The Key to the White House

Every day America discovers something new, unique, or enticing about Hispanic Americans. One untold story, unfortunately, is the fact that presidential candidates generally have not yet turned to Hispanic media to reach Latino voters. Hispanic print, radio and television – even new media – are important, and could be the key to the door of the White House. Univision’s presidential “debate” last September drew more viewers than any other candidate forum, illustrating vividly the power of Hispanic media.

The prize is not small. Some 17 million Hispanics are registered, and close to 10 million are expected to vote next year, affecting outcomes at all levels. Turnout in key states – California, Florida, Illinois, New York, Texas and others – could spell victory or defeat. How to reach Latinos, therefore, is of growing importance.

Studies show that even English-dominant Hispanics – the large majority of those registered – rely heavily on Latino media, including English language publications. Univision has partnered with Voto Latino, founded by actress Rosario Dawson, to promote voter registration and participation. Other groups, such as the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, are also driving voter registration and the vote. If audiences get the message, the result will translate into increased advertising sales. In 2004 Univision earned $16 million in campaign ad revenues. Still, the network contends, the numbers are not commensurate with the size of the Latino vote and the influence that Univision, among other media, can have on voters.

The National Association of Hispanic Publications (NAHP), with more than 15 million readers and 180 members, also expects to see increased ad revenues. Dailies La Opinión in Los Angeles, El Diario-La Prensa in New York, El Nuevo Herald in Miami and others, and more than 100 weeklies throughout the country, and monthly magazines such as Vista (1 million circulation), Hispanic (250,000 circulation), Hispanic Business (225,000 circulation) and (125,000 circulation), are at the ready.

Says Tom Oliver of the National Hispanic Press Foundation, the research and philanthropic arm of the NAHP, “Our polling sources show that Hispanics view TV and newspaper coverage as the most trusted sources of news about their community. Our national magazine study found Hispanics twice as likely to trust news from periodicals they ‘like’ than the average American.”

Although Democrats recognize the importance of the Hispanic vote, and every candidate has a senior Hispanic campaign advisor, this has not translated – yet – in advertising in Hispanic media. GOP leaders, on the other hand, may have abandoned any hope of capturing the Latino vote in 2008, notwithstanding George Bush having garnered about 40 percent of the vote – twice!

Recent surveys, adds Oliver, report a steady erosion of Hispanic support, with Democrats perceived increasingly as more attuned to Latino concerns. GOP candidates spurned the annual conference invitations of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials and other national groups. Mitt Romney, however, has television ads featuring his son in accented Spanish, and GOP candidates are using Spanish language radio to target the Republican Cubans and other voters in Florida.

The GOP, however, must contend with the resignation of Florida Senator Mel Martínez from the GOP chairmanship recently because of the party’s failure to address immigration issues responsibly. The GOP’s other “showcase” Latino, former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, was forced to resign, major negatives in rapid succession that affect the capacity of the party to appeal to Latino voters.

Says political analyst Roberto de Posada, “The GOP gets it; but it often boils down to a choice about how best to use campaign budgets, especially so early on. It’s a cost-benefit issue.” Although websites are not media in a traditional sense, many observers point out that candidates from both parties have Spanish language website that range in quality from highly robust and high quality to mediocre.

On December 9, Univision hosted the Republican candidates – in English. Colorado’s Tom Tancredo, who has made immigration control his issue, refused to participate, saying that elections should be in English only. Despite his views, Spanish is our second language (corporate America confirms this every day). Mr. Tancredo and his fellow travelers need to be reminded that many Latino media are in English, including magazines mentioned here.

This leaves the Democrats with a largely open, uncontested field in terms of access to and use of Hispanic media. Republican strategies may be relying heavily on their canvassing and grass roots capabilities, since in the past two presidential campaigns they outperformed Democrats in this area. The eventual Republican nominee, of course, could very well decide that the Latino vote is important and that reaching it through Hispanic media should be a campaign priority. For now, regrettably, neither party is playing in the Latino media game.

Now, if 70% of the 10 million Latino voters are English dominant, why should candidates try to appeal to them through Hispanic media? Research shows that even English dominant Hispanics are influenced by their own media. In addition, the fact that a candidate advertises in Hispanic media tells the likely voter: “I know you, I understand you, I respect your views, and I am responsive to your concerns.”

Speaking Spanish is not an issue. Bill Richardson, the sole Latino candidate, and Senator Chris Dodd speak Spanish fluently but lag in the polls largely because of the media pull of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Latinos look kindly on people who attempt to speak Spanish or profess a desire to learn it. Candor – “I don’t speak Spanish” – coupled with desire – “I want to learn it” – goes a long way.

Latinos, like all voters, want to believe that the candidate to whom they will give their vote cares about their concerns and is going to address them. For most that may mean better jobs, more opportunities, better housing, better educations, more affordable access to health care and housing, access to credit and humanitarian treatment of immigrants.

As for print, fine dailies and weeklies are not yet fully in the game. Despite the fact that Hispanic print has a pass-along rate of about 4 persons (vs. one for mainstream print), that ad space is far less costly than in mainstream print, that Hispanic print remains in the home or the office for several days rather than a day or two, they have not attracted the commensurate investment by candidates.

Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, Patti Solís Doyle, whose parents are Mexican immigrants, knows about Latino media and the Latino vote – and Hillary Clinton will surely benefit from her husband’s popularity among Hispanics and in Latin America and, hence, among new Americans. Hispanic, Spanish-speaking Bill Richardson admitted early in his campaign that he was not well known among Latino voters and needed to turn to Hispanic media to change that.

If Hispanics are poised to determine the outcome of the 2008 elections, if they rely heavily on their own media, if Univision can outdraw the networks, and if Voto Latino and other Hispanic groups are pushing the vote, candidates should be looking at Hispanic media to attract Hispanics. Reaching Latinos in this way could well be the key that opens the front door of the White House.

Marcela Miguel Berland is founder and president of LatinInsights, a New York-based Hispanic research and strategic communications firm.