En Busca del Voto Latino: Political Public Relations and the Latino Vote

By Daniel Esposito

Edited by Jordan Dannenberg

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In both of his campaigns leading up to election, Barack Obama’s campaign team emphasized immigration reform as a clear directive in his agenda.  Latino American issues are receiving an increasing amount of cable news coverage and cases concerning immigrants’ rights are heard by state supreme courts with increasing frequency.  A vested interest in the treatment of these issues and a growing Latino presence in races for important government positions have driven mobilization of the Latino vote at a higher rate than ever before.  One noticeable result of Latino Americans’ emergence into today’s political landscape is an outreach effort from both parties as they try to garner Latino support.  Latino candidates from both sides have emerged in numbers.  A lot of effort is being put into the study of acculturation as a bridge between American politics and Latino voters.  Today’s political public relations emphasizes the Latino American vote, a growing demographic sure to have an impact on the 2016 presidential election.

Since the extension of the Voting Rights Act in 1975, the Latino American vote has grown in strength and unity.  This sense of unity peaked in the spring of 2006 when millions of working-class families took the streets in protest of HR 4437, a bill which, if passed, promised harsh penalties for undocumented immigrants and a more difficult road to citizenship.  Whereas in the 1990s it had largely been a regional issue, immigration reform had gained national resonance which now demanded congressional action.[1]  By 2008 immigration had become a hot-button issue, and was a major point of contention throughout the presidential campaign of that year.  The grassroots movement of 2006 won incorporation into Barack Obama’s winning campaign, and its slogan was translated into English and adopted by the campaign in a brilliant PR move devised to mobilize the Latino vote: ¡Sí Se Puede!, a Latino political slogan with origins in the César Chávez labor movement, became Yes We Can!

From a broader perspective, the electoral context of today’s political world is favorable, even optimal, for Latino mobilization.  Political analysts point to a series of issues that arose in the 1990’s which roused serious opposition from the Latino community—a factor that has driven Latino American participation.  Research has shown that the presence of Latino candidates in major elections as a motivating factor, citing five mayoral races in the late 1990s in which a viable Latino candidate ran for the office.[2]  Others trace the changing electoral context into the 2000s, in light of the 2006 marches in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Miami in response to congress’ failure to come together on a bill concerning immigrants’ rights.[3]  With this introduction of immigration reform to the national agenda Latino political culture began to gain even more momentum, and it became obvious that both political parties would have to pay attention.

How then, do campaign PR groups go about securing a voting bloc of emerging importance?  The first wave of research on the subject shows a vested effort on the part of both major parties to relate better to Latino American voters.  A noticeable change in political PR over the past three elections is the emergence of culturally charged political ads, a trend which began with the airing of over 3000 of them in Spanish during the 2000 presidential campaign.[4]  But what is the logic behind this approach?  How exactly do political strategists build upon cultural themes to appeal to Latino American voters?

The answer is acculturation—the inclusion of Hispanic culture in campaign objectives in an effort to better relate to Latinos, with an emphasis on co-ethnicity.  Studies show Spanish language ads are a better mobilizer not just because they make the message more comprehendible for Latino voters, but because they play a culturally symbolic role— both in the establishment’s nod to the changing political climate and because it eases the acculturation of the voter herself providing a motivator for assimilation and at the same time mobilizing the vote.[5]  A second theory holds that the proximity of the United States to Mexico and Latin America results in a Spanish speaking community that may be more apt to preserve their culture, and are therefore more likely to respond to ethically targeted advertisements.[6]  Whichever theory one agrees with, there is little doubt that ethnically charged political advertisements have proven effective in mobilizing the Latino vote and are a major consideration for PR campaign staffers.

Latino mobilization has resulted in a greater number of Latino candidates, so it makes sense to political PR teams that the logic should work in reverse; an increased presence of Latino candidates should positively affect Latino voter mobilization.  Therefore both political parties have provided more Latino candidates in hopes of mobilizing the Latino vote in their favor; Florida senator and 2016 presidential hopeful Marco Rubio is a prime example.  In an age where candidate characteristics matter more and more to voters, ethnicity serves as a cue that increases relatability with the Latino community through their shared ethnicity. [7][8]  Furthermore, the “Ethnic Candidate Paradigm” holds that members of an ethnic group self-identify with common interests, ethnicity being one of strong political salience.  It is thought that this paradigm explains why the descriptive representation of a co-ethnic candidate is powerful enough to garner co-ethnic support, even if the candidate is less-qualified.[9][10]  The Cuban-born Marco Rubio has shown that he can rally support of Republican and Democrat voters in the Latino stronghold represented in Florida, despite the enigmatic partisanship associated with the state.  This is a case study in the Ethnic Candidate Paradigm being employed in today’s political PR.

