'Hispandering' or just campaigning? Some try to give Latino outreach negative spin

When Hillary Clinton rolled out a Spanish-language campaign website and when Jeb Bush featured Latino music and, yes, spoke some Spanish at his campaign launch in Miami, many people criticized their efforts as pandering.

The same has happened when elected officials or political candidates have expressed support for more lenient immigration policies.

As Latinos become an increasingly important part of the electorate, efforts to court them and the ensuing cries about pandering – or, as some say, “Hispandering" – have grown.

Defenders of efforts that have been targeted as pandering say critics unfairly are implying that it’s somehow wrong to talk to Latinos about their concerns and show support for policies and solutions that a majority of them favor.

“With 54 million Hispanics in America, you have to wonder why anyone would question their role in our democracy,” said Pablo Manriquez, the director of Hispanic media for the Democratic National Committee. “And every candidate seriously wanting to represent them should reach out, talk about the issues that matter to us like college affordability, and ask for our vote. That’s as American as apple pie.”

Allert Gort-Brown, a professor at the University of Notre Dame, told Fox News Latino that pandering is often a pejorative way to describe a core practice of political campaigns.

“In general, it’s just political campaigning,” Gort-Brown said. “People said that Marco Rubio was pandering to the tea party. Is Hillary Clinton pandering to labor when she says she’s against [the Trans-Pacific Partnership]? Well, yes.”

He pointed out that social conservatives like “Mike Huckabee and Ben Carson stress their faith-based outlook in order to make sure they capture those votes when they’re in the primary.”

Where it gets unsavory, experts admit, is when candidates treat a bloc as a monolithic group, or when they appear to contradict themselves in their effort to reach a new sector of the electorate.

“It’s what someone called ‘Hispandering,’ taking an advertisement and throwing some mariachis in there to 'reach out' to Hispanics,” Gort-Brown tolld FNL.“It’s not wrong to reach out to Latinos or any discernable voting bloc. It’s when they treat Latinos as if they’re all Mexicans and all listen to mariachis.”

“The broader issue is, 'Should they be reaching out to Latinos?,'" he said. "You want to win an election, and you want to get as many people as you can on board. And Latinos are just growing too fast, and are too big [a segment of the population], to safely ignore.”

Clinton was accused of pandering, even by some Latino groups she was trying to woo, for sitting down with young undocumented immigrants – known as Dreamers – in Nevada earlier this year and pledging to, if elected president, give them broader protections and push for comprehensive immigration reform.

In large part that is because the year before, she had supported sending back unaccompanied minors who were part of a surge that had appeared at the U.S.-Mexican border asking to stay in the United States.

That remark led to protests and heckling at her speaking events.

Rubio has also appeared to reverse himself. A couple of years ago, he played a pivotal role in drafting and pushing for a bipartisan Senate comprehensive immigration reform bill that sought to tighten border security, while also allowing undocumented immigrants who met a strict set of criteria to legalize their status.

The junior senator from Florida came under fire from conservatives – who had been a base of support – who accused him of embracing amnesty and pandering to Latinos and immigrant advocacy groups. After the bill failed in the House, Rubio began backing away from its tenets, increasingly focusing more on strict enforcement and deportation.

Now he’s being accused of pandering to conservatives.

Political opponents often seize on a rival’s change of tune and label it pandering, hoping that the group being courted by the candidate whose rhetoric has changed won't be won over by it, experts say, seeing it as hypocritical and opportunistic instead.

The GOP and Democratic debates have been full of moments in which one candidate accuses the other of putting the interests of a small group over those of the larger electorate.

Sen. Ted Cruz, the conservative Texas firebrand who hopes to ride his tea party support to the GOP nomination, has begun challenging Rubio, who is also vying for that conservative base, for his former position on immigration.

“Cruz has Rubio right in his sights” Gort-Brown said, in terms of whether he is a true conservative.

Political pandering is such part and parcel of the election process that experts and campaign officials have their own insider terms for it – “dog-whistle politics” and “microtargeting,” are two of the more known ones.

The soccer-mom vote was coveted in the 1990s, and NASCAR dads were courted in 2004.

“On the one hand, they’re pandering not just to one set of voters, but to polls generally,” said D. Sunshine Hillygus, a professor at Duke University who has authored books on political campaigns and elections. “I’ve always found it surprising that it’s considered a bad thing to want to represent the views of voters or constituents.”

Designing a message for a certain group, Hillygus said, is not necessarily a superficial gesture.

Although it sometimes “appears [politicians] are not sincere if it looks like they’re catering to the needs and desires of a particular group,” Hillygus said, “a candidate can be representing their principles and views, as opposed to behaving in a [purely] strategic fashion.”

Bush has been criticized – most vociferously by Donald Trump – for launching into Spanish at press conferences when responding to a reporter for a Spanish-language media outlet, or for speaking it at times in his campaign.

That very visible effort to court Latino voters gets noticed far more easily than other, off-the-radar wooing that takes place out of the public eye.

“Candidates often send messages to some groups that other people won’t recognize, using language, sometimes, that most people pick up on,” Hilllygus said.

That is called dog-whistle politics, because, like a dog whistle, it is audible only to a certain target.

It can happen at private fundraiser, where a candidate’s message can bring not just votes but large contributions.

“They sometimes give a sense to a group, such as Latinos, that the issues important to them will be a priority,” Hillygus said. “But then they’ll speak to a group of small business owners, emphasizing a different set of issues, and tell them their issues will be a priority. Every little group is told their pet issue is priority.”

Poorly executed, this tactic can, and has many times, backfired on a candidate.

A whole new weapon – trackers – in political campaigns is designed around making sure that a rival’s private pandering or dog whistle politics targeting a select group is outed when it is deemed something that would be unpalatable to the larger electorate.

In the 2012 presidential election, a video went viral of GOP contender Mitt Romney telling those attending a private fundraiser, which was priced at $50,000 a plate, that “47 percent” of Americans saw themselves of victims and wanted the government to provide for them.

Rivals used the video – filmed by a bartender at the event who released it to Mother Jones magazine – to portray Romney as elitist who was out of touch with the struggles of many Americans.

Though the bartender was not a tracker, the moment he captured was what people who are planted by campaigns at rivals’ events hope to record.

“Most politicians look at the polls,” said Gort-Brown, “they put their finger to the wind, and say, 'There’s the crowd, and I must follow them.'”