The Hispanic Power Outage

This year, candidates all over the country reached out to Hispanic voters. A record $16 million was spent on Spanish-language television ads, according to the Hispanic Voter Project at Johns Hopkins University. Three times as many candidates ran Spanish TV ads than in any previous election year.

What did all that attention 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 remarked at a conference on Hispanic voters last month in Baltimore. "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 in the state dropped for the first time since 1986. In 1998, Hispanics accounted for 13 percent of the California vote. This year, they accounted for 10 percent. The African-American share fell 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 percent to 76 percent.

The Los Angeles Times estimates that 350,000 fewer Hispanics voted this year in California than did four years ago. Democratic Gov. Gray Davis ended up with 1.7 million fewer votes than he received in 1998, while Republican gubernatorial nominee Bill Simon Jr. got about 400,000 fewer votes than the GOP standard-bearer in 1998. The Times says that a "mass voter boycott" took place in California this year, especially among minorities.

Across the country, five candidates for governor spent at least $1 million on Spanish TV ads. How did they fare? 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 million) lost in New York.

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 Florida Republican Gov. Jeb Bush ($1.8 million) was a big winner. "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, [and] 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-50s [percent range] of the non-Cuban Hispanic vote."

Guerra's firm created the banderas ("flags") ad campaign, featuring images of the flags of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, and Nicaragua, followed by Gov. Bush saying 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 the Hispanic-oriented spending pay off in higher Hispanic turnout across the country? Democrat Bendixen has an answer: "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. They have canceled their public-affairs shows."

Nevertheless, it looks as if Republicans in New York and Texas, as well as Florida, made big gains among Hispanic voters. How? By competing on an issue of paramount importance to Hispanic voters-education. Republican George E. Pataki ran a Spanish-language education ad: "Governor Pataki cares about our children." Similarly, Republican Rick Perry of Texas ran an ad declaring, "Governor Perry really cares about our kids."

Perry's challenger was Tony Sanchez, a wealthy Mexican-American Democrat. In Texas, a Republican candidate needs to get at least 30 percent of the Hispanic vote to win. "We believe Rick Perry ... captured 35 percent," Guerra said.

Bendixen maintains that Republicans have found an effective 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," he said. "That's a sure way to destroy their candidacy."

It worked last year, when James Hahn ran an explosively negative ad against Antonio Villaraigosa in the Los Angeles mayoral race: "Fact: The father of a convicted crack cocaine dealer contributed money to Antonio Villaraigosa. Fact: Villaraigosa wrote the White House pardon office claiming he was wrongly convicted." The drugs tactic may have worked again this year in Texas, where Perry ran this ad against Sanchez: "Tony 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. Only 40 percent of English-language ads were positive. Researchers say that Hispanics respond poorly to negative ads. But those ads work with other voters, especially, it appears, when they're used against Hispanic candidates.