On January 25, a week before the Florida primary, Mitt Romney sat down for an interview with Univision, the nationwide Spanish-language television network that reaches 97 percent of Latino households. It was a risky move for Romney, who, in a bid for conservative support, had gone farther than any of his remaining Republican rivals in denouncing reforms that would help undocumented immigrants gain legal status. His positions put him sharply at odds with the vast majority of Univision’s audience, with the network’s own editorial line, and most definitely with the opinions of its star news anchor, Jorge Ramos.

Yet there was Romney, opposite Ramos on a stage at Miami Dade College, trying to convince Univision’s viewers, many of whom live in Florida, that he was all for immigration—so long as it was done the right way. The questioning was civil but pointed at first. Then Ramos threw a curveball. The veteran broadcaster wanted to know whether Romney felt that he was a Mexican American, since his father was born in Mexico. The question put Romney, whose great-grandfather had fled the United States to avoid arrest for practicing polygamy, in a supremely awkward position. If he said yes, conservatives might think him even more suspect. But if he said no, he would lose one of the few opportunities he had to connect with a vitally important audience. “I would love to be able to convince people of that, particularly in a Florida primary,” Romney responded. “But I think that might be disingenuous on my part.” It was probably the best answer he could have given, but it provided the mainstream press, which covered the interview, with yet another squirm-inducing anecdote about the candidate. And it certainly didn’t help him with Latino voters.

If the Univision interview illustrates the rough road Romney has had to travel in his quest to become the GOP nominee, it also highlights what may be the biggest obstacle he’ll face in the general election: winning a significant share of the Latino vote. Hispanics are one of the fastest-growing minorities in the country, accounting for more than half of the total population growth over the last decade. (More than 50 million Hispanics now live in the United States—up from 35 million just ten years ago, according to census data.) In 2008, close to 10 million Hispanics voted—roughly 70 percent supported Barack Obama—and thus far their support for the president has not waned. More than 12 million Latinos are expected to vote this time around. Moreover, Hispanics are clustered in key swing states like Colorado, Nevada, North Carolina, Virginia, New Mexico, and Florida. Their influence could even put red states like Arizona into play in the presidential race, and might help determine control of Congress. In 2010, despite the Tea Party uprising that enabled Republicans to retake the House, Latinos helped the Democrats hang on to the Senate by propelling Harry Reid and Michael Bennet to victory in Nevada and Colorado, respectively.

Connecting with Latinos is now a top priority for both parties, and Univision is the main conduit. No other network comes close to its scope. On any given night, Univision draws in about 65 percent of the viewers watching Spanish-language TV; the network’s nearest competitor, NBC-owned Telemundo, recently broke briefly into the low thirties. The network is the fifth largest in the country in terms of prime-time ratings and routinely beats the big four—ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox—on Friday nights and in certain markets like Los Angeles and New York. Its offerings include everything from soap operas to political talk shows to investigative documentaries, all with a focus on the issues, themes, and personalities that are important to Hispanics. The company has built a relationship with its viewers that few other media organizations could even hope to understand. “Based on our research, there are two institutions in the Latino immigrant community that rank as highly trustworthy,” says Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democratic Network, a think tank based in Washington, D.C. “They are the Catholic Church and Univision.”

If Univision is the most important Spanish-language network, then Ramos is the biggest, most trusted on-air personality on Spanish-language TV. Often referred to as the Walter Cronkite of Hispanic news, he connects with viewers on a nightly basis. An immigrant from Mexico with olive skin, green eyes, and silver hair, he has interviewed every sitting president since George H. W. Bush and most of the major White House hopefuls during that time, with the exception of Bob Dole in 1996. Along the way he has won eight Emmys and written eleven books, including A Country for All: An Immigrant Manifesto. Ninety-three percent of Univision viewers have a favorable view of him.

