June 13, 2008
By: Gebe Martinez
While the dust was still settling last week in the Democratic presidential race between Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, presumptive Republican nominee John McCain was kicking up his general election advertising war on Spanish-language radio.
Obama, the Democratic survivor, is still figuring out how to win over the huge Hispanic voting bloc that strongly favored Clinton in the primaries. But McCain already has begun his Hispanic media campaign in Spanish and English in the hopes of copying the successes that President Bush had with those voters.
Republican candidates spent more advertising dollars to woo Hispanic voters in recent presidential elections, and Bush won two terms in the White House with 40 percent of the Latino vote.
But with the Democratic Party finally realizing it cannot take Hispanics for granted, the McCain campaign is bracing for the toughest competition ever for Latino support.
After introducing its first Spanish television ad in April and then going back onto Spanish radio in New Mexico and Nevada last week, the McCain campaign has produced 10 other ads targeting Hispanics that will roll out when the time is right.
“We know that what’s going to be different is that we have a smarter opponent than ever before,” said Lionel Sosa, McCain’s top Hispanic media strategist, who has worked with Bush and other Republicans for decades. Obama’s campaign will be “bigger, stronger, smarter than ever before,” Sosa predicted.
There is another striking difference in this year’s Latino campaign.
In the 2000 and 2004 presidential contests, Bush was comfortable enough with Spanish to regularly use it in his campaigns against former Vice President Al Gore and Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry, who did not speak the language. This year the situation is reversed, as Obama recently proved when he spoke directly into the television camera in a Spanish-language ad that aired during the Puerto Rico primary.
Obama’s Spanish ads are “quite good,” and Obama “apparently has learned Spanish well enough to do his own commercials,” Sosa said. “But it’s not who knows the language best. It’s who knows Latinos best, and there’s no doubt that McCain knows Latinos best.”
The candidates’ messages are more important than the language in which they are delivered. Still, the changing demographics of the U.S. Latino population have complicated how the candidates communicate with Hispanic communities.
In previous years, English-dominant second- and third-generation Latinos were the likely voters. Now, almost half of Hispanic voters are foreign-born. NDN, a progressive Democratic group, estimates that about eight out of 10 Hispanics speak Spanish at home.
There are other signs of the growing Hispanic market. There are now 872 Spanish-language radio stations in the U.S., up from 587 in 2000, according to Arbitron, which tracks radio listeners.
Arbitron also noted that the “key growing and emerging” Hispanic markets in addition to those that are already well-established are outside the Miami area and in South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Indiana and Nevada.
Hispanics could determine the outcome of the McCain/Obama contest in New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada and Florida, states that Bush won by less than 5 percent of the vote in 2004.
English and Spanish radio is considered the best media source for Hispanics, but Spanish-language television news also is a powerful presence in the lives of Latinos.
The local television newscasts of the top-rated Univision Spanish-language network lead in 16 markets, including Las Vegas, Miami and Albuquerque, N.M., according to an NDN study.
“We are going to see the most money spent on Spanish-language media than we have ever seen before,” said Simon Rosenberg, president of NDN.
We already have. Even before the June 1 Democratic primary in Puerto Rico, Obama and Clinton spent at least $4 million on Spanish-language television ads in this election cycle. That is about $1 million more than Bush and Gore and their national parties spent in 2000, according to the Hispanic Voter Project at Johns Hopkins University.
With McCain poised to aggressively advertise in Hispanic markets, his biggest challenge may come from the so-called free media, the Spanish and English sources that have carefully tracked ongoing efforts to control illegal immigration through enforcement raids, as well as other efforts to limit immigrants’ access to visas, health care and education.
Immigration, according to polls, has proved to be a sensitive issue for Hispanics. That view is shared by U.S.-born Latinos, Cuban-Americans and Puerto Ricans who would not fall under proposed federal legislation but are nonetheless sympathetic.
Hispanics may not know Obama, but they blame Republican hard-liners for the anti-Latino sentiment sweeping across the country.
McCain is not one of those Republican hard-liners. He co-authored a bill that would have granted earned citizenship to illegal immigrants now in the country. And during the GOP primary campaign and debates, he referred to immigrants as “God’s children.”
But McCain stepped back from the bill in spring 2007 as his campaign went into a tailspin and he determined that the politics was not in favor of the bill. National Hispanic leaders continue to express disappointment in McCain over that move.
Now McCain is hoping to capture some of the same dynamics that worked for Bush.
Like Bush, McCain is from a Southwestern state and has enjoyed immense popularity among Latinos back home. Also like the president, his record before this race was Latino-friendly.
With the Republican brand tarnished in the Hispanic community, McCain is trying to restore some of the luster.
His recent radio ad was as much about declaring his own political independence as it was about the economy. “When we’re filling up the gas tank, we’re not Republicans, Democrats or independents.
We’re Hispanics, and we’re suffering together in these times of economic uncertainty,” the narrator states before touting McCain’s economic plan.
One McCain ad that has not yet aired is on immigration. The campaign’s strategy focuses on how McCain stood up to the jeers of the hard-liners. He did not back away from the immigration bill, Sosa maintained.
The campaign also wants to capture the attention of all Hispanics, not just voters, citizens or immigrants, or even those without documents.
“Everything targeted to the Latinos is taking a bigger role, and it does not matter if they are legal or illegal,” Sosa said. “We also want to target the next generation of Latinos. ... They are all either going to make a difference in this election or they will in future years, in 2008 and 2012 and beyond.”
With McCain trailing Obama among Hispanic voters by double digits in a recent Gallup poll, the question is whether McCain has enough time before November to make up the ground lost by his party.
The language will matter less than what McCain says.
Gebe Martinez is a longtime journalist in Washington,a frequent lecturer and commentator on the policy and politics of Capitol Hill. Story is reprinted from the “Politico” (http://www.politico.com/)