennet, President Barack Obama might not have won a second term.
The Democratic senators’ pioneering efforts in reaching out to Latino voters in their 2010 re-election races in Nevada and Colorado, respectively, provided a template that Obama for America developed into a national juggernaut.
But the outreach alone likely wouldn’t have been enough for either member if they hadn’t also been among the first to win on a platform of high-profile support for policies important to Latinos.
It’s a blueprint Obama largely followed in 2012, by building a voter outreach initiative that aggressively targeted Hispanics and simultaneously taking executive actions to ensure that children of illegal immigrants were not deported.
“I know that [Obama for America leaders] saw the Reid and the Bennet races as races where Latinos made a big difference and [they] thought, ‘OK, Latinos can make a difference here,’” said Gabriela Domenzain, who served as the campaign’s director of Hispanic press.
Reid won 90 percent of the Latino vote and Bennet 65 percent in their respective states. Obama won more than 70 percent of the Latino vote in the 2012 election.
Analysis showed that Reid’s re-election was where Latinos made a difference in keeping the Senate Democratic majority, Domenzain said. “The Bennet race was also really important. And they were the first two races where — in Spanish and in English — the candidates leaned into issues of specific importance to Latino community, including immigration and the Dream Act.”
Obama campaign manager Jim Messina agreed, saying in a statement provided by Domenzain, “We knew that Latinos were key to this election and would be disproportionately impacted by the Romney agenda, so we set out to engage and inform them about the choice in this election earlier than ever before.”
Both Reid and Bennet were early backers of comprehensive immigration reform and the Dream Act, a bill that would provide a path to citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants. Reid’s support stretches back to at least 2007 after an effort to pass bipartisan immigration reform failed.
Craig Hughes, who was Bennet’s 2010 campaign manager and senior adviser for Obama’s Colorado 2012 campaign, said Bennet committed to the policies soon after being appointed to take over for Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo. Bennet previously served as superintendent of Denver Public Schools.
“Right after he was appointed he met with Latino activists,” Hughes said. “As superintendent, [Bennet] saw the impact of immigration and the lack of a policy every day, and [he] committed to immigration reform and the Dream Act, which are moral issues for him, and never wavered from it. That kind of commitment pays off.”
The Ghost of Rahm Emanuel
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.
Helen Aguirre Ferre, who hosts a daily national radio talk show on Univision America, said she was disappointed in the GOP presidential campaign.
Aguirre Ferre, who describes herself as right of center politically, interviewed Romney but was denied a request to interview GOP vice presidential nominee Paul D. Ryan because the campaign said he didn’t do “specialty media.” Aguirre Ferre added that she felt the campaign was misguided to pigeonhole Latino media.
“I said to myself, ‘Holy cow, you need Hispanic voters, and you are not going to get them this way,’” Aguirre Ferre said.
Aguirre Ferre was also part of Reid’s 2010 Latino media strategy. While primarily focused on Nevada, Reid’s campaign — through Parra — contacted Aguirre Ferre’s local Miami show in an effort to continue a dialogue with Latinos in the Sunshine State.
“I was doing something that was local, which was something that really made Jose’s initiative really stand out, because they were laying the framework and the groundwork for something further out,” Aguirre Ferre said.
Domenzain’s 2012 efforts allowed the campaign to tailor its message and messengers to Latinos and segments within the community — down to ancestral country of origin. The outreach also dovetailed well with the highly digital strategy the Obama campaign pioneered in 2008.
“This was the most comprehensive and engaged Hispanic campaign in the history of presidential politics, to the great credit of the Obama campaign leadership,” said Fernand Amandi, managing partner of Miami-based polling firm Bendixen & Amandi International, which worked on the campaign.
“They understood early in the process . . . in the aftermath of the 2008 results that the Latino vote was going to be an important segment of their coalition for winning re-election,” Amandi continued. “I think what you saw in this effort was a recognition of that by a commitment to resources and prioritizing the role that this vote would play.”
Obama won 48 percent of the Cuban vote, which is typically considered to be part of the Republican bloc in Florida. “That is a historic high, a potentially transformational development,” Amandi said. His firm is responsible for securing the endorsement of Miami-based TV talk show host Cristina Saralegui, often referred to as the “Hispanic Oprah.”
“I think it is a model that you will see, and not just in presidential campaigns that follow into the future,” Amandi said.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that a June policy came by executive order. The policy was a Department of Homeland Security directive, or executive action.