The GOP's Latino strategy

Bush's brain trust tells the party that Hispanics can be lured away from Democrats the way the South was decades ago.

Published January 13, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Republican consultant Lance Tarrance, a chief architect of the GOP's 1960s and '70s "Southern strategy," sees big changes ahead for the Grand Old Party. "For the last three decades, we've had a Southern strategy," Tarrance said Wednesday. "The next goal is to move to a Hispanic strategy for the next three decades."

That's the sales pitch Tarrance gave to the Republican National Committee leadership, which is gathered in San Jose, Calif., for its annual winter meetings through Saturday. If the pitch sounds revolutionary, it is. Whether it will sell is another matter entirely. But Tarrance has the blessing and endorsement of presidential front-runner George W. Bush and RNC Chairman Jim Nicholson.

"The thinking is very much like it was in the South in the '60s," Tarrance said. "It's this whole idea that Phil Gramm and others eventually came around to, that 'I didn't leave the Democratic Party, the Party left me.' We think there is a similar message that may cause that reaction among Hispanics."

The focus makes demographic sense. Latinos are the nation's fastest growing ethnic group: There are currently 31.5 million Latinos in the United States, and the number is expected to skyrocket, to 96.5 million by 2050. Some estimate that Hispanics will make up 25 percent of the entire U.S. population by 2025, and a plurality of California's population.

A new U.S. Census Bureau report released Wednesday revealed that Hispanics will replace African-Americans as the nation's largest minority group by 2005. That year, Hispanics will make up 13.3 percent of the national population, compared to 13.1 for blacks. Latinos already outnumber blacks in California and Texas.

The political clout of Latinos, like that of African-Americans, is reduced by the fact that the group tends to vote less regularly than whites. But that may be changing. In 1990, Latinos made up 7 percent of the voting population in California. By 1998, they were 14 percent. Nationwide, the rise in Latino voting is mirroring the explosive population boom: An estimated 4.2 million Latinos went to the polls in 1992, according to numbers from the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute. In the upcoming presidential election, 5.5 million Latinos are expected to vote, according to their projections.

RNC communications director Clifford May says Tarrance's appeal makes sense for the GOP, and for Hispanics. Democrats, he said, are "old guard. The Democratic Party is the party of the poor, oppressed and those who want to be oppressed."

But the buzz about this "new Latino strategy" also calls attention to the reality that, on the whole, American Hispanics remain overwhelmingly Democratic.

Tarrance is on a mission to change that. He said that after the 1994 and '98 election cycles, his party is ready to hear what he has to say about the importance of the Hispanic vote to Republicans.

In 1998, for example, Republican gubernatorial nominee Dan Lungren received only 19 percent of California's Latino vote. Lungren was thumped at the polls, and brought down most of the state's Republican Party with him. U.S. Senate candidate Matt Fong was creamed by incumbent Barbara Boxer, and only two Republican incumbents were elected to statewide office.

Meanwhile, in Texas Gov. George W. Bush coasted to an easy victory, taking anywhere from 40 to 50 percent of the state's Hispanic vote with him. Thanks in large part to Bush's wide coattails, all 28 statewide officers in Texas are now Republican.

"This might make the Republican Party a very different party," Tarrance said. "For the first time, we're entering into coalition politics. You'd be surprised how many Republicans don't understand what the word coalition means."

Leading the way with Tarrance are the two Latino media gurus who led Bush to victory in Texas, Lionel Sosa and Frank Guerra. Sosa did all of the Hispanic-targeted ads for the Bush campaigns in 1994 and 1998. Guerra handled the soft money ads, doing Hispanic targeting for the Texas Republican Party. That formula is being replicated on the national level this year. Sosa has signed on for the Bush for President campaign, while Guerra has been placed in charge of Hispanic media outreach for the Republican National Committee.

"We are building a mass movement," Guerra said. "Mass movements start with a charismatic leader, but they need rank and file movements to sustain them. We already have our charismatic leader in George W. Bush. Now we have to work on building the ground troops. The party has to do its part."

But even within the Bush Latino brain trust, there are very different schools of thought about how to reach Hispanic voters. Sosa is a firm believer in the power of Spanish-language media, while Guerra, who has also run media campaigns for Republican Rep. Henry Bonilla of Texas, says he has never run a single Spanish-language ad in any of his campaigns, and believes Latino outreach is more effective in English.

The pair downplay the disagreement. "Lionel and I are trying to achieve some different things," Guerra said, "but we're really in lock step. My job is to get Hispanics reintroduced to the Republican Party. I think the best way to do that is to use stories to send messages -- show Hispanics people who are meaningful to them."

A new poll, commissioned by the RNC and conducted by Tarrance, with help from Sosa and Guerra, was released in San Jose Thursday, and revealed some intriguing facts about Hispanic voters. For one thing the survey, which targeted likely voters in the next election, showed that more than 80 percent of Hispanics get their information in English.

Sosa, who is known for his focus on Spanish-lanuage media, offered a concession when asked what language American Latinos speak. "It's both," he said. "But new immigrants are more likely to be conservative than the Hispanics who have been in this country for two or three generations. And those people, we have to target in Spanish."

In a compromise, the RNC released a new ad Thursday, put together by Guerra in both English and Spanish. Sosa said that Bush has seen and given the unofficial thumbs-up to the ad. If nothing else, the P.R. boost from Spanish-language ads continues to be huge among the mainstream English language media. Remember Bush's announcement of Spanish-language radio ads in Iowa?

