Political Ads Aren't English-Only

Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry may be gaining lots of press with his primary victories, but President George W. Bush hopes to gain lots of voters -- specifically, Latino voters. And he's betting that Spanish-language TV spots will do the trick.

Bush campaign officials have announced they're dumping millions into commercials for Spanish-language networks Univision and Telemundo. The first ads have already hit the airwaves in New Mexico, Florida, Nevada and Arizona. Kerry and the Democrats are expected to soon follow suit.

The money both sides spend on Spanish-language TV ads in this campaign will far exceed what they spent in the past. In 1996, President Bill Clinton spent a paltry $1 million on Spanish TV ads. Four years later, Bush and the Republicans doubled that figure to the still-unspectacular sum of $2 million.

This year's bipartisan ad blitz marks a reaction to several changed political and economic realities in America:

English-only retreat: The Latino population has skyrocketed by 60 percent nationally, and nearly 40 percent in America's top 10 cities over the past decade. The flood of English-only initiatives and laws in California, Alabama and elsewhere will not change the surge to enshrine Spanish as America's second first language.

Ubiquity of Spanish: In Los Angeles, Phoenix, Albuquerque, San Antonio and dozens of other cities in the South and West, there are legions of Spanish-language ads on billboards and buses. There are street signs, media broadcasts and school texts in Spanish. Many employers are learning Spanish to better communicate with their Latino workers.

Economic clout: The disposable income of Latinos soared to nearly $1 trillion during the 1990s. Credit card, shipping and communications companies, trade and tourist associations, hotels, airlines and sports franchises are now feverishly marketing products to snatch a bigger share of their dollars.

Political power: Latinos make up about 5 percent of the vote nationally, and their numbers continue to grow. Two of America's biggest cities, San Antonio and Miami, have Latino mayors. Nationally, there are now more than 5,000 Latino elected officials.

Bush strategists figure that if they can up their total of Latino votes by as little as 5 percent, they will hammer the Democrats in Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico and Florida. In the 2000 presidential election, Gore and Bush won razor-thin victories in those states.

"The National Survey of Latinos: The Latino Electorate," conducted in 2002 by the Pew Hispanic Center, found that one-fifth of Latinos are Republicans. Republicans bank that even more Latino voters will stampede to the GOP in 2004, mostly because of Bush.

As governor, Bush did more than any other Republican politician in recent years to woo and win Latino voters in Texas. And as president, his emphasis on warm U.S.-Mexican relations, his plan to loosen restrictions on undocumented immigrants and his Spanish campaign ads have washed away much of the bad taste left in the mouths of many Latino voters by past Republican opposition to affirmative action and immigrant rights.

Moreover, former Bush administration U.S. Treasurer Rosario Marin's spirited but losing run for the Republican Senate nomination was a good sign that diversity will increasingly become a watchword among California Republicans.

The more optimistic within the GOP now even talk about giving the Democrats a horse race for the Latino vote in California. Though the majority of Latinos in past California elections voted Democrat, there are some chinks in the party's armor.

During the recall election, Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger corralled more than one-quarter of the Latino vote. Latinos did not buy the Democrats' paternalistic and insulting political ploy to give illegal immigrants driver's licenses. And Republicans will play hard on Schwarzenegger's popularity among Latinos to help Bush in the state.

The Democrats, meanwhile, won't stand idly by and watch Bush erode their traditional support among Latinos. They will push their legion of Latino Democratic politicians to exhort Latino voters to punch the Democratic ticket. But Bush's Spanish media ads are a warning to the Democrats that the Latino vote is no longer in their hip pocket.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a political analyst and author of "The Crisis in Black and Black." He hosts a weekly talk show on KPFK Radio, 90.7 FM. This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Daily News.

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