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Democrats Seek Key To Unlock Hispanic Votes… Hispanic Clout Out Of Proportion

Democrats Seek Key To Unlock Hispanic Votes



May 9, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Media General Inc. All rights reserved.

WASHINGTON - Florida Democrats rolled their eyes last month when President Bush launched a drive for Hispanic votes at a Latino-themed restaurant popular with tourists in Orlando.

Winning over Hispanics, the president's opponents said, takes more than an event laced with salsa and Spanish singers. Bush didn't even appear in person.

Democrats contend they're the ones in the best shape to compete for such votes. They know Florida's Republican- leaning Cuban Americans are outnumbered today by Hispanics from other backgrounds - Democratic-leaning Puerto Ricans, Mexican Americans and South American immigrants. Many live in the state's politically pivotal Interstate 4 corridor.

Democrats also have deeper pockets than they had four years ago. Already, they have matched the $500,000 spent by the Bush campaign on two months of Spanish-language TV and radio ads in Tampa, Orlando and Miami.

Yes, Democrats figure things are looking good, except for one point: Gov. Jeb Bush.

"He's good - very, very good. We've got a tough challenge. Jeb Bush is about as perfect a spokesman as you can come up with,'' said Sergio Bendixen, a Florida pollster assisting an ad campaign by Democratic Party insiders that aims to match Republicans dollar-for-dollar in Florida, Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico.

The president's brother has a personal touch with many Latinos. He can and does campaign in Spanish, often at Hispanic churches and social organizations. His wife is a native Mexican, and he speaks of his children's ethnic heritage.

It's a "high-touch strategy that enables him to make people feel he cares about them, and it's communicated with effective advertising,'' Bendixen said.

The result is that supporters of presidential challenger John Kerry are scouting desperately for a star who can deliver the Democratic message to Hispanics in Florida and other swing-voting states.

The messenger matters, say experts such as William Benoit, a University of Missouri communications professor who specializes in presidential campaign advertising.

"There's a lot of evidence that the source of a message can influence the message's persuasiveness,'' Benoit said. ``I don't know if you can overcome Jeb Bush. You can certainly try to counterbalance him.''

But with whom?

That's what Democratic insiders began trying to figure out last month at meetings in the Washington headquarters of the New Democratic Network, the advocacy group that has spent about $500,000 on Spanish ads in Florida.

Should the spokesman be Bill Richardson, the charismatic governor of New Mexico, a former member of President Clinton's Cabinet?

Or maybe Bob Menendez, a New Jersey congressman well- known in Washington but hardly famous in Ybor City?

What about Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez, a Cuban American known to some Floridians, whose extortion conviction could taint the effort even though the case was dropped after an appeal and two hung juries?

"Whoever it is,'' Bendixen said, ``a spokesperson for Florida in this campaign is a must. You can't take on Jeb Bush in Florida with just commercials and actors and slogans and music. You have to have somebody who is real and credible, speaking to you, the viewer.''

Standard Strategies

So far, the ads on Univision and Telemundo affiliates in Florida have been plentiful but primitive - and devoid of any messenger.

One ad relies on images of past Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton in an attempt to show Democrats are leaders who can restore hope, fight for human rights and make the nation prosperous.

``Only with the Democrats will we have a better life,'' the voice-over declares.

Another ad focuses on what Bendixen identified as key issues for Florida Hispanics: job losses, health care and lack of money for schools.

The president hasn't delivered on his promises - ``no a cumplido con nosotros,'' the narrator intones.

Cuba's Fidel Castro is not mentioned.

Florida's Hispanic population has been treated for years as a Cuban-American monolith that delivers votes as a bloc. Politicians continue to treat Cuban-Americans with deference, and candidates such as Cuban-American Mel Martinez in the Republican U.S. Senate primary are seen as having a natural edge in South Florida.

Larry Klayman, a Miami lawyer also competing for the Republican Senate nomination, offered an example of that strategy last month when he issued a statement timed to the anniversary of the case of Elian Gonzalez, the Cuban boy who survived a passage to the United States only to be returned to Castro's communist dictatorship.

A Klayman publicist told voters that the candidate had ``worked to prevent this atrocity.''

Despite the continued influence of Cuban Americans, Florida's Hispanic vote has diversified as numbers have soared to an estimated 800,000 to 1 million registered voters, or one in 10 of the state's 9.3 million total.

Demographic Differences

Cuban heritage is claimed by 41 percent of Florida Hispanics, compared to 18 percent from Puerto Rico, 17 percent from Mexico and 13 percent from South America. Four years ago, Puerto Ricans and many of those others generally backed Democrat Al Gore over Bush.

There are ``some signals,'' Bendixen said, that a strategy rooted in jobs, education and health care issues can win the Democrats as much as 15 percent support among Florida Cubans, primarily those who left the island after 1980.

``Will Cubans stop being powerful? They still have a half-million votes,'' Bendixen said. ``They know how to play politics, how to raise money and work the national press. They're sophisticated political players. It's hard to say they now have no power.''

However, he said, ``they're going to have less power, and groups like South Americans and maybe the Dominicans will gain more over the next 10 years. It's a definite trend, and the changing demographics represent an opportunity.''

Hispanic Clout Out Of Proportion

Hispanic political clout growing, but still not in line with size of community


June 30, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved.

  PHOENIX (AP) -- The Hispanic community's political clout isn't proportional to the size of its population, but the nation's largest minority group is gradually gaining influence, several Latino leaders said Tuesday.

   Even though politicians across the country are courting Hispanics, one of the Latino community's biggest political challenges is raising its voter turnout, said leaders at the National Council of La Raza's convention in Phoenix.

   Presumed Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry had been scheduled to speak Tuesday to the group, which is dedicated to promoting Latino issues.

   Hispanic turnout is poor because of low voter interest, some Latinos aren't legal citizens and a significant portion of the community is too young to cast ballots, the leaders said.

   "You have got immigrant groups that you are going to (have to) wait for the second generation, who always have a greater degree of participation than the first," said Alex Zermeno, board chairman for the Unity Council in Oakland, Calif.

   Latinos, who vote at a lower percentage than other minority groups, should have a greater influence in many elections, said Adam J. Segal, director of the Hispanic Voter Project at Johns Hopkins University.

   "The end result of this is that Hispanic voters have less true direct representation, and as a result their issues are not as focused on as they should be," Segal said from his office in Washington, D.C.

   Even though Hispanic political advances are happening at a slower pace than they should, Latinos are becoming more politically astute, even in places not thought of as bastions for Latinos, Segal said.

   Latinos are gaining more influence across the nation, though the momentum is stronger in certain regions, said George Martinez, an official with the Oro Development Corp., a nonprofit agency in Oklahoma whose clients include migrant workers.

   "The political clout in Oklahoma is not what we would like for it to be," Martinez said. "We are getting there slowly."

   Ronnie Perez, a counselor from Phoenix, said he believes Hispanic clout is in line with the size of the country's Latino population, but that voter participation remains a big problem.

   "(Hispanics) may not feel their vote makes a difference, and it's also that they may not feel that the issues that are currently being discussed are relevant to them," said Ruth Armendariz, recruiter for a bank.

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