Mitt Romney Courts the Hispanic Vote Photo Courtesy of Gage Skidmore

Earlier this summer, Mitt Romney made an appearance on a local Cuban-American talk show while campaigning in Florida. He was asked about his favorite fruits.

"I am a big fan of mango, papaya, and guava," Romney replied.

The presenter could hardly conceal his amusement. You can research what “papaya” is slang for in Cuba to find out why.

Election Or "Elecciones"?

While both campaigns courted the Latino vote in 2012, Mitt Romney’s outreach seemed to fall flat. As perhaps the first election in which the race to capture the Hispanic vote took center stage, his failure to connect had deep ramifications.

Hispanics are the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population. Today they make up 16% of the population and account for almost half of the growth in the country. By 2050, the Hispanic population is projected to account for nearly one third of all Americans. It should come as no surprise then that the Obama campaign allocated 9% of every ad dollar spent to Spanish campaigns compared to the Romney camp’s 4%. When it came to making their case to Latinos, the Obama campaign was simply better able to connect. If either party hopes to make it to the White House in the future, they will have to find a way to appeal to Hispanic voters.

The “papaya” incident may not have been a turning point in this year’s presidential election, but the very fact that Romney was a guest on a Hispanic radio show tells you more about the campaign than you might imagine. This year, you could be excused for thinking that the election was being simulcast in Spanish. It was.

What Did He Say?

A familiar cry at Obama campaign rallies was the chant “Si, se puede”, a phrase that harkens back not only to Obama’s 2008 campaign, but also to famed workers’ rights leader, Cesar Chavez. Republicans started a campaign to get Hispanics “Junto con Romney” and called out heavy-hitters like Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush to headline events. Both appeared in candidate forums on Spanish-language television. In their most direct appeal to Hispanics, both candidates appeared in ads speaking Spanish. But Obama still won by huge margins. Could some of the blame be directed at their accents?

As the nation’s second-most used language with over 35 million Americans speaking it at home, a knowledge of Spanish is obviously useful for anyone running for office. Unfortunately for this year’s candidates, neither Obama nor Romney is fluent in the language. With that said, this shortcoming didn’t stop the candidates from trying to connect with Spanish-speaking voters.

Compare this ad by the Romney campaign to this one by Obama's.

Authenticity was a word that haunted Mitt Romney the entire election. An accent may seem inconsequential, but for a candidate dogged throughout the election for not being relatable, Mitt Romney’s pronunciation of Spanish, one reminiscent of Newt Gingrich’s “terminally Anglo accent”, certainly didn’t help him at all. While the bulk of Romney’s ad was adeptly narrated by Romney’s son, Craig (who became fluent after a missionary stint in Chile), Mitt Romney’s closing “Soy Mitt Romney, y apruebo este mensaje” simply sounds flat. Obama himself, while clearly not a native speaker, narrates his ad in Spanish in a more authentic way

It’s important to note that Obama isn’t a perfect Spanish speaker, either. At a Cinco de Mayo celebration held a day early at the White House in 2009, Obama made a joke about it being “Cinco de Cuatro”, seemingly unaware of the nonsensical nature of the phrase.

The Writing Is On The Wall

After analyzing the poll data from our most recent presidential election, all signs point to Hispanics making up a larger share of the electorate than ever before. Nationally, Barack Obama won the Hispanic vote by 44 percentage points. In Florida, he took 60 percent of it. In Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico, his margin with Hispanics alone was enough to put him over the top. Poll after poll shows Obama either retaining or increasing his margins with Latinos from the 2008 election. Despite losing ground among a number of other voting blocs, Obama’s huge advantage with the Hispanic community made all the difference.

Of course, Hispanic voters are no different from any other voters, voting on the issues that are important to them collectively and as individuals. When elections are so close, however, every detail matters in connecting political candidates to their potential supporters. As the presence of the Spanish language continues to grow in the United States, candidates must continually attempt to improve their Spanish or risk getting lost in translation.

What do you think? Could an accent have swayed the election?
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