The GOP, of course, faces considerably lower favorables among Hispanics, and it’s easy to understand why. Rank-and-file Republicans have applauded controversial immigration laws in Arizona and Alabama that give police a mandate to detain people who look like they might be in the country illegally. They have embraced racial profiling and Joe Arpaio, the Maricopa County sheriff who rounded up undocumented Latinos and put them in an outdoor detention facility. For the past seven years, conservatives in Congress have been openly hostile to any immigration-reform bills that would provide a path to citizenship. The Republican presidential candidates have tripped over each other this cycle trying to turn hard right on immigration issues, supporting the idea of self-deportation and joking that the border fence should be electrified. Romney pilloried Newt Gingrich for suggesting that seventy-year-old undocumented grandmothers who have lived in this country for decades should be shown mercy, and he denounced Rick Perry’s support of a Texas law that provided undocumented college students with in-state tuition breaks. These were shrewd tactical moves that helped kill off both campaigns, but Romney has paid a price. Republicans need at least a third of the Latino vote to win the White House. McCain got 31 percent, and lost the electoral college by the biggest margin since Bill Clinton beat Bob Dole in 1996. Romney has been polling in the high teens and low twenties.

Romney desperately needs to turn these numbers around. And one way he’s widely expected to try to do so is by picking Marco Rubio, the junior senator from Florida, as his running mate. The theory is that, as a young, charismatic Cuban American, Rubio can reach out to the Latino electorate and narrow the rift between them and the GOP. But the most important venue for reaching those voters is Univision, a network that many Republicans think is biased toward Democrats, and with which Rubio in particular has a checkered history. Indeed, despite a standing request from Ramos, the Florida senator has refused to go on his show. If Rubio in fact becomes the nominee, he won’t be able to avoid Ramos much longer.

Standing at five foot seven with a slight frame, Ramos doesn’t exactly cut an imposing figure as he walks onto the set of Noticiero Univision, the network’s flagship nightly news program. He slips in, largely unnoticed until he sits down at the anchor desk and adjusts his tie. About five minutes before going live, he and his co-anchor, María Elena Salinas, quickly compare notes and then turn to their computers. After more than two decades of working together, the two colleagues waste few words in the hurried moments leading up to the show.

The broadcast begins with an investigation into accusations that officials at an airline-maintenance company bribed government officials in Mexico and Panama. Then the show covers a shooting at a baseball game in Saltillo, Mexico. Only then do the anchors transition to Rick Santorum’s primary victories in Alabama and Mississippi.

During the commercial break, Ramos makes a point of coming over to me to explain why they chose to lead with corruption in Mexico instead of the election results. “We are constantly balancing domestic and international stories that cover the home countries of our viewers,” he says. “If we don’t include these stories, they wouldn’t watch us. They could go someplace else.”

This focus on issues important to Latinos has created journalism that is not only distinct from what’s shown on English-language broadcasts, but also quite profitable. In the past year and a half, while many TV news organizations have been cutting staff to deal with shrinking audiences and decreasing advertising revenue, Univision’s news department has been expanding, adding investigative and documentary units. By the end of this year, Univision Communications will add two new national cable channels, one of which will be a twenty-four-hour news network. Noticiero Univision’s 6:30 p.m. broadcast has about 2 million viewers in the United States alone, making it the most-watched Spanish-language newscast in the country. The program, which is filmed in Doral, Florida, just west of Miami, recently traded in its old wood-paneled set for a sleek, white, state-of-the-art studio with concrete walls and a 180-square-foot monitor behind the anchors’ desk.

This year, Univision finished work on a 32,000-square-foot studio at its South Florida location. Since the company bought the property in the late 1980s, the network’s footprint there has quadrupled, with the addition, over the years, of new studios, offices, and satellite dish arrays to meet the growing demand for more original programming. When the network first arrived, there was one modest structure—a former Allstate insurance office—and nothing else.

Univision’s beginnings trace back to 1961, when an American-born businessman named Rene Anselmo convinced the owner of Mexico’s largest television network, Televisa, that the United States was an untapped market for Spanish-language TV. Anselmo’s proposition was simple: he and a group of investors would buy a few local U.S. TV stations, starting in San Antonio, Los Angeles, and New York, and then Televisa would provide its usual Mexican programming. The new company was called Spanish International Network, or SIN.

