When Republican Sen. Ted Cruz reaches out to his Texas audience in a recent Spanish-language campaign ad, he doesn’t mention energy taxes or judicial philosophy — he goes for the heart.
Mr. Cruz’s father, Rafael, tells listeners he knows about “the American dream” because he’s lived it. Since emigrating from Cuba after the Communist takeover of that island, Rafael Cruz started with a manual labor job paying him 70 cents an hour, and eventually watched his son go to the world’s finest universities and become a U.S. senator.
“I’m Ted Cruz,” the senator finishes in his own Spanish, “and I approved this message.”
The growing power of Hispanic voters has created an opening for candidates to reach Spanish-language audiences in ways completely different from how they engage with English-speaking voters.
While the overall tone of a campaign doesn’t change, what candidates choose to focus on does.
“I don’t think you’ll find a candidate taking a different position, but they will highlight different things,” said Melissa Michelson, a political science professor at Menlo College. “But of course you can’t get away with taking different positions now because someone will catch you.”
The Cruz ad with his father features an immigration and work-ethic story that would presumably move a wide audience, but be particularly meaningful in Texas, experts said.
In states like Texas, Florida, California and Arizona, the Spanish arm of the campaign will usually emphasize that “sueño Americano,” while English ads might highlight border security and “keeping Texas safe” — themes they “would never say in a Spanish-only ad,” said Felipe Hinojoso, a political scientist at Texas A&M University.
“I don’t think it’s a whole different world, but there are differences in the positions taken and the way they are stressed,” Mr. Hinojoso said.
The tendency is more marked in the current Texas GOP campaigns of Mr. Cruz and Gov. Greg Abbott, but Mr. Hinojoso said Democrats do it too.
Campaigning in Spanish has been around longer than many voters realize, with Jacqueline Kennedy cutting an ad for JFK. Yet the sector has come a long way from the days when campaigns would take their English-language ads and merely translate them into Spanish.
Analysts said President George W. Bush won re-election in 2004 in part by learning that lesson faster and better than his Democratic opponent, then-Sen. John Kerry.
Matt Barreto, a political science and Chicano studies professor at UCLA and co-founder of Latino Decisions, a top Latino polling firm, says Hispanic voters turn out when they are directly engaged. But he said there’s no one specific way to do that.
“Candidates all stress 20 different themes to 20 different audiences they are talking to, it’s the entire point of microtargeting that Karl Rove exploded back in 2000,” Mr. Barreto said. “Otherwise there would only be one commercial, one mailer, etc. In English outreach there are 20 different themes already.”
In Florida, Republican Gov. Rick Scott this week began running a Spanish-language ad in his campaign for a U.S. Senate seat featuring his work with Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria, and the eight visits he has made to the storm-ravaged island over the last year.
“Mr. Scott is recognized for the way he aided the victims of the hurricane,” the ad tells viewers over a montage of photos. The ad comes at a time where Mr. Scott has also been visible in the Florida Panhandle that was smashed by Hurricane Michael two weeks ago, burnishing his image as a steady hand in a crisis.
But President Trump also comes up in the ad, with Mr. Scott saying that “he has stood up to Mr. Trump when he doesn’t agree with him.”
“There’s a subtle difference there, where with an English-only audience Mr. Scott will be more likely stress his relationship with President Trump,” Mr. Hinojoso said. “I think that reflects that while there isn’t a radically different world for the Latino audience, you do see some subtle manipulations.”
Political advertisers also follow the same strategies in Spanish-language outreach as they do in English ads — such as leaving the negative campaigning to outside allies.
That was the case in Florida where the Congressional Leadership Fund, a political action committee affiliated with House Republicans, accused Democratic congressional candidate Donna Shalala of cozying up to backers of the Castro regime in Cuba.
The Spanish ad, which also highlights the fact Ms. Shalala doesn’t speak that language, focuses on a campaign event scheduled with Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee, a California left-winger who has spoken glowingly about Communist and socialist governments in Latin America.
“This week, Shalala even associated with a congresswoman who praised Castro and defended the ruthless Maduro regime in Venezuela,” the ad said. “This is a slap in the face to exiles in Miami. South Florida voters deserve better than Donna Shalala.”
The ad appeared to hit a nerve. Last week, when House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California visited a Shalala campaign headquarters in Coral Gables, she was booed and heckled as a communist. Ms. Pelosi was appearing in place of Ms. Lee, whom the Shalala campaign quietly dropped after the ad.
Democrats tested out a Spanish-language debate during their 2016 presidential primary, and the two nationwide Spanish-language television networks, Telemundo and Univision, have become partners in broadcasting major presidential and U.S. Senate debates.
Both networks also have reporters covering most high profile elections, although they struggle to break out of preconceived notions about their editorial slant, with Telemundo seen as conservative and Univision as liberal.
“We have to work a little harder to get interviews with some politicians, particularly on the Republican side,” said Lourdes Torres, a senior vice president for politics and special projects at Univision.
“It’s a stereotype, like that we only cover immigration,” she said. “In general, it’s more difficult for us to have complete array of viewpoints on the air, because of the way a candidate might view our because the candidate may hold opinions about our constituents they don’t want to reveal.”