Four presidential battleground states have sizable Latino populations. Click enlarge for details.
There is little doubt that Hispanics will play a significant role in this year's presidential race between Barack Obama and John McCain. The Census Bureau reports an 18 percent jump in Hispanic voters in 2006, compared with the previous midterm election. They are also a big part of the population in key swing states, such as Florida, New Mexico and Colorado.
Hispanic advertising consultants were thrilled about a television spot that ran in Puerto Rico a month ago.
In it, Obama says in Spanish, "I was born on an island, and I understand that food, gas and everything costs more."
The Democratic presidential candidate does not actually speak Spanish, so the decent pronunciation in the commercial must be the product of a lot of careful effort. It is a sign of just how hard the candidates are willing to work to reach out to Hispanics.
Lionel Sosa, who creates ads aimed at Hispanics for McCain, says the Republican candidate recently spent a whole afternoon recording advertisements targeting the Hispanic population – 10 in one sitting.
"He knows how important it is. Obama knows how important it is. And I think that's for the good of the Latino community," says Sosa.
So far, the ads tend to be broad-brush appeals to Hispanic pride and patriotism, such as McCain's Memorial Day ad, which was subtitled in Spanish.
"My friends, I want you, the next time you're down in Washington, D.C., to go to the Vietnam War memorial and look at the names engraved on black granite," says McCain, in one of his advertisements. "You're going to find a lot of Hispanic names."
The major candidates' Spanish ads generally avoid specific policy proposals. McCain's commercials, in particular, do not mention his efforts to legalize the status of illegal immigrants, even though his track record would presumably win him points with Hispanics.
One Size Does Not Fit All
Then again, it is risky to presume anything about a group of voters. Mariann Davies says she resents politicians who act as if all Latinos think alike.
"The Latino vote, I really think it's a myth," says Davies, "because the Hispanic population in the United States is diverse and always has been, politically, ethnically, racially, linguistically."
Davies, whose parents came here from Ecuador, is one of the founders of "You Don't Speak for Me," a group of Hispanics opposed to what they call "amnesty" for illegal immigrants. She says second- and third-generation Hispanics do not like being pigeonholed, even on the issue of language. For instance, she is not automatically charmed by the sound of ads spoken in Spanish.
"That just cuts to one of the other issues about assimilation. If you're a citizen who votes, you know to become a citizen you have to take an English language test," she says. "So why would you have to get information in a different language?"
Following Corporate America
If candidates fear a backlash for advertising in Spanish, they do not show it. Adam Segal, director of the Hispanic Voter Project at Johns Hopkins University, says politicians can draw courage from the example of corporate America.
"Virtually every major corporation in America has massive Spanish-language outreach efforts, marketing, advertising, so I'm not sure it will cause an uproar if a Republican candidate created an ad in Spanish," says Segal. "I think the real issue is, where are they on the issues?"
With a growing number of media outlets, even as Spanish political ads multiply, they are becoming less visible to English speakers. Especially this year, as political marketing migrates to cell phones.
"I'm looking at the data right now — and, of those who send or receive a text message on a daily basis, 73 percent of Hispanics do, while only 53 percent of whites do across the board," says Jed Alpert, CEO of Mobile Commons, a company that sets up text messaging systems for political campaigns.
Those numbers have been noticed by the campaigns. The McCain campaign is planning to reach out to Hispanics with text messages, but on this, the competition is out in front: If you text Obama the letters E-S-P, you are automatically signed up for campaign updates ... en Espanol.