The venture—the first Spanish-language network in the country—struggled at first. Even though there were about 6.7 million Hispanics living in America at the time, the stations had trouble luring advertisers. Nielsen didn’t measure ratings for the new market, so there was no way of knowing how many households SIN was reaching. At first, the network survived because Televisa provided its programming for only a nominal fee. But SIN executives soon realized that they needed to adjust their business model if they wanted to have any hope of eventually seizing a larger market. So the plan changed: instead of being a Mexican television network aired in the U.S., SIN would be a U.S. network in Spanish that addressed the particular needs of Hispanics in America. They would still air the telenovelas from Mexico, but they would also produce original content and cover local news. By 1981, the new strategy was in full swing. The company limped along financially, bringing in limited ad revenue with some early experiments in product placement on their new shows.

Jorge Ramos moved from Mexico City to the United States in January 1983. The previous year, he had resigned from his first real job as an on-air reporter at Televisa after being censored—a not-uncommon experience at the time in the Mexican press, which was in many ways beholden to the government. Ramos began searching for a way out of Mexico. He briefly entertained the thought of crossing the border illegally, but didn’t want to limit his ability to work in America. When he won admission to UCLA’s extension school—and secured a student visa—he sold his car, emptied his savings account, and flew to Los Angeles. “I still remember the day I arrived,” says Ramos. “It was just like in the movies.”

He barely spoke English, but to say that Ramos made the best of his circumstances is an understatement. His swift rise in television news began a year to the day after he arrived in this country, when he filed his first story as a correspondent for Canal 34, SIN’s Los Angeles station. Within months he was anchoring the local morning show. By January 1986, he had moved to Miami to take over the national morning show, Mundo Latino. Finally, later that year, at the age of twenty-eight, Ramos became the anchor of Noticiero SIN. (A former Univision executive told me that Ramos looked so young on camera that they used to paint gray highlights onto his temples to make him seem older.) Not long after that, following a change of ownership and a strong push to rebrand itself through even more original programming, the network was renamed Univision.

After a little less than four years in the United States, Ramos held the premier spot in Spanish-language news. He had gone from working at a movie theater in central Los Angeles to covering corruption in Mexico, the civil war in El Salvador, the Persian Gulf War, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. By the early 1990s, Univision was a truly national network, with more than a dozen local stations. It was becoming a dominant force in Latino culture in the United States, thanks to its original programming and the simple fact that it was the first network to broadcast in Spanish. Close to 2 million Latinos were watching Univision during prime time by 1992; Nielsen was finally measuring Spanish-language viewership rates, leading to a sudden, long-awaited explosion in advertising revenue for the network. Ramos was landing interviews with world leaders like Daniel Ortega, Hugo Chávez, and Fidel Castro. But Univision’s place in the broader American political landscape was still marginal. Even though the number of Hispanics in America had more than tripled, to 22 million, Univision reporters still had difficulty getting big-name politicians and newsmakers for interviews. “They just didn’t know who we were,” Salinas says. “They just didn’t understand the concept of why, if we were broadcasting in Spanish, we would want an interview with someone in English.”

It was only after the 2000 census, which showed that the Hispanic population had topped 35 million, that it really became clear to American politicos that Latinos would be a key voting block going forward. It was around this time that politicians began courting Univision. Presidential candidate George W. Bush was one of the first to recognize its reach. His first interview after the Republican National Convention that year was with Ramos, and he made an effort to speak Spanish as much as he could on the campaign trail. The strategy paid off. Bush carried about 34 percent of the Latino vote in 2000—reversing a downward trend for Republicans. Strong Hispanic support for the GOP in Florida, especially among the Cuban community, helped to keep the vote tally close, leading to a recount and ultimately the Supreme Court decision that landed Bush in the White House. Bush and Karl Rove, his senior political adv isor, recognized that securing a sizable percentage of the Hispanic vote would be necessary if they wanted to remain in power. They were inspired by Ronald Reagan, who believed that most Latinos were conservative even if they didn’t know it. Hispanics were mostly Catholic, after all, and their views on social issues like abortion often aligned with conservative talking points. But Reagan did not rely solely on cultural affinities; he also legalized 3 million undocumented immigrants in 1986. Bush knew that he would have to make a similar overture. On the English-speaking national stage, the issue of immigration stayed on the back burner during his first term, but on Univision and other Spanish-language media outlets, the president relentlessly emphasized his support for comprehensive reform. In 2004, he won more than 40 percent of the Latino vote, a GOP record.

