Chasing the Latino Vote

While talking heads bray about whether Tecate's "Finally, a cold Latina" slogan is offensive or complimentary, a far more important national campaign to gain market share among Latinos has been underway for several months now.

But the New Democrat Network's "Hispanic project" is not targeted to changing what beer Latinos are drinking. Rather, NDN's new outreach program is focused on the partisan commitments of the nation's largest ethnic group, and what they are thinking.

Since December, NDN has been saturating Latino communities in four battleground states with a series of television ads, in both English and Spanish, aimed at instilling or reinforcing Democratic support among the ethnic voting bloc that everyone from NDN president Simon Rosenberg to Bush political adviser Karl Rove believes can break the current partisan deadlock.

"This is not about reaching out to an ethnic minority group," says Rosenberg, matter-of-factly. "This is about building a national party majority."

Rosenberg founded NDN in 1996 as part of the third-way political movement fostered by Bill Clinton. And although the Latino community surely was part of the original calculus of a new progressive politics, the niche that NDN has recently carved out for itself with this project is as visionary as it is surprising to many who viewed NDN as an informal, fundraising adjunct of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.

Rosenberg's efforts are bolstered by the contributions of top NDN strategists Maria Cardona and Gil Meneses, with polling support from Sergio Bendixen. This formidable cadre sees an opportunity to mobilize and persuade a good chunk of the two million Latinos who live in Arizona, Florida, Nevada and New Mexico.

Indeed, their survey research has shown that a majority of Latinos in these four states not only get their political information from Spanish-language media (from an estimated 54 percent of New Mexicans to a stunning 80 percent of Floridians), but that roughly two of every five Latinos are still persuadable.

The reason, Cardona explains, is political socialization. Much like the trend underway in white, suburban middle-class communities, many Latino families in the last two generations have simply failed to socialize their children into partisan politics (the obvious, notable exception to the declining political socialization in the United States in the last half-century is the African American community, which puts MLK photos over the mantle the way grandma used to put up FDR photos).

As a result, notes Cardona, there are at best weak political associations and partisan attachments exhibited by recently-immigrated Latinos, or first-generation children who have reached or are approaching voting age. Unlike an older generation that can "remember the farm movement and Cesar Chavez," the newer generations comprise the swing subset within the Latino community. The ads are thus targeted at them.

Some of the NDN ads tout issues, especially education. Others introduce the current generation of rising Latino politicians, such as U.S. Representatives Bob Menendez and Loretta Sanchez. Still others are geared toward older voters with memories of Democratic presidents Jimmy Carter, John Kennedy and even Franklin Roosevelt. (When was the last time you saw a political ad showing a picture of FDR?) In another ad, a pre-teen Latina asks the President why he broke the "promesas" he made in 2000.

According to Bendixen's before-and-after surveys, the campaign is working. The partisan identification and issue-trust ratings for Latinos in Las Vegas, where NDN has run these ads, far outstrip gains made in Reno, where NDN has thus far been dark (some partisan movement over the past few months is attributable to external factors, most notably the President's waning approval numbers). Ditto for partisan movement in Albuquerque (live) relative to Sante Fe (dark).

Bendixen claims that Orlando Puerto Ricans made a net partisan swing of 27 percentage points in just over four months, a change that could have a huge impact. In his profile of Jeb Bush, the New Yorker's William Finegan reported recently that South Florida's bloc of Cuban Republicans, upon which the President's re-election depends, is showing some signs of defection.

In 2000, says Bendixen, the Bush campaign outspent Al Gore by a 5:1 margin in Spanish-language media. NDN is determined not to let that happen again: In addition to the ad buys thus far, the organization plans to raise and spend another $5 million between now and the election to blanket the new markets and reinforce in places where they have already been advertising.

As I have written previously, although the Southwest does not have as many electoral votes as the Southeast (yet), the increasing competitiveness of southwestern states make it the emergent swing region.

Indeed, look at presidential results. George H. W. Bush carried Nevada and Arizona by more than 20 percentage points in 1988; combining Ralph Nader's votes with Gore's, just three cycles later, Bush 43 carried these two states by a whisker. New Mexico went consecutively for Richard Nixon twice, Gerald Ford once, Ronald Reagan twice, and George H.W. Bush once, before the Democrats carried it during each of the past three elections. If John Kerry can hold the Gore states and pick up just Arizona (which now has two more electors), he can win the White House.

Latinos will comprise an estimated nine percent of the 2004 electorate, a share that will rise as this still-young ethnic bloc matures and expands as a share of the voting-age population. Rosenberg and NDN are paying attention, moving pro-actively to persuade there-for-the-partisan-taking Latino swing voters.

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