Studies of Latino acculturation have identified door-to-door canvassing by co-ethnic party volunteers as another effective technique in mobilizing the Latino vote.[11]  This is a result of shared ethnicity being a real political factor, as it translates to political partnership.  A co-ethnic messenger provides an element of trust which serves as a bridge between Latinos and the American political system.  As Latinos live in the U.S. long term—long term residents have voting rights at a higher percentage—they develop a greater degree of mistrust in the system, so by fielding a co-ethnic campaign canvas team, party leaders are attempting to rebuild Latino trust in politics and while motivating them to vote in their party’s favor.[12][13]

The seemingly obvious value of getting a candidate’s message across in the voter’s native language should not be understated, as the success or failure of a campaign often hinges on a few choice words.  Think again of the impact those three little words had on Barack Obama’s 2008 run.  The GOP’s 1994 “Contract with America,” a highly scrutinized catch phrase used to introduce the new Republican platform, was responsible for shifting the House in their favor.   A few weeks later, in immigration debate, Newt Gingrich failed to make the distinction between not giving and not denying emergency room care to illegal immigrants.  This fault in language is generally acknowledged as the beginning of Gingrich’s fall from grace.[14]  Spanish speakers will attest that theirs is a language for which Google translate doesn’t quite seem to work.  Therefore, co-ethnic door-to-door canvassing is crucial in ensuring that the campaign message is delivered clearly, especially messages surrounding immigration issues.

Melissa Michelson’s political case study utilized Spanish speaking volunteers in an effort to reduce the disparity between registered Latino voters and those who actually turnout.  It took place in central California where this gap is especially wide, during the run-up to a local election.  There was also no presence of a Latino candidate, a third challenge to mobilizing Latino voters. Surprisingly, voter turnout increased amongst all ethnic groups, and within both parties.  The canvassing increased turnout for Latino Democrats by over seven percent—even without the advantage of the Ethnic Candidate Paradigm.[15]  By utilizing some of the same grass-roots tactics that provided momentum for Latino political activism and by tapping into an element of acculturation, Michelson achieved notable success in mobilizing the Latino vote.

Acculturation continues to be an over-arching theme in Latino politics and a deciding factor in how both parties pursue the Latino vote.  The role it has played in mobilizing the Latino political movement is crucial in understanding Latino political identification.  The presence of Latino candidates in greater numbers plays into this sense of acculturation, and has advanced the Latino vote in two ways.  The first, more obvious reason for participation growth is that Latino candidates spike interest in the community, and Latino voters are more likely to vote for a candidate with a Latino-sounding name.  Second, Latino candidates are more likely to support liberal immigration measures like amnesty, a path to citizenship, and the D.R.E.A.M. act, which would allow high school graduates to apply for up to six years of citizenship.[16][17]  Citizenship would become permanent for those who graduate from college or serve in the military.  The result is twenty-eight Latinos currently in the House of Representatives and three in the Senate, compared to eleven and zero just twenty years ago.  Analysts argue that this trend reflects the Latino voting bloc’s transformation from a scattered group of regional strong holds to a swing-voter population poised to voice its concerns in the national agenda.[18]  More U.S. born Latinos are reaching voter age with every general and midterm election, resulting in a much larger voting bloc than even twenty years ago.  Political parties are starting to realize that we are entering an era of contemporary politics where every Latino vote will count.

Any and all theories that can be applied to Latino mobilization should be, as there is indeed a large chunk of the pie left for both parties to secure.  Although a record number of Latino voters turned out in 2012, that number represents only half of the eligible Latino electorate.[19]  Which side the remaining voters will gravitate to is of major concern to analysts of both parties, and the lead up to the 2016 election will be telling as to what methods and strategies are developed in an effort to mobilize Latino voters.  A large group of young Latino immigrants will then be of voting age.  They represent a generation of educated and politically active young people, aided in part by the D.R.E.A.M act, one of the few successes of current reform legislation.  That said, the parties stance on this important cultural issue may have a greater impact on the Latino electorate than co-ethnic candidates and campaign theory combined.

Immigration reform is on the table as of this very moment. The so-called Senate “Gang of 8,” led by John McCain and Marco Rubio have largely disappointed in their effort to work out a comprehensive reform bill, as the political world waits to see how Barack Obama will weigh in.  An emerging coalition of moderate Republicans has been unabashed in its focus on reaching out to the Latino community in an effort to appear more sensitive to Latino issues.  Evidence shows that the strength of the Latino American voting bloc will only grow in the upcoming 2016 presidential election, and it remains to be seen how campaign PR will pursue its support.  There is no question that strategies previously introduced will play an important role as will new, culturally slanted directives aimed at Latino mobilization.  More research will be necessary to form a more complete picture of this evolving political trend.  Over the last few election cycles, there has been an unmistakable PR shift toward the inclusion of the newly established Latino voting community.  It is clear that in the future both parties will be increasingly en busca del voto latino:  In search of the Latino Vote.