On the whole, Bush enjoyed a relatively good relationship with the Spanish-language press at the time. Conservatives certainly thought Univision presented a center-left version of the news, but the Bush administration was far better at outreach than Republicans are today. Each cabinet department had a Spanish-speaking media contact dedicated to forming relationships with Hispanic outlets. And the president was skilled at connecting with Latino reporters on a personal level. “George W. Bush, and his father George Bush, are the kind of people who make you feel very comfortable in their presence,” Ramos wrote in his 2002 autobiography. “They repeat your name, look you in the eye and ask about your family.”

The goodwill began to evaporate in 2005. Instead of using his victory to push for immigration reform, Bush spent his political capital on privatizing the Social Security system and lost. At the same time, the Minuteman movement was gaining steam. Lionized by right-wing talk radio, it tapped into the growing fear of terrorism and made border security an issue of national security. Republicans in Congress, led by Colorado Representative Tom Tancredo, began talking about deporting millions of undocumented immigrants. Tancredo vilified the idea of legalizing those who were already in the U.S. by calling it “amnesty” and saying it rewarded lawbreakers. Two years later, Bush’s final attempt to provide a pathway to citizenship while increasing security at the border imploded when the Senate failed to pass the measure. By the time Republicans took back the House in 2010, illegal immigration was being called a “slow-motion holocaust,” and Hispanic immigrants were being compared to livestock.

Ramos’s corner office is sparse, his wooden desk decorated with pictures of his two children and a handful of books. (He keeps a copy of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States close by his computer.) The walls are bare except for a framed map of the world. One of his Emmys sits on top of a cabinet in the corner, almost out of view. The minimalism seems fitting for a man who arrived in this country with everything he owned packed in two bags and a guitar case.

Ramos acknowledges that his own immigrant experience informs his news judgment, but he stops short of saying that he is an advocate for Hispanic issues. His job, as he sees it, is both to report on and represent the needs of Latinos. “The reality is that the Hispanic community is underrepresented,” he says. “We are 17 percent of the population and we should have at least seventeen senators, but we only have two. We only have twenty-four members of Congress when we should have more than sixty, so there is a vacuum. There is not a Hispanic leader as Martin Luther King used to be for the African American community, so Univision is filling up that vacuum when it comes to participating in elections, when it comes to education, when it comes to relevant issues like immigration.”

That outlook, by definition, means that Univision is in conflict with the majority of today’s Republican Party. The conservative activists and politicians who understand Univision’s importance complain that they can’t get a fair shake with the network—or with Ramos. They point to the Romney interview. They point to an even tougher interview with Gingrich, where the flustered candidate told Ramos, “I’m not going to let you define what immigration reform is,” and Ramos replied, “It’s very simple. To legalize 11 million undocumented immigrants.”

Their suspicions were also raised when a consortium led by the Saban Capital Group bought Univision in 2007. The firm’s founder, Haim Saban, is a major Democratic donor who contributed more than $12 million in soft money to Democratic committees between 1998 and 2002. He and his wife gave $9,200—the maximum allowed at the time—to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, and they have already given $10,000 to Obama’s reelection effort. He is also said to be considering dropping serious amounts of cash on the left-leaning Super PACs this election cycle. Network executives say Saban has never attempted to influence news coverage, and even if he tried, they wouldn’t listen. But Republicans remain unconvinced. “Univision is headed and owned by some sophisticated equity-fund guys, and they have turned it into a corporate institution of great power with a left-leaning message,” says Al Cardenas, chairman of the American Conservative Union. “It’s fair to state that we’re greatly handicapped by the Hispanic media that mostly favors a liberal agenda.” Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, puts it a bit more succinctly. “We do see a bias,” he says. “Univision is tougher on Republicans.”

