Radio host Fernando Miguel Negron, right, debates politics with Orlando… (Alana Semuels, Los Angeles…)
ALTAMONTE SPRINGS, Fla. — It may sound like the type of acerbic election-year conversation happening in coffee shops and dining rooms across the country, but this being radio, everyone sounds a little taller, stronger and more handsome than the rest of us.
"How are you going to pay for it?" program host Fernando Miguel Negron asks in Spanish, his voice taking a sonorous bounce. "How can you pay for these government programs and still cut taxes?"
"Easily," his guest says. "Fácilmente."
But this is no regular talk radio conversation. It is one of the many ways Mitt Romney's campaign is trying to woo Latino voters in the final weeks before the presidential election.
The campaign purchased 30 minutes of airtime on a left-leaning talk radio show three times a week, and puts surrogates on the show to argue with the host. If President Obama's campaign believes, as he told the Des Moines Register this week, that it will be Latinos who help tip the election in his favor, the Romney campaign is trying its best to convince Latinos to vote another way.
"They could have just bought the half-hour and been done with it," said Negron, who attended Obama's inauguration and introduced the then-senator at a Florida rally in 2008. "But they wanted me to be on with them — they just want us to fight, I guess."
Radio is one of the most effective ways of reaching Spanish-speaking voters. It is nearly impossible to listen to popular stations in central Florida without hearing candidate ads, and as Negron's show indicates, even whole segments of talk programs are taken over by paid election messages.
Though conventional wisdom says Cuban Americans in Florida will go for Romney and Puerto Ricans and other Latinos favor Obama, the proliferation of radio messages indicates that both campaigns believe the Latino vote is not necessarily locked up.
A poll by Florida International University, El Nuevo Herald and the Miami Herald found that Obama leads Romney 51% to 44% among Latinos statewide, a much smaller edge than Obama has among Latinos in the country as a whole. Among Puerto Ricans in Florida, who traditionally lean Democratic and make up a big percentage of the population in the Orlando area, 61% said they'd support Obama, compared with 70% nationally.
The 30 minutes the Romney campaign is buying on WONQ-AM (1030) La Grande radio doesn't cost much — about $300, according to the station. But it could help change minds, given that many Latinos work in jobs that allow them to listen to the radio much of the day.
They include Hector Nieves, owner of Xtreme Motor Works in Kissimmee, where he and his workers hear the politicians' messages repeatedly while listening to salsa music.
"I hear them all day long — Romney, Obama, Obama, Romney," said Nieves, who said he made up his mind only recently to support Obama.
One study found that voter turnout jumped by 4 percentage points in Spanish-speaking areas that received get-out-the-vote messages over radio, compared with areas not exposed to them, said Costas Panagopoulos, a Fordham University professor who has studied radio outreach to Latinos.
"Generally speaking, it's very difficult to change voters' minds," Panagopoulos said. "But there is some evidence that even liberal audiences can be persuaded, perhaps on the basis of specific issues. Clearly the Romney campaign recognizes not only how important Latinos would be, but also that they are persuadable voters."
In the statewide poll, 51% of Latinos in Florida said they thought Obama had not fulfilled his promises to the Latino community, compared with 38% polled nationwide who felt that way.
Aside from radio ads, the Romney campaign has employed bilingual phone banks and door-to-door canvassing efforts, implementing the "most aggressive and comprehensive [Latino] outreach of any presidential campaign," said campaign advisor Alberto Martinez. Surrogates such as former Gov. Jeb Bush, Sen. Marco Rubio and Cuban American politicians and brothers Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart have appeared on television and radio programs as the campaign also runs ads.
Jim Jimenez, one of the Republicans appearing on the radio show on Romney's behalf, says he thinks Puerto Rican voters, while traditionally Democrats, are open-minded.
"The idea is to bring balance, and balance makes people think things over," he said. "And I really think the issue of the economy is resonating."
Indeed, there are many voters like Alex Lopez, 41, who supported Obama in 2008 but is leaning toward Romney this time.
"Obama hasn't been able to get much accomplished," said Lopez of Reunion, Fla. "But Romney has some powerful people behind him. For us to get to the next chapter, I think we need Romney."
The Romney campaign is outspending Obama "15 to 1" at WONQ-AM, which airs Negron's show, "Quedate con Miguel," said station manager Manny Arroyo.
"The Obama campaign seems to think it's got the Hispanic vote locked up," he said.