Courting the Hispanic Vote
Are politicos wooing Latinos in earnest, or is it the same old song and dance?
by Adam J. Segal
With less than four months to go before the presidential election, the battle for the Hispanic vote is shifting into gear. The stakes are high; Latinos, the nation’s largest and fastest-growing minority group, are concentrated in key states that can swing the nation’s fortunes in a close election. Ultimately, it boils down to this: The effectiveness of the candidates’ Hispanic outreach efforts will determine who will occupy the White House. But are the campaigns doing enough to connect with Hispanics?
All indications point to record spending on Spanish-language television
and radio advertising in this year’s presidential race. This follows a
primary season that saw a big jump in spending on ads aimed at Hispanic
voters in Arizona and New Mexico, and an early wave of ads by independent
groups such as the New Democrat Network (NDN), MoveOn.org, People for the
American Way and the National Council of La Raza that were critical of
President George W. Bush’s policies.
In fact, NDN spent more than $2.5 million on Spanish-language TV and radio ads, polling, and focus groups—all in preparation for a more aggressive final stretch of the campaign that the group says will be part of a total $5 million budget.
Despite the escalating attention, however, the message may not be getting through.
“We are not being bombarded every day with videos and press releases in English or Spanish on what the candidates are doing or saying about the Hispanic community, and I wonder why,” says Noticiero Univision anchor Jorge Ramos, whose most recent book, The Latino Wave: How Hispanics Will Elect the Next American President, was published by Rayo-HarperCollins this summer. “I do not see an organized, well-financed, targeted effort to reach Hispanic voters through the Spanish-language media. And this is a huge mistake,” he adds. “As it happened with Al Gore in 2000, it might be too late when they realize that.”
Television ads won’t be enough in a close election this year, the campaigns acknowledge.
More prominent this year is a focus on aggressive communications and grass-roots campaigning tactics: Both campaigns have pledged to make Hispanic outreach a higher priority than ever before.
“John Kerry got his start in activist, grass-roots politics, so he knows that campaigns are won at the grass-roots level,” says Luis Elizondo-Thomson, director of Hispanic outreach for the Democratic candidate’s presidential campaign. “Our effort to mobilize Hispanics is unprecedented, and even the name of our effort, ‘Unidos con Kerry,’ was chosen by grass-roots activists.”
The Bush camp, which launched its national Viva Bush coalition in Orlando in April, is also making sure the president’s name stays front and center among U.S. Latinos.
“We have Hispanic teams already in place in 30 states and Puerto Rico,” says Sharon Castillo, director of specialty media for the Bush campaign. “We have trained thousands of volunteers. We have offices and full-time paid staff in the Southwest and Florida. We have an aggressive bilingual earned and paid media effort,” she emphasizes. “We are building the most impressive and effective grass-roots organization in presidential campaign history, and we want to make sure that Hispanics play a key role in our efforts.”
States in play
Three states in the Southwest, New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada, are targeted to receive the bulk of the attention along with Florida, the winner-takes-all state in 2000. Competitive in 2000, these are must-win states in 2004. Hispanic voters wield so much influence in these states that to ignore them would mean political disaster.
Three heavyweight states in terms of Electoral College votes and huge
Hispanic populations—California, Texas, and New York—are out of play, however.
Election maps already tag Bush’s home state of Texas in the Republican
camp, while California and New York are expected to vote Democratic. Other
states, like Colorado, which has a rapidly growing and substantial Hispanic
community, hover between electoral relevance and irrelevance in the months
before Election Day.
For the parties, if not for the candidates, perhaps of even greater importance than winning the 2004 race is securing long-term Hispanic allegiance. Both the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee, now limited in their expenditures by new campaign finance reform laws, are involved with efforts to cultivate Latino party operatives in these states and create a foundation for future outreach operations.
Independent groups assert influence
A big boost to the Kerry campaign is the number of independent Democratic and liberal political organizations that are spending millions of dollars on grass-roots organizing within the Hispanic communities in battleground states, as well as on communications efforts specific to Latinos. More organized than ever before, these efforts, if successful, will have the intended effect of supporting the Kerry campaign and the Democratic Party in a key focus area.