After three decades of living in America, Ramos remains extremely sensitive to the plight of those who have come to this country searching for a better life. “You never stop being an immigrant, and that affects everything that you do,” he says. “Probably you work harder. Since we lost everything at least once in our life, there is always that very uncomfortable sensation that it could happen again.” In 2008, he became a U.S. citizen so he could vote in the historic election, but he remains adamant that he is not truly American. (He wouldn’t reveal for whom he voted, saying he’s a political independent.)

Ramos denies that his reporting is in any way colored by ideology or partisanship. He says he is neither liberal nor conservative, just pro-immigrant. Indeed, that stance almost rises to the level of a calling. “When was the last time you saw an undocumented immigrant talking to ABC News, or NBC, or CBS, or CNN?” Ramos asks rhetorically. “It’s very rare. So it is true that we do a lot of reports about immigration and undocumented immigrants, but that’s part of our audience. If we don’t do it, who is going to?”

Univision executives say they don’t explicitly go after Republicans for their position on immigration reform. If it seems like the network targets the GOP, they add, it’s because conservatives give them more material to cover. “We don’t get into politics,” says Isaac Lee, the head of news at Univision. “We do not forget who our audience is, what their needs are, and what our responsibility is to them as a community, but that doesn’t mean we advocate for particular things.” Most of those I talked to at Univision insist they aren’t advocating for Latino issues, but say they are instead “empowering” the community to make choices. The majority of Hispanics, for example, support the DREAM Act, legislation that would grant legal resident status to undocumented immigrants brought here as children, provided they enroll in college or join the military. In 2010, Congress failed to pass the measure despite broad support from Democrats, because nearly all Republicans—even those who supported it a few years ago—voted against the bill. Univision has covered every twist and turn of the debate, highlighting the Democrats’ support of the bill and the Republican opposition. While much of their coverage of the issue fits the normal definition of straight news, Ramos openly endorsed the DREAM Act, calling it an acceptable plan B until Congress can agree on comprehensive immigration reform.

Lee and Cesar Conde, the president of Univision Networks, are quick to point out that the company has criticized Democrats, too. Univision did much to advance the story about the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ botched undercover gun-running operation to track down weapon smugglers in Mexico. The episode has been a running embarrassment to the Justice Department and a gift to GOP lawmakers, who have conducted countless investigative hearings into the matter in hopes (so far unrealized) of ensnaring senior administration officials. Ramos and the network have also harshly condemned President Obama for not following through on a campaign promise to deliver an immigration bill to Congress during his first year in office. In addition, Univision has reported on the record number of deportations—more than 1.2 million—that have taken place under the Obama administration and has done a number of reports about families torn apart because of this policy.

None of this, however, has kept conservatives from trying to claim that Univision is targeting them unfairly. Last July, reporters with the network’s new investigative unit uncovered evidence that Marco Rubio’s sister is married to a convicted drug smuggler. The senator’s staff tried to kill the story during a phone call with Univision executives that included Isaac Lee, calling it “tabloid journalism.” But Univision aired the piece anyway. A few months later, on a tip from Rubio’s camp, the Miami Herald reported that Lee had offered to soften the story if Rubio agreed to go on Ramos’s Sunday-morning interview show, Al Punto. Lee and Univision firmly deny that they tried to shake down the senator, and the New Yorker later ran an investigative piece that cast doubt on the Herald’s story. Back in October, five of the Republican presidential candidates used the Herald’s reporting to justify boycotting an upcoming Univision debate. Rubio has since been on Univision a handful of times, but he still has never been interviewed by Ramos.

By trying to call the network’s ethics into question, and thus undermine confidence in its news coverage, Republicans were working from a well-worn playbook. It’s a tactic conservatives have used to devastating effect to take down big-name journalists like Dan Rather, who was ousted from CBS after some of the documents he relied on for a piece about George W. Bush’s national guard service turned out to be forgeries. But with Univision, they didn’t succeed. “It’s hard to criticize Univision,” says Jennifer Korn, executive director of the conservative Hispanic Leadership Network. “Where are you going to have the outlet to reach those same people in Spanish and tell them that it’s slanted? You try to get your message out there, but I don’t think it would do us any good anyway to tell the community it’s watching a biased network. It’s so trusted that it’s better to go positive.”

