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In this year's presidential election, more than 10 percent of eligible voters are Hispanic. That helps explain why the presidential campaigns have so far spent $11 million on Spanish language political ads - eight times the amount they spent in 2008. But NPR's Greg Allen reports it's still just a small fraction of total campaign spending and limited to a handful of states.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: In a report prepared for NPR and "PBS NewsHour," the tracking firm Kantar Media CMAG found that through September, the presidential campaigns ran Spanish-language ads in just seven media markets. Ken Goldstein of Kantar Media CMAG says that information provides a window into the thinking of the Romney and Obama campaigns.
KEN GOLDSTEIN: Advertising is reality. For your poker player listeners, advertising is the ultimate tell. Campaigns can say they're going to target a particular population, but it's really the case if they're not doing that in paid advertising, they're not doing it.
ALLEN: Half of the spending targeted at Hispanics came in just three cities: Miami, Orlando and Tampa. Those, of course, are in Florida, the largest swing state where nearly one out of every six voters is Latino. Most of the rest of the spending is focused on two other battleground states where Hispanics are key: Nevada and Colorado.
But Javier Palomarez of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce thinks the campaigns are selling Latinos short. Even in Florida, Palomarez says, Spanish-language ad spending is far less than what it should be.
JAVIER PALOMAREZ: It's a prime target that the political campaigns simply have not figured out yet. The audience for Spanish-language media is most certainly a voting audience, and it deserves the attention of our political candidates.
ALLEN: If spending is the measure, the Obama campaign has worked harder to reach Hispanics in these key markets, spending double what the Romney campaign has allocated for Spanish-language ads.
Matt Barreto is an associate professor of political science at the University of Washington who helps direct polling at Latino Decisions. The group's most recent tracking poll shows Mitt Romney capturing just over 23 percent of the Latino vote, although his numbers are slightly higher in battleground states. Barreto notes that's less than the 31 percent of the Hispanic vote John McCain received four years ago, and far below 38 percent, the percentage of the Latino vote the Romney campaign has set as its goal.
MATT BARRETO: And they need to really increase that outreach and make a connection. They need to make a sincere and solid connection with Latino voters so they can get back up to 30, 35, 40 percent of the Latino vote.
ALLEN: Since the end of August, the Romney campaign has stepped up its spending on Spanish-language ads.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)
MITT ROMNEY: Hispanics are hurting with so many unemployed. And those who are working are having to do more with less.
ALLEN: The campaign's largest ad buy features an English-speaking Romney with Spanish subtitles. That might be a good way to introduce the candidate, but it's just a start. Barreto says the campaign also has to speak to the issues Latinos care about in their own language. And he thinks they missed on their first Spanish-language ad called "Day One."
(SOUNDBITE OF "DAY ONE" POLITICAL AD)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Spanish spoken)
ALLEN: It's a direct Spanish translation of an English-language Romney ad in which he promises to repeal President Obama's healthcare overhaul.
BARRETO: This is something very popular and very highly supported in the Latino community. That shows their inability to communicate and understand this electorate. So they need to do their homework.
ALLEN: In reaching Hispanics, the Obama campaign has an advantage. It already did it successfully in 2008 when more than two-thirds of Latinos voted for the president. And as they did four years ago, analysts say Mr. Obama's Spanish-language ads connect with Hispanics in style as well as substance.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)
CRISTINA SARALEGUI: (Spanish spoken)
ALLEN: Cristina Saralegui, the Hispanic Oprah, is featured in several Obama ads. Another series profiles Obama campaign volunteers who talk about why they support the president.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)
ELENA VIDAL MCCULLOUGH: (Spanish spoken)
ALLEN: This ad, filmed and shown in the Tampa area, shows volunteer Elena Vidal McCullough meeting with a Latino couple to talk about the president's healthcare overhaul. Barreto believes these kinds of ads, using real people, help build trust with Hispanic voters.
BARRETO: There's lots of images of people within the Latino community there talking about whether it's the healthcare bill or the deferred action for DREAMers or some of the other achievements that Obama is trying to sell. They come across as being much more authentic.
ALLEN: As the election approaches, the Romney campaign says it's planning a last-month ad blitz aimed at winning over Hispanics. It has a new ad up today, attacking President Obama for saddling the next generation with a $16 trillion debt. The Romney campaign and the GOP are counting on concern about the economy to mobilize voters. But in the meantime, they're still figuring out how to speak to Latinos. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.