Walking a Fine Line


By: Wall Street Journal

Candidates Avoid Stoking Hispanics’ Ire
By AMY CHOZICK

Des Moines, Iowa

A Barack Obama campaign handout taped to the wall at Los Sauces, a restaurant in the heart of Des Moines’s Little Mexico, is like nothing on display at the typical Iowa campaign rally. On it, the Democratic presidential candidate greets a little girl in an embroidered Mexican dress next to the phrase, Barack Obama sanará America. Barack Obama will heal America.

This election season, candidates are walking the fine line between public anger over illegal immigration and the growing clout of the country’s largest minority group. At the same time politicians are talking more about tougher border control and cracking down on immigration violations, they’re also ramping up efforts to connect with Hispanic voters.

And they’re doing so even in Iowa, where the Latino population remains tiny but is growing rapidly.

Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton recently launched a series of efforts to connect with Iowa’s Spanish-speaking community. The Con Hillary Una Vida Mejor (A Better Life with Hillary) bilingual campaign has been flooding the state