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On the morning of Sept. 13, barely hours after Univision announced that it would air two special television events for Latinos featuring individual conversations with presidential hopefuls Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, a long list of comments, questions and concerns began to appear on the Univision News Facebook page. Among hundreds, there was one comment from a young man posing a question to the Republican candidate: "Mr. Romney, I want to know how much longer I have to wait before I'm able to walk the streets without fear of being deported." Other questions revolved around subjects such as job creation, education and healthcare.
Univision's Meet the Candidate event, a two-part series with each contender moderated by anchors MarÃƒÂa Elena Salinas and Jorge Ramos, aired on Sept. 19 (Romney) and 20 (Obama) and was streamlined on Facebook. It was only the latest in a string of special events, voting initiatives and "Twitter parties" launched by the nation's top Hispanic networks-in addition to regular TV coverage- meant to both inform Latinos on the current state of politics and to mobilize those eligible to vote to do so on Tuesday, Nov. 6.
"Hispanics will play a key role in electing the next president of the United States, and these events will help address key issues so that the more than 20 million Hispanics expected to vote this year can make an informed decision," CÃ©sar Conde, president of Univision Networks, said in announcing the network's Meet the Candidate event.
The same week as the Univision announcement, Telemundo made its own headlines by landing the first interview granted by President Obama to a Spanish TV network after the Democratic National Convention. The interview, conducted by the network's main news anchor, JosÃ© DÃÂaz-Balart, first aired on MSNBC and later on Telemundo's nightly newscast. The following week, Diaz-Balart sat down for a one-on-one with Romney. The Romney interview aired the same week as a major crisis in the candidate's campaign, after a video was leaked showing the Republican presidential hopeful joking that he would have a better chance of winning the election if his father would not just have been born in Mexico, but had actually been Latino.
"My dad, as you probably know, was the governor of Michigan and was the head of a car company. But he was born in Mexico...and had he been born of Mexican parents, I'd have a better shot at winning this," said Romney at a fund-raiser in a video first published on the Mother Jones magazine website. "But he was unfortunately born to Americans living in Mexico. He lived there for a number of years. I mean, I say that jokingly, but it would be helpful to be Latino."
The gaffe was not welcomed by the Latino community, which by a wide margin favors Obama. According to a recent poll by impreMedia/Latino Decisions, 65% of Latinos say they would vote to reelect President Obama versus the 26% who would prefer the Republican alternative offered by Romney.
Every four years, when the race for the White House enters its crucial final days, Hispanic pundits and activists assure that this time, U.S. Latinos will finally be a major deciding factor in the presidential election. This year, that claim looks to be stronger than ever.
According to the Pew Hispanic Center, there are an estimated 22 million Hispanics eligible to vote in 2012. Of these, as many as 12 million are expected to hit the polls on Nov. 6, an estimated 26% increase from 2008.
Moreover, the Latino vote could be particularly crucial in battleground states with large Hispanic populations, including Florida, Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico; their strong turnouts on Election Day could determine several congressional races as well as the U.S. presidency.
Increased participation by Latinos in the upcoming election would be, in part, a result of a sheer increase in numbers: The 2010 U.S. Census put the total number of Latinos above 50 million.
But it would also be due to the expanding political coverage -- and activism -- by Hispanic media outlets, which this year are pulling out all the stops to have that segment of the electorate covered.
"We are devoting a lot of new resources, and investing like never before in our electoral coverage this year," Willie Lora, news director for CNN en EspaÃ±ol, said in an interview from a CNN en EspaÃ±ol special booth in Charlotte, N.C., during the recent Democratic National Convention.
Lora and his team of reporters and main anchors had made a similar pilgrimage to Tampa, Fla., one week earlier, for back-to-back coverage of the Republican Convention.
CNN en EspaÃ±ol's political coverage was on full display during both conventions, the result of a year-old initiative dubbed Voto 2012, which aims "to become the point of reference for Spanish-language political coverage," Lora said.
For the first time, CNN en EspaÃ±ol is leveraging resources from both CNN USA and CNN International, even tapping into physical resources at the network's headquarters in Atlanta.
During primetime on Nov. 6, CNN en EspaÃ±ol will be broadcasting live from the famed Studio 7, CNN's newest facility, featuring interactive graphics, magic walls, active walls and all sorts of "toys" that will allow for integrated presentations with social media, analysis and exit polls.
"It will be a big night for us," Lora said.
Over at Telemundo, news producers are putting the final touches on an Election Day coverage strategy that is expected to take over their airwaves on Nov. 6.
"We plan on taking an approach that will bring you information from the moment you wake up until a new president is declared," said Sylvia Rosabal, senior vice president of news for Telemundo.
As it has done in the past, Telemundo will be tapping into the resources, reach and coverage of its colleagues over at parent NBC. "The political team of NBC News is also the political team of Telemundo," Rosabal said.
Univision and Walt Disney Co.-owned ABC, which next year will launch an English-language digital and cable TV network, have already begun working together. The networks this year partnered with National Journal magazine to produce events at the Republican and Democratic conventions. The events featured Univision News' Ramos and Salinas, along with ABC News' Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopoulos.
"[The convention events were] really our first [time] working as a team," said Isaac Lee, president of Univision News.
As networks beef up coverage plans in the six weeks remaining before the elections, the question of Latino voter participation is on the minds of some who question whether Hispanics will truly influence this election.
"Unfortunately, our birth rates are way higher than our political participation," said Patricia Janiot, one of CNN en EspaÃ±ol's most respected journalists. "If the 20 million or so Latinos who are eligible to vote cast their vote in this election, we will be able to make a difference."
While Hispanic networks are doubling down on their TV coverage, this election will no doubt also be dominated by social media platforms, an area in which Latinos are particularly active.
For CNN en EspaÃ±ol, currently the No. 1 Spanish-language news destination on both Twitter and Facebook, social media is key. "People are getting their news on their mobile devices. Nobody is waiting for the 6 p.m. news," said Willie Lora, news director for CNN en EspaÃ±ol.
CNN en EspaÃ±ol will leverage its presence in Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Google Plus to offer real-time content that will incorporate user-generated videos, photographs and texts not only from U.S. users, but from its global audience as well.
The immediacy of outlets such as Twitter is pushing news anchors to focus on more than simply delivering the news by going for more analysis and explaining the things that matter most to Latinos.
"We cannot compete with the immediacy of Twitter," said Patricia Janiot of a CNN en EspaÃ±ol. "The way to compete these days is with context and analysis, and not only through breaking news."
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