The mainstream media often provides a convenient foil for Republicans who say there is an unfair liberal bias in the press that muddies their message. To get around this perceived problem, conservatives have built alternative news outlets like Fox News and much of talk radio to directly get their point across to voters. But in a testament to its general indifference or hostility to Latinos, the right hasn’t bothered to develop Hispanic stations more sympathetic to their cause—though some in the movement are belatedly trying. “Conservatives are becoming more and more receptive to the idea that they need to get their message out to the Latino community, and they have to go around traditional Spanish-language media to do it,” Aguilar says. In January, he began broadcasting a weekly hour-long radio program from Washington, D.C. And this fall, Fox will debut MundoFox, a Spanish-language channel, to compete with Univision and Telemundo, though executives have said that its news department will be independent.

Neither of these nascent efforts, however, is likely to reach many Hispanic voters between now and November. That leaves the Republicans with only a few possible means of solving their Latino problem in 2012.

One is to attempt to suppress the Latino vote. This is already under way. A number of Republican-controlled state governments have imposed new measures, like photo ID requirements and strict new voter-registration laws, that could keep countless eligible Latinos from the polls. Florida’s new rules, for instance, are so onerous that the League of Women Voters, which has been running registration drives for decades, has declared a moratorium on its work in the state.

Here, too, a major force pushing against the GOP’s plan is Univision. For the past six years, the company has run a program with a handful of other national Hispanic organizations called Ya Es Hora (It Is Time) to encourage Latinos to become citizens and to register to vote. Voter-registration rates among Hispanics are already down this year, in part because Latinos tend to vote for Democrats, who aren’t holding a contested presidential primary. And there are signs that apathy is taking root within the Latino community in light of the economy and the lack of forward momentum on immigration reform. In all, there are 8 million unregistered Latino citizens, and Univision is planning a major campaign that will include town halls, public service announcements, and local events designed to motivate them to get involved. Their operation promises to be as sophisticated as that of either political party. “We have to find a way of convincing [Latinos] that their vote counts,” Salinas says. “We’re going to do it by showing them, county by county, state by state, in the cities where their vote would have made a difference if they had registered.”

Another option for the GOP is, of course, for the party’s presidential nominee to choose a Hispanic running mate. And the name most often floated is Marco Rubio. Whether Rubio is the savior many in the party think he is remains to be seen. On the one hand, he is a fresh face and an effective speaker with strong conservative positions that also make him a favorite with the Tea Party base. On the other hand, he has some baggage, including a history of making false claims about his parents having left Cuba as political refugees (they came to the United States before Castro took power) as well as a record of opposition to the DREAM Act and other immigration-reform efforts. Some polls have shown that a quarter of the Hispanic electorate would consider voting for the GOP ticket if Rubio is the vice presidential candidate. Other polls suggest that he would draw few Latinos, or could even hurt the ticket.

Cognizant of his, and his party’s, weakness on immigration, Rubio is working on a compromise version of the DREAM Act with other Republican senators. If such legislation can get a hearing or even pass with bipartisan support this summer or fall, it could conceivably soften Latino voters’ attitudes about the GOP. The problem for Rubio is that any bill that opens the door even slightly for undocumented immigrants to become legal is liable to stir up the conservative base. And at the same time, a legalization option that is too narrow will be unlikely to impress many Latino voters, and certainly won’t draw the support of many Democratic lawmakers.

One thing’s for sure: between now and November, the venue where these issues will be discussed in the greatest detail, in front of the audience that matters most, is Univision. Which means, among other things, that at some point Rubio will have to face Ramos. “I’ll keep on calling him,” Ramos says. “That’s what I keep on doing with the pope, and that’s what I keep on doing with Marco Rubio.” It also means something else. As in any election year, pundits and political professionals are sure to spend countless hours in the coming months watching outlets like Fox, MSNBC, and CNN with a keen eye toward how their coverage might influence the outcome. But this year, the network most likely to actually have that effect is one that barely any of them watch, and that speaks a language few of them understand.

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

Laura M. Colarusso is a reporter at Newsweek and the Daily Beast. She has previously reported for the Boston Globe, New Jersey Monthly , and the Newark Star-Ledger.