Republicans say hola!

New TV pitch to California Latinos is an "optimistic" soft sell.

Published April 7, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

Political advertising is not known for being subtle, but that is the only way to describe a new ad released by the Republican National Committee Wednesday aimed at California Latino voters. The ad only uses the word "Republican" twice. It features a young, first generation Mexican-American woman named Christina Bustos, stressing the values of political independence. Even when the dreaded R-word is used, it is not in the context of an overt political pitch.

"I've always been independent, but lately, I've been hearing from the Republicans about education, opportunity and family," she says. "This year, I plan to keep an open mind and vote for the best person -- and that includes Republicans."

When someone drops a few hundred-thousand dollars on a political ad that urges voters to be thoughtful, open-minded and carefully consider their options, you know something strange is going on.

This ad, the second in a series of soft money ads by the Republican National Committee, is "asking Latino voters to keep an open mind," says RNC spokesman Mike Collins. And, Collins says, it's "specifically oriented toward California."

That's because the ad, and another one aimed at Latinos airing in Texas, says much about how Republicans think they can win support. According to RNC media consultant Frank Guerra, who produced the ad, "In California, asking them to keep an open mind is really the most important thing we can do," he said. "This ad, in essence, is a handshake. It's there to tell folks that we're here, we want to communicate to you, we want you to keep an open mind about what it is we have to say over time. But for this population, it's important to get there first and just reintroduce ourselves and
say hello. Republicans have more of a history in Texas."

"Reintroduce" is certainly the key word, because the history Republicans have in California with Latinos is not a good one.
Guerra's euphemistic language understates what the new ad really is -- damage control. In 1994 there was a very different set of ads receiving the flood of media attention. Those ads, run by Gov. Pete Wilson during his bid for reelection, showed blurred images of immigrants crossing the Mexican-American border, with a deep voice-over warning ominously, "They keep coming."

It was those ads, and the issue of cracking down on illegal immigration -- and, many argued, demonizing Mexican immigrants along the way -- that led to a sharp spike in Latino registration in the state and placed California Republicans in the hole among the state's booming Latino population. Before the ads ran, Latinos comprised 7 percent of the California electorate. By 1998, that number had doubled and the vast majority were voting Democrat.

While the Republicans are urging contemplation and careful reconsideration, the Democrats, predictably, are using the proverbial baseball bat to whack the GOP over the head and remind the public of 1994. In January, at an RNC meeting in San Jose that screened these new ads, Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., showed up in order to vow not to "let our Latino children be used as props."

Wednesday, California Democratic Party political director Bob Mullholland was on hand to dismiss the GOP effort. "This is the party of Pete Wilson, Proposition 187 and Bush Junior's close, personal friend Bob Jones, who calls Catholicism a cult," said the ever-understated Mulholland.

While the Democratic Party preps for jihad in California the Republicans have released a product that is the result of tedious testing and focus groups. Up through the final days and hours before the ad's release, there was a careful parsing of language. Some phrases were eliminated for fear they were too strongly worded, while the Republican theme was soft-pedaled for fears of reminding voters of the Wilson years.

Whey they finally focus-group tested the spots, Republican sources
say they were surprised, and thrilled, to find that memories of Wilson and Prop. 187 had faded, and that the anger against the party in particular has apparently ebbed. (When asked if he thought Latinos would remember the Wilson years, however, Mullholland responded, "they will when we go up on television to remind them.")

Still, it is more than Wilson that separates California Hispanics from Texas Hispanics. Latinos in Texas have generally been in the country longer, are more affluent and are historically more a part of the culture, according to Guerra.

As a result, the difference between the RNC spots airing in the two states could not be more striking, illuminating the difference between California and Texas Latinos, and the two very different
climates for Republicans in the two states.

In the Texas ad, the message is explicitly Republican. It shows a third-generation Mexican-American man at an annual family Fourth of July celebration, stressing the virtues of family, patriotism and the Republican Party. During the ad, there are abrupt cutaways where the screen goes black and the word "Republican" appears in large, white capital letters.

California, meanwhile, has been flooded by a wave of recent Latino immigration. According to a recent study by the Pepperdine School of Public Policy, in 1970, Latinos accounted for 14 percent of the Southern California population, 80 percent of which were born in the United States. By 1996, the percentage of Latinos among the total population had jumped to 38 percent, with two-thirds of the Latino population in Southern California foreign-born. Today, fewer than 20 percent of all California Latinos are third generation or older. The California Hispanic community is newer, poorer and less affluent than Latinos in Texas.

But Latinos are acculturating quickly. New figures released by the University of California this week show skyrocketing numbers of Mexican-Americans enrolling in California's public schools. Latinos are also the fastest growing group of new
business and first-time home owners in the Los Angeles area, and are intermarrying faster than almost every demographic group in the state.

Fundamentally, Democrats enjoy a solid 30-point registration advantage over Republicans in California. Mike Madrid, who helped produce the California ad with Guerra, estimates the GOP Latino base is somewhere around 20 percent of the overall Hispanic population, while Democrats are solid among roughly 55 percent of all Latinos. "It's that last 25 percent that is in play, and that is who we're targeting," Madrid said.

But an analysis of recent exit-poll numbers reveal those swing Latino voters consistently support Republicans less than the total population. Call it the Latino Sweet 16: Looking at three big-ticket races over the last 16 years shows that California Latinos supported GOP tickets about 16 percent less than the general population. In 1984, Ronald Reagan received roughly 42 percent of the state's Latino vote, and 58 percent of the total vote in California. In 1996, Bob Dole received 21 percent of the Latino vote according to exit polls, and just under 38 percent of the total vote. A similar pattern holds true for GOP gubernatorial nominee Dan Lungren, who received just 23 percent of the Latino vote in 1998, and 38.5 percent of the vote total.

So when Republicans say they want 35 percent of the Latino vote as the ultimate goal for George W. Bush in the presidential race, that could translate into an impressive victory. If he can accomplish that (the most recent Los Angeles Times poll has Bush at 21 percent among California Latinos), Republicans are convinced they will take back the White House.

Madrid call the ads "part of the politics of optimism, the politics of possibility; and we think that's going to resonate." If the GOP's soft-sell approach lasts it could be a rarity in today's politics: a positive campaign that works. That is, of course, if Latinos forget recent history.

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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