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Jewish World Review Dec. 6, 2002 / 1 Teves, 5763

Bill Schneider

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Hispanic voting surprises | This year, candidates and parties all over the country reached out to Hispanic voters in an unprecedented way. More than 16 million dollars was spent on Spanish-language television ads -- a record, according the Hispanic Voter Project at Johns Hopkins University.

Three times as many candidates ran Spanish-language TV ads than in any previous election year.

But what did all that attention and all that money result in? Some big surprises.

"I think the 2002 elections were definitely a negative factor for the development of Latino political power in the United States,'' Democratic political consultant Sergio Bendixen observed at a conference on Hispanic voters last month in Baltimore. The reason? Turnout.

"Everybody agrees Latino turnout was down in California, down in Florida, down in Colorado,'' Bendixen said.

Take California. According to Los Angeles Times exit polls, the Hispanic share of the vote dropped this year for the first time since 1986. In 1998, Hispanics accounted for 13 percent of the California vote. This year, they were 10 percent. The African-American share dropped even more sharply, from 13 percent in 1998 to 4 percent in 2002. Only the white share of the California vote went up, from 64 to 76 percent.

The L.A. Times estimates that 350,000 fewer Hispanics voted this year than four years ago in California. Democrat Gray Davis ended up with 1.7 million fewer votes than he got in 1998, while Republican Bill Simon, Jr., got about 400,000 fewer votes than the GOP contender in 1998. The Times called it a "mass voter boycott'' this year in California, especially among minority voters.

Across the country, five candidates for governor spent at least $1 million on Spanish-language television ads. But how did they do? The top spender, Independent Tom Galisano ($2.4 million), came in third in New York. Democrat Tony Sanchez ($1.8 million) lost in Texas. Democrat Carl McCall ($1.0 million) lost in New York.

Gray Davis ($1.7 million) won California, but by a smaller-than-expected margin. And his share of the Hispanic vote was down from four years ago (71 percent in 1998, 65 percent in 2002).

Only Jeb Bush in Florida ($1.8 million) was a big winner. Especially with non-Cuban Hispanics. "Non-Cuban Hispanics have been one of the base constituencies of the Democratic Party in Florida,'' Bendixen said. "They defected and went with Jeb Bush this time around.''

Republican political consultant Frank Guerra agreed. "We're talking about a huge population surge of Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Salvadorans, South and Central Americans in Florida,'' Guerra said. "That was the key to this race. We're convinced that when the vote is carefully examined, Governor Bush will have captured in the mid- to high-fifties [percent range] of the non-Cuban Hispanic vote.''

Guerra's firm created the "banderas'' ("flags'') campaign, featuring ads with images of the flags of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Nicaragua, followed by Gov. Bush speaking in Spanish: "We all want a better life. Together, we are making it happen in this place we call home. Florida. Our home.''

Why didn't all that spending pay off in higher Hispanic turnout across the U.S.?

Democrat Bendixen thinks the answer is less news coverage of politics by Spanish-language TV. "Spanish networks are not giving politics and the elections the importance they used to in the 1980s and '90s, when empowering Hispanic America was a major objective,'' Bendixen observed. "They have canceled their public affairs shows.''

Another surprise: it looks like Republicans in New York and Texas, as well as Florida, made big gains with Hispanic voters. How? By competing on an issue of paramount importance to Hispanic voters -- education. Republican George Pataki ran a Spanish-language education ad in New York: "Governor Pataki cares about our children.'' So did Republican Rick Perry in Texas: "Governor Perry really cares about our kids.''

Perry's opponent was Tony Sanchez, a wealthy Mexican-American Democrat. In Texas, a Republican candidate needs to get 30 percent of the Hispanic vote to win. "We believe Rick Perry will have captured 35 percent of the Hispanic vote'' Guerra said. A remarkable showing against a well-funded Hispanic candidate.

Bendixen claims Republicans have also found a way to run against Hispanic candidates. "When a Latino gets close to being able to win a contest in a state or a district or a city where the majority of voters is not Hispanic, the common attack now is drugs,'' Bendixen said. "That's a sure way to destroy their candidacy.''

It worked last year when James Hahn ran an explosive negative ad against Antonio Villagairosa in the race for mayor of Los Angeles:

"Fact -- the father of a convicted crack cocaine dealer contributed money to Antonio Villagairosa. Fact -- Villagairosa wrote the White House pardon office claiming he was wrongly convicted.'' It may have worked again this year in Texas, where Perry ran this ad against Sanchez: "Toney Sanchez wants to run Texas like his businesses. But after Sanchez's bank was used to launder drug money, his bank failed.''

The Johns Hopkins researchers found that 88 percent of Spanish-language TV ads were positive. By comparison, only 40 percent of English-language ads were positive. Researchers say Hispanics are less partisan than other voters and respond poorly to negative ads. But those ads work with other voters. Especially, it appears, when they're used against Hispanic candidates.

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© 2002, William Schneider