Image courtesy of Third Way Think Tank on Flickr

Sources

Barreto, M. A. (2007, August). ¡Sí Se Puede! Latino Candidates and the Mobilization of Latino Voters. The American Political Science Review, 101(3), 425-441. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/27644458

Barreto, M. A. & Nuño, S.A (2011, June). The Effectiveness of Coethnic Contact on Latino Political Recruitment. Political Research Quarterly, 64(2), 448-459.  Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/23056403

Costanza-Chock, S. (2011, Fall). Lessons on Information and Communication Technologies for Social Change from the Immigrant Rights Movement. National Civic Review, 29-35. Retrieved from http://wileyonlinelibrary.com

Gonzalez-Barrera, Ana & Lopez, Mark H. (2013). Inside the 2012 Latino Electorate, Pew Research Hispanic Trends Project. Retrieved from http://www.pewhispanic.org/2013/06/03/inside-the-2012-latino-electorate/

Luntz, Frank. (2008)  Words That Work. New York: Hyperion. 150-155

Manzano, S & Sanchez, G.R. (2010). Take One for the Team? Limits of Shared Ethnicity and Candidate Preferences. Political Research Quarterly, 63(3), 568-580.  Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/25747959

McConnaughy, C. M. et al. (2005, January). The Latino Vote in the 2004 Election. PS: Political Science and Politics, 38(1), 41-49. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp

Merolla, Jennifer L. & DeFrancesco Soto, V. M. (2006, December). Vota para tu Futoro: Partisan Mobilization of Latino Voters in the 2000 Presidential Election. Political Behavior, 28(4), 285-304. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable4500226

Michelson, M. R. (2005, September). Meeting the Challenge of Latino Voter Mobilization. Annals of the American Academy of Political Science, 60, 85-101.  Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/25046126

Michelson, Melissa. (2003). Getting out the Latino Vote: How Door to Door Canvassing Influences Voter Turnout in Rural Central California. Political Behavior.  25(3), 247-263.  Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/3657320

Suro, R. (1998). Strangers among us: How Latino immigration is transforming America. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Williams, R. H. (2012). Immigration and National Identity in Obama’s America: The Expansion of Culture War Politics. Canadian Review of American Studies, 42(3), 320-346. Retrieved from http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/canadian_review_of_american_studies/v042/42.3.williams.html



[1] Barreto, M. A. (2007, August). ¡Sí Se Puede! Latino Candidates and the Mobilization of Latino Voters. The American Political Science Review, 101(3), 425-441. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/27644458

Williams, R. H. (2012). Immigration and National Identity in Obama’s America: The Expansion of Culture War Politics. Canadian Review of American Studies, 42(3), 320-346. Retrieved from http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/canadian_review_of_american_studies/v042/42.3.williams.html

[2] Barreto 2007

[3] Williams, R. H. (2012). Immigration and National Identity in Obama’s America: The Expansion of Culture War Politics. Canadian Review of American Studies, 42(3), 320-346. Retrieved from http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/canadian_review_of_american_studies/v042/42.3.williams.html

[4] Merolla, Jennifer L. & DeFrancesco Soto, V. M. (2006, December). Vota para tu Futoro: Partisan Mobilization of Latino Voters in the 2000 Presidential Election. Political Behavior, 28(4), 285-304. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable4500226

[5] Merolla and DeFrancesco Soto 2006

[6] Suro, R. (1998). Strangers among us: How Latino immigration is transforming America. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

[7] Barreto 2006

[8] McConnaughy, C. M. et al. (2005, January). The Latino Vote in the 2004 Election. PS: Political Science and Politics, 38(1), 41-49. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp

[9] Barreto 2006

[10] Manzano and Sanchez 2010

[11] Michelson, M. R. (2005, September). Meeting the Challenge of Latino Voter Mobilization. Annals of the American Academy of Political Science, 60, 85-101.  Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/25046126

[12] Barreto, M. A. & Nuño, S.A (2011, June). The Effectiveness of Coethnic Contact on Latino Political Recruitment. Political Research Quarterly, 64(2), 448-459.  Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/23056403

[13] Michelson 2005

[14] Luntz, Frank. (2008)  Words That Work. New York: Hyperion. 150-155.

[15] Michelson, Melissa. (2003). Getting out the Latino Vote: How Door to Door Canvassing Influences Voter Turnout in Rural Central California. Political Behavior.  25(3), 247-263.  Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/3657320

[16] Costanza-Chock, S. (2011, Fall). Lessons on Information and Communication Technologies for Social Change from the Immigrant Rights Movement. National Civic Review, 29-35. Retrieved from http://wileyonlinelibrary.com

[17] Manzano, S & Sanchez, G.R. (2010). Take One for the Team? Limits of Shared Ethnicity and Candidate Preferences. Political Research Quarterly, 63(3), 568-580.  Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/25747959

[18] Barreto 2006

[19] Gonzalez-Barrera, Ana & Lopez, Mark H. (2013). Inside the 2012 Latino Electorate, Pew Research Hispanic Trends Project. Retrieved from http://www.pewhispanic.org/2013/06/03/inside-the-2012-latino-electorate/