How to mess up on the Latino vote
Ruben Navarrette Jr., Washington Post Writers Group. Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a syndicated columnist based in Dallas
DALLAS -- Because they're unpredictable--that is, likely to identify with Democrats but conservative enough to vote for Republicans--Latinos were believed to be in a position to decide the presidential election. President Bush said as much. So did John Kerry.
And they were right: Carving out even a sliver of what could be as many as 16 million Latinos expected to cast ballots Nov. 2 could seal the election for either candidate.
So, with the contest a month away, you'd think that the campaigns would be pulling out all the stops with Latino voters. Not necessarily so, according to a new study. The amount of attention that Latino voters are getting depends a lot on where they live and what language they speak. If they live in a so-called battleground state and speak Spanish, they're being hit with television and radio commercials. But if they live in states assumed to be dependably red or blue and speak English, it's more likely they're being ignored.
That's the gist of the provocatively titled report "Bikini Politics: The 2004 Presidential Campaigns' Hispanic Media Efforts Cover Only the Essential Parts of the Body Politic--A Select Group of Voters in a Few Battleground States." It represents research by the Hispanic Voter Project at Johns Hopkins University, which has spent much of the last year keeping track of what the parties and candidates have done to lure Latino voters. The basic finding: Although both Kerry and Bush have called the Latino vote critical, neither is making an all-out effort to win it outright. Instead, the strategy seems to be to make targeted attempts to court specific segments of the Latino electorate.
So if you're Latino and live in one of five states--Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Florida, Ohio--then you're probably seeing plenty of Bush or Kerry on television. You may even have caught a glimpse of either candidate at a rally in your hometown. Also getting attention are those states with smaller but emerging Latino populations such as Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa.
Granted, this isn't much different than what's going on in the mainstream, where Americans of all colors and backgrounds are being either fawned over or forgotten depending on their ZIP code.
But in the case of Latino voters, the problem is that by ignoring the states considered out of play--such as Illinois, New York, California, New Jersey and Texas--candidates turn their back on the majority of the population that they're trying to reach. According to the 2000 census, those five states are home to more than half of the nation's 40 million Latinos. Moreover, while there is no denying that in four of the five states getting all the attention--New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Florida--you'll find established Latino communities, that's not necessarily so in Ohio. Or Iowa. Or Wisconsin. In the Midwest, much of the growth in the Latino population in the last 10 years can be attributed to immigrants from countries such as Mexico, many of whom aren't U.S. citizens and can't vote.
Then, there is language. Who came up with the bright idea of targeting Latino voters in Spanish? At a time when English-as-a-second-language classes are filling up in Latino neighborhoods and Latino parents are removing their children from bilingual education, geniuses in both presidential campaigns decided that the way to inspire Latinos to exercise their civic responsibility was in a foreign language.
These whiz kids must have missed the report by the Washington-based Pew Hispanic Center in April indicating that most Hispanics either get their news from English-language media or flip back and forth between English and Spanish stations. Just 24 percent of Latinos get all their news in Spanish.
How could both presidential campaigns, in going after Latino voters, have been so wrong about so much? It looks like they got some very bad advice. They probably heard from political experts who assured them that Latinos could be targeted with the battleground strategy that the campaigns had in place for the mainstream. And then they listened to the Latino marketing experts--the sort of folks who usually help Fortune 500 companies sell millions of hamburgers and soft drinks--who told them that the way you reach Latino consumers is in Spanish. And the people running the campaigns didn't know enough to know better.
So which candidate deserves the Latino vote? That's easy. Neither.
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