"People tell me, 'We'd like you to do an Obama for us,'" said veteran Democratic media consultant Jim Margolis.
Mexicans are running this year for everything from mayor to president and are turning to American-style electioneering in hopes of generating the kind of excitement that shot an underdog into the White House four years ago. And with $1 billion estimated to be spent on Mexico's elections, U.S. political consultants see a lucrative opportunity.
"Doing an Obama" can be tricky in a democracy that has banned negative campaigning and fundraising, and where only one in three voters has Internet access, but the fundamentals remain the same: Candidates must win the trust of voters, and they will need technology to woo them.
"In order to effectively push through the clutter, you have to have a message that is real and true, authentic and credible," Margolis told the crowd. "And voters must be targeted and reached on their terms."
In Mexico's last presidential election six years ago, Twitter was preparing to launch, Facebook was open mostly to a few thousand Ivy League students and the iPhone was just a rumor.
This year, presidential candidates are developing phone applications, writing Wikipedia pages and launching YouTube channels.
But with low Internet penetration in Mexico, compared with about 80 percent in the U.S., traditional tactics also endure. Sweaty supporters wield bullhorns hollering slogans, bright plastic campaign flags line the streets, and rallies feature the essential political ingredients: spicy chicken tacos, steaming pork tamales and sugared cakes.
"We've learned from the U.S. in a big way, but we've still got to do things our way," said Alejandro Gonzalez, a Mexico City consultant whose creative campaign is credited with helping Mexico's first female presidential candidate, Josefina Vazquez Mota, win her primary in February. Now, as Vazquez Mota heads toward the July 1 general election, Gonzalez said they're mirroring President Barack Obama's 2008 social media strategy, offering a warm, carefully managed image that is constantly scrutinized: Too soft? Too tough? Too sharp?
Like Obama's video announcements emailed directly to supporters, Vazquez Mota also has exclusive YouTube videos viewable only by registering at her website. On her Facebook page, a digital application automatically makes clicking on her face a "like." Visitors also can download "I'm going with JVM" files to print onto T-shirts or buttons. She has spent much of her campaign pledging to make Mexico safer.
Her opponent, front-runner Enrique Pena Nieto, who is promising to build the economy and bring new jobs to Mexico, blogs about murder rates and his love of country and responds directly to Twitter messages.
Pena Nieto is the most digitally engaged right now, with 1.6 million "likes" on Facebook, but Vazquez Mota is closing on him, with 1.2 million—up from just a few hundred thousand in January. Those "likes" may turn into votes, as Vazquez Mota has gained significant ground in one recent poll. In a country where candidates need about 18 million votes to win the presidency, those Facebook followers alone could swing the vote.
The third major party candidate, leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who trailed with 17 percent support in a recent poll, is also getting creative online: During major speeches, his website now streams the event live, and with a click of a mouse, viewers can forward the video to friends or embed it in their own websites.
Exporting U.S. electioneering began in the 1980s, long before politics had moved online, and now at least 110 U.S. political consultants are competing for an estimated $5.3 billion worth of overseas campaigns, mostly in developing countries. Among those at the Cancun conference were visitors from Brazil, Argentina and Colombia.
"It's an export business. We are imprinting our way of doing things on countries around the world," said Tom Edmonds, who heads the International Association of Political Consultants.
But they don't always get it right.
U.S. consultants learned a painful lesson in 2000 after the incumbent Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) hired President Bill Clinton's political strategist, James Carville, to help run its presidential campaign.
A Carville-influenced slogan, "It's the right kind of change, stupid," was plastered nationally on billboards, street banners and bumper stickers. But something was lost in translation.
"Unlike Americans, Mexicans had difficulty with being called 'stupid' by a politician. They took it literally, and it wasn't funny," said Portland State University political scientist Gerald Sussman, who believes it underscores what's wrong with growing U.S. influence on elections abroad.
"Democracy has never been ideal, never pure, but these days it's become an enormous spectacle," he said. "There isn't a deep-seated engagement of issues."
The PRI lost the presidency that year for the first time in 70 years for a number of reasons, and Mexican consultants said American-style electioneering lost its luster.
That changed in 2008, says Anita Dunn, a Democratic operative who served as Obama's White House communications director.
"After our win, we started getting a lot of interest from Mexico," she said. "People here wanted the nuts and bolts, how did we do it?"
Even consultant Daniel Paredes Tuyo, working for the PRI, said he's turning back to U.S. consultants this year, at least for advice.
"Americans, they really know how to circumnavigate the mass media and get their message directly to the voters," he said.
In Mexico this became crucial after election reforms in 2007, prompted by a vote-counting fiasco a year earlier that included a court-ordered recount and charges of fraud. The tough new laws limit campaigning before March 30 and ban candidates from buying advertisements. Instead, radio and television stations must now provide millions of free 20-second spots to candidates. In addition, fundraising is largely prohibited, and the government pays for 90 percent of campaign expenses.
As if those rules aren't mystifying enough for American consultants, negative advertising is forbidden, and can provoke steep fines.
"Banning negative ads? Come on, are these people supposed to win an election by out-complimenting each other?" said Washington D.C.-based consultant John Aristotle Phillips, whose current clients include presidential and parliamentary candidates and referendums in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America.
And like all government rules, there are technicalities. In the case of Mexico, authorities imposed controls on billboards, radio, TV, magazines and newspapers but left a loophole of infinite proportions: the Internet.
Thus in Mexico today, YouTube videos and Facebook pages already are launching harsh attacks that would be banned in any other Mexican media. After Pena Nieto couldn't name the three important books of his life at the Guadalajara International Book Fair, satirical bloggers cut and pasted new digital campaign posters that said: "First, learn to read." Twitter rants have accused Vazquez Mota of lightening her skin and a YouTube channel dubbed VazquezMota says she hid one of her daughters from family photos because the girl is "too fat."
"Come on, man! Her daughter! We just don't answer that," said her adviser, Gonzalez.
In contrast, television advertisements vetted by federal election officials feature upbeat politicians and pithy slogans: "Today we are building a new future. Unite!" says Pena Nieto. "Real change is on its way!" says Obrador. There's no mention of opponents.
Ravi Singh recently opened a Mexico City office for his Washington, D.C.-based ElectionMall.com to pitch his online campaign packages.
"These are our golden days, with the rise of YouTube, Facebook, Twitter," said Singh. "We sell tactics to both sides, and let the political consultants worry about strategy."
His goal this year is to launch Mexico's first digital war room similar to one he set up two years ago in Colombia for President Juan Manuel Santos' successful bid. Singh said that in just a few days, they set up network servers, BlackBerrys or iPhones for the 80 campaign staffers, video streams from live events, websites, Twitter and Facebook accounts and "an abundant supply of Red Bull, potato chips, candy and anti-bacterial soap."
But not too much Red Bull. While Mexican candidates are eager for the information, they don't want anyone in this deeply nationalistic country to accuse them of being partial to the U.S.
"Typically American consultants are something you want to hide," said Republican strategist Michael Caputo in North Miami, Florida. "Everyone's got them, but they keep them in the doghouse."