After several years of growing Republican support among Spanish-speaking voters, a Democratic organization is launching an ad campaign Tuesday that attacks President Bush's record on education -- and tries to shore up Hispanic support for the 2004 election year.
The New Democrat Network, one of the increasingly influential entities that are rapidly replacing the weakened national parties, is going to be running two ads on Hispanic television in Nevada and Florida, both swing states with a high percentage of Spanish-speaking voters. According to the group, the ads will run for two and a half weeks at "saturation" levels on Spanish-language television, a $300,000 test run of a much more comprehensive multimillion-dollar Spanish-language effort planned for next year.
The group is putting up ads at this early stage in the election to blunt the inroads that Republicans have already made into a community whose loyalty is increasingly up for grabs, according to NDN president Simon Rosenberg.
"There's never been an effort by any Democratic group at this level specifically to target the Spanish-speaking group of voters," said Rosenberg, a veteran of the Clinton war room and the Democratic Leadership Council. "The Republicans have had an unbelievably effective strategy for appealing to this community since Bush in the 2000 election, and there's going to have to be a lot of activity on the Democratic side to engage the president on this debate."
The ads themselves are straightforward, premised on the notion that Hispanic voters benefit from Democrats and are hurt by Bush. In one of the ads, focusing on funding for education, viewers are told that Bush promised to be a friend of the Latino community and that he pledged to invest $18 billion in America's poorest schools but now wants to spend "billions less." (The numbers refer to the $18.5 billion promised for grants to low-performing schools in the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002, and the $12.4 billion in Bush's proposed 2004 budget.) At the end of the commercial, a sad-looking schoolgirl turns to the camera and asks, "President Bush, why did you break your promise?"
The other open with a man reading a newspaper with a cheery headline that says "Latinos Aplauden Iniciativas Democratas." Grimy urban scenes of vagrants and gang members morph into bright pictures of clean sidewalks and happy citizens as a voice says that, with Democrats, "the progress of our community is secured."
The messages are intended to counter an aggressive national effort over the past several years by Republicans to appeal to Spanish-speaking Latino voters, many of whom are socially conservative and half of whom are first-generation immigrants. The effect of the sophisticated efforts, such as the Spanish-language program Abriendo Caminos on Univision and Telemundo -- a regular, paid program on the two most popular Spanish-language networks in America -- has been clear in recent elections, starting with Bush's haul of 35 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2000. In 1996, by contrast, Bob Dole got 21 percent. (It's also notable that one of the test states for the ad campaign is Florida, a key state that Democrats lost in the last presidential election when Spanish-speaking voters turned out in record numbers for Bush.) Similarly, Republican candidates at local levels have made significant inroads, perhaps best illustrated in New York, where New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2001 and Gov. George Pataki in 2002 each drew half of the Hispanic vote, which traditionally breaks strongly to Democrats.
Bush campaign spokesman Kevin Madden predicted that the trend would continue, ads notwithstanding. "It's clear from the support that the president gets within the Hispanic community and from the progress the Republican Party has made bringing Hispanic voters into our big tent that the premise of their ad is not accepted," said Madden. "Anytime you run ads that are misrepresentations, they are not going to be effective. I think in 2004 you're going to see the president build on his success in the Hispanic community."
Madden also criticized the Democrats' increasing reliance on independent groups such as the NDN. "A lot of people in the punditocracy say that the president is going to have this massive fundraising advantage over the Democratic nominee, but when you look at these independent expenditures on the Democratic side, we're essentially going to be outspent," said Madden. "We're going to continue to raise resources and to build a grassroots effort across the country, whereas the first instinct of this soft-money cabal on the left is to open their wallets and write a check."
The NDN, which includes Clinton White House veterans Mack McLarty and Mike McCurry on its board, joins other independent groups such as MoveOn.org -- an antiwar group backed by George Soros that is about to launch a $2 million ad campaign in 17 markets criticizing the money being spent in Iraq -- the labor-backed Partnership for America's Families, and the well-established women's organization Emily's List.
These groups are playing an unprecedentedly large role in Democratic politics at the moment, since campaign-finance reform shriveled the fundraising capacity of the national Democratic organization by banning the raising of soft money by party organs. Now these entities, known as 527s (after the applicable provision of the tax code), have already taken over much of the fundraising and spending burden once assumed by the party, and are assuming more control than ever before over shaping the Democratic message.
Hence the dynamic of the last week: When the Republican Party ran ads attacking the president's critics on the war on terror, it was MoveOn.org and not the Democratic Party that immediately mounted a response. Similarly, the NDN, which plans to spend $10 million to $15 million on the 2004 election, hopes to establish itself as a primary force on the Democratic side to compete for Hispanic votes.
"We believe this is a battleground group, and that the Democrats are going to have to do better in reaching out to them," said Rosenberg.
Whether or not these groups will provide an effective substitute for a concerted effort by the party on behalf of the Democratic presidential candidate is still unknown, but their resources will be indispensable if the Democrats are to keep up with their Republican counterparts on spending.
"It's no secret that the president is going to have a couple of hundred million dollars to spend to distort the record of the Democratic candidate," said a consultant and senior advisor to one of the campaigns. "Ads like this are incredibly effective."