“America Coming Together’s grass-roots strategy is especially important to Hispanic voters,” says Geri Prado, New Mexico state director for ACT, a coalition of groups that has raised millions of dollars, largely from labor unions and other liberal groups supporting Democratic causes. “We are building a network of local leaders who can engage and energize voters in their neighborhoods and towns. This localized effort will build on the traditions of family and community so valued in the Hispanic culture.”
“Hispanic voters will swing the election this year and for years to come,” adds Prado. “ACT’s programs in New Mexico will help the Hispanic community build an effective grass-roots organization, developing a strong voice in politics for the future.”
In Florida, Prado’s words are echoed. “Hispanic voters may be the decisive bloc in this election,” says Karin Johanson, ACT’s Florida state director. “We have door- to-door canvasses in communities across Florida. In the Hispanic community our canvassers are bilingual. Our literature will be bilingual, discussing important issues ranging from the economy, to education, to health care. By Election Day, ACT’s canvassers will have knocked on the doors of more than 200,000 Hispanic voters in Central and South Florida.”
The Bush campaign is well organized to meet the challenge of these independent Democratic groups, according to Casti-llo, and involves Hispanic outreach at every level in key states.
In Florida, where the Bush campaign has a financial advantage over the Kerry campaign, the GOP camp claims more than 50,000 volunteers (with plans for 25,000 more), campaign co-chairs in each of the state’s 67 counties and precinct captains in more than 80 percent of the voting districts. In Arizona, the campaign claims chairs in all counties, over 18,800 volunteers, and over 25,000 phone calls to supporters made through mid-June. In New Mexico, the Bush campaign has organized campaign chairs in all counties, organized over 6,700 volunteers, held 22 training sessions, and placed over 28,000 phone calls to supporters through mid-June.
The Kerry campaign’s challenge is to increase the attention and resources given to Hispanic outreach, while at the same time increasing the intensity and commitment of the campaign to other Democratic minority constituencies that have been loyal to the party for decades. The Bush campaign, focused on Latinos as its main potential ethnic minority constituency, has a tough challenge ahead but has almost nothing else competing for its minority outreach resources.
Some will argue that the Kerry campaign could alienate other minority groups by devoting much-needed attention and resources to Hispanic outreach, while the Bush campaign could alienate a traditionally white conservative base, often uncomfortable with immigration issues, by focusing too much on this community.
But these are challenges to be overcome, and which should not distract the candidates from the importance of committing themselves to earning the support of the millions of Hispanic voters who will help determine the outcome of the November election.
Come the fall, historic numbers of Latinos will go the polls and cast their votes for president. The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials estimates this number will be more than a million above the number of Latinos who voted in 2000.
While the Bush and Kerry campaigns are focusing record resources on Hispanic outreach and communications efforts this year, including unprecedented strategies to reach every battleground state Hispanic voter, some say that is simply not enough.
“At this point neither Bush nor Kerry deserves the Hispanic vote,” says Univision’s Ramos. “They need to work much, much harder at it and to go beyond saying just a few words in Spanish; they have to propose concrete solutions to specific problems affecting the diverse Hispanic community.”
Candidates should take heed. The effectiveness of their grassroots campaigns will determine who captures the votes of millions of Latinos, votes that are increasingly up for grabs. Make no mistake: Victory on Election Day 2004 will hinge on the success of Hispanic outreach efforts this year.
—Adam J. Segal is director of the Hispanic Voter Project at
Johns Hopkins University
Top Issues for Latinos
U.S. Hispanics are a diverse group and, unlike other minorities, do not tend to vote as a bloc. In fact, Latinos are just as likely to be concerned about education, terrorism or the economy as are other voters. A recent poll by Bendixen & Associates shows the top concerns of Hispanics are:
*Health care 22%
*War in Iraq 10%
Source: Bendixen & Associates