Sosa and Guerra do agree that conventional political wisdom about Latinos -- that the party should appeal to them on conservative social issues -- is wrong. For years, the standard Republican riff on Latinos has been that, since they are predominantly Catholic and pro-family, they would be attracted by the Republican message on issues like abortion. But Tarrance, Guerra and Sosa all said something very different Wednesday night. The new Republican strategy for targeting Hispanics is on economic issues.

"The three most important issues for Hispanics are getting a college education for their children, buying a home and earning enough money to share with other members of their family," Tarrance said, citing statistics from the new poll. "Now, is there any other ethnic group that you can say that about? Hispanics want the American dream, and they see opportunity through the eyes of their children."

Sosa honed in on the fact that Hispanics do not just value education, they place a premium on higher education. When asked if that meant we would soon see George W. Bush talking about college opportunity, Sosa said, "Absolutely. You bet."

The subtext was clear: Tax cuts will be the focus of the Bush campaign through New Hampshire, where Bush faces a stiff challenge from Arizona Sen. John McCain, and where cutting taxes is a religion. But as the campaign spreads into more issue-oriented and ethnically diverse states, Bush will return to his focus on education, and will be talking a lot about colleges and universities.

But Guerra said the work he, Tarrance and Sosa are doing is not necessarily predicated on George W. Bush being the Republican presidential nominee -- though it is clear they all are banking and rooting for him. "The great thing is, whether it's McCain or Bush, they both get this stuff," Guerra said.

But Guerra and Sosa both have their work cut out for them in California, where the specter of xenophobic initiative campaigns throughout the 1990s continues to haunt and hurt Republicans. "I'm under no false illusions," Guerra said. "We have to set in motion a psychological change -- show them that we're not all bad guys."

In short, it has taken a group of outsiders from Texas to tell Republicans in California -- the state with the nation's largest Latino population -- how to speak to them. "I've been waiting 10 years for this in California," said Mike Madrid, a former political director of the California Republican Party who often butted heads with the party leadership over Latino strategy. "These guys get it."

And though he wouldn't say it himself, the implied kicker was clear: Republicans in California don't get it. But that is changing. Bush ally Jim Brulte, finance chair of the state Republican Party, was working closely with Sosa and Guerra, and was scheduled to be on hand for a press conference where the poll will be released Thursday.

It is no accident that these new ads and the new survey are being unveiled in California. Republicans have had a horrific time reaching the state's Latinos, but they are pivotal to the party's success. Tarrance, Sosa and Guerra all agreed that if Republicans capture 35 percent of the California Latino vote, they're on their way to the White House.

To achieve this ultimate goal, Madrid has begun a new kind of advertising targeted at possible Latino Republicans, sending out mailers in a mixture of Spanish and English in districts with moderate to conservative Latino voters. These mailers and other kinds of ethnic targeted advertising seem to be gaining support among this new Republican Hispanic marketing cabal, and will likely manifest in future Republican ad campaigns.

Madrid talked about developing ads that may be targeted at Latinos, but have universal appeal, like the Taco Bell ads featuring the Spanglish-speaking Chihuahua. He used an example of two hypothetical McDonald's ads, one with Anglos and one with Latinos. In the Anglo spot, a kid hits a home run, is met by his father at home plate, where they exchange a high-five. In the next shot, the two are seen hovering over Happy Meals. In the Latino-targeted spot, a Latino kid hits a homerun, is met by his father at home plate, who promptly hoists him into the air, and gives him a hug and a kiss. In the next shot, the two are seen hovering over Happy Meals.

"The point is, if you're Anglo and you see the second ad, you're still going to respond to it. But if you're Hispanic, you're going to respond to it on an entirely different level. It's subtle, but it's important." That is the added bonus of English-language over Spanish language advertising.

Neither Sosa nor Guerra knew how much money the Bush campaign or the RNC was willing to spend on these new ads, or how many would be produced.

All this may be a revelation for California Republicans, but it is not new to Democrats. While the plans of Tarrance, Sosa and Guerra are more advanced than anything currently underway within either Al Gore or Bill Bradley's campaigns, California Democratic strategists have been successfully speaking to Latinos for a long time.

Consultant Darry Sragow first seized on the education issue among Los Angeles Latinos, depending on Latinos to pass a $2 billion local school bond in 1997 (Prop BB). "We've known for a long time that education is a big issue in this community," Sragow said. "It's near or at the top of the list."

Sragow also ran the failed gubernatorial campaign of Al Checchi, who made targeting Latinos a central part of his primary-campaign strategy. While the strategy ultimately backfired, Sragow said, "the Checchi campaign upped the ante. Before, the way these things worked was that you made your media buys, and if you had money left over, you bought a little Spanish-language radio and some black radio, basically as a gesture. The Checchi campaign made it critical to spend serious money on Spanish-language advertising."

Checchi may have broken ground in California, but perhaps that is another indication of how both Democrats and Republicans in California are behind the Texas curve. Bush dedicated millions to a Spanish-language offensive choreographed by Sosa in 1998.

But the jury is still out on the effectiveness of Spanish-language ads. In the Checchi campaign, journalist Gregory Rodriguez points out, it was now Gov. Gray Davis who received the largest chunk of the Latino vote -- and he spent the least on Spanish-language media. Those results, mixed with the new thinking of Guerra and Madrid, are sure to set off a huge fight for advertising dollars among media networks, both English and Spanish language, that claim to have the eyes and ears of this burgeoning, and increasingly pivotal, segment of the voting population.

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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