MIAMI, FLORIDA — The Hispanic Leadership Network is a center-right political advocacy organization that, in its single year of existence, has attracted considerable support from the Hispanic-American political establishment.
Tonight—Thursday—the group is co-sponsoring, along with CNN, the latest Republican presidential debate, held in Jacksonville, Florida. I am in Miami, at the lush Doral Golf Resort and Spa, where the HLN is holding a debate viewing party to kick off its “Inspiring Action” conference, which runs through Friday. The action the conference wants to inspire: increased synergy between the Republican Party and America’s Hispanic voters. “To co-sponsor a presidential debate is, I think, a measure of the commitment of the Republican Party to the Hispanic community,” says the HLN’s executive director, Jennifer Korn.

Or, at least, a measure of the Republican Party’s desire to pander to Florida’s substantial and influential Hispanic voting bloc. The candidates need the Hispanic vote if they are to take the nomination, and the GOP needs the Hispanics if it is to ultimately take this state, which is why careful attention has been paid here to immigration policy, Cuban relations, language politics, and the like. On Wednesday, for instance, I went to Miami Dade College to watch Univision anchor Jorge Ramos interview Mitt Romney on immigration and related issues. (The most memorable part of the interview was an extended exchange in which Ramos kept trying to get Romney to say that, since his father was born in Mexico, he would be the first Mexican-American president.) On Friday, both Newt Gingrich and Romney will speak at the HLN conference.

It’s not just a Florida thing, though. This is a national issue. At every big Republican event like this I’ve attended this campaign season—whether it’s an hours-long affair or a hit-and-run campaign stop—the discussion has eventually come around to the role of the Hispanic vote in the 2012 election. Before the debate starts, former Florida governor Jeb Bush literally bounds up to the stage and cites a stat that I’ve heard before: in 2000, George W. Bush won 55 percent of the white vote, and took the election; in 2008, John McCain also won 55 percent of the white vote, and lost handily. The difference is the Hispanic vote, which is growing, and which is not going to the GOP; Bush and others know and have said that, without the Hispanic vote behind them, the Republicans will continue to lose.

It’s a huge story, and will be a huge part of this election. But from what I’ve seen, this issue hasn’t been covered very closely by the national English-language press. Maybe it’s a language barrier thing; maybe it’s just too early in the campaign, and will be covered later. But it seems to me that there’s a lot of journalistic grist in the ways that the candidates are courting the Hispanic vote, and how the Hispanic community is responding to their efforts; and it seems like there’s a real need for serious analysis of how their proposed policies will actually affect this diverse and rapidly growing demographic group. This is why I’m here tonight. (Well, that, and also Jacksonville is six highway hours away from Miami, where I’ve been staying.)

Most of the national press corps who have dropped into Florida this week are in Jacksonville, in some filing center attached to the debate hall, hoping that proximity will bestow insight. There are about twenty-five or thirty reporters here at the Doral with me—Macbook-toting twenty-somethings who can’t get on the bus and can’t afford to go to Jacksonville themselves; cameramen who, as always, seem to be locked in an unspoken competition to determine whose shoulders can support the most photo gear; plenty of Spanish-language reporters. A fashionably bald reporter in an open-necked pink dress shirt stretches out on an unused camera dais as if it were a chaise longue, drinking a glass of red wine, looking like he’s more comfortable than anyone else in the room. His notebook is completely empty. (I later learn that he’s British, which makes perfect sense.)

Gathered to watch the debate are couple hundred people, a few of whom have been selected by the HLN to ask the candidates questions via a satellite link. A CNN truck sits outside, ready to beam the questions—and occasional shots of the enthusiastic yet well-behaved crowd—to Jacksonville, and, subsequently, to the world.

The audience is seated facing two huge screens, which show the CNN feed. The debate begins, and Wolf Blitzer, speaking to the camera, kicks things off: “Tonight! The final face-off before Florida voters choose!” Wolf sends it off to us, and we show up on the screen. Huge cheer from the crowd, which soon thereafter rises for a national anthem that, due to momentary technical difficulties, nobody can hear.

About twenty minutes into the debate, which begins with an extended exchange on illegal immigration and Mitt Romney’s odd non-solution of “self-deportation,” Wolf throws it to Miami and CNN Espanol correspondent Juan Carlos Lopez, who introduces Raquel Rodriguez, the first remote questioner. Her question concerns what America can or should do to engage Latin America and promote democracy. The response goes something like this:

Ron Paul: I think we’d be a lot better off trading with Cuba.

HLN crowd: “Boooo!”

Paul: “I think it’s time we had friendship and free trade with Cuba.”

Crowd: “Boooooo!”

CNN didn’t cut back to Rodriguez for a reaction shot, but if they had, they would’ve shown her being angry at Ron Paul. (Sitting in this crowd, you can understand why Paul has essentially chosen to skip Florida and focus his campaigning on other states.)

During the commercial break, some awkward networking occurs between two young media types sitting near me. The talk turns to the trail.

“How was the Univision forum?” one asks.

“Kinda pointless. They had us in the filing center, watching it on TV.” (This is true, though I seem to remember this guy enthusiastically enjoying the free sandwiches and soda.) “Then we went to the Freedom Tower thing”—an event hosted by a Cuban American PAC that wasn’t much better, though it did at least produce this.

The second guy continues, “That’s the thing about anything on the campaign trail… it’s of questionable value. But it’s fun! I’m in Miami.”

Almost an hour later, Blitzer returns to Miami for another question, from Korn, HLN’s executive director. She asks the candidates which Hispanic leaders they would consider as cabinet officials. Santorum knows an easy applause line when he sees it: “Your senator Marco Rubio is a pretty impressive guy,” he says, eliciting tremendous cheers. (These people love Marco Rubio. All you have to do is say his name and the crowd goes crazy.) Gingrich and Romney follow suit, naming various people whom they might appoint to their phantom cabinets; Ron Paul, as is his custom, refuses to take the bait: “I don’t have any particular names… my litmus test is Hispanics or other individuals who understand monetary policy.”

The last remote question comes from Elizabeth Cuevas-Neunder, CEO of the Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce, dressed in a bright red suit and wearing a small Puerto Rican flag. She asks about the prospects of Puerto Rican statehood, and what the candidates might do to encourage trade between ports in Florida and Puerto Rico.

Santorum gives his answer, and he’s the only one to answer, and he really only answers the part about potential statehood. (It should be up to the Puerto Rican people, and also, Santorum is good friends with Puerto Rico governor Luis Fortuno.) Cuevas-Neunder walks away angry, and vocal about it. “He didn’t answer my question. He didn’t answer my question,” she insists.

She’s not alone in her anger. Four people wearing Puerto Rican flags rise and storm out of the hall. Outside, in the warm evening air, two of them give an impromptu press conference—castigating CNN and Wolf Blitzer for not following up or extending the question to the other candidates, and accusing the candidates of pandering to Florida’s Cuban-American community at the expense of other Hispanic constituencies or paying lip service to larger issues. “They are condescending to our community! They are talking down to the community,” says Dennis Freytes, a Special Forces veteran and license plate activist, referring both to the candidates and to CNN. Later, when I ask him how he thinks the media have been covering Hispanic issues and the campaign, he wastes no words in delivering his answer: “Poorly!”

“Get the facts. Then you can ask good questions,” he implores the media. “You need to know and investigate, not just ask the easy question. A reporter has to soar above that!”

Later, walking to my car, I talk with another reporter about the treatment of Cuevas-Neunder’s question. We agree that it was late in the debate, and Blitzer probably just wanted to get through as much as possible before moving on, and also that the trade angle was a pretty obscure question, and not very artfully put.

But it got me thinking. Bad question or not, if you’re going to take the time to have ordinary citizens (or moderately extraordinary citizens, like prominent business representatives) ask their questions, then you should give them the courtesy of having every candidate answer them. Blitzer wasted time asking each candidate why his wife would make a good First Lady; surely there was time for their thoughts on how to promote trade between Tampa and Ponce, Puerto Rico—or whether that’s an issue to which the president should devote his attention.

To do otherwise is to use people as props, to feign interest in their issues while simultaneously thinking of how to move on to another, more interesting topic. Good politics and good journalism both demand that we pay attention to specifics, arcane as they may be—that’s part of the distinction between pandering and serving. The modern political campaign trades in benign generalities, and too much of the ensuing campaign coverage fails to challenge that model or fill in the details that the candidates so often elide. One measure of how well this campaign is covered will be how often reporters let those evasions slide—and how often the media can press the candidates to really respond to the people whose votes they’re seeking.

When you get down to it, I think this is what turns a lot of potential voters off: the overwhelming sense that politics is a game being played for its own sake, that every campaign stop is just another space on the board. It’s fun, sure. But it’s of questionable value.

Justin Peters is editor-at-large of the Columbia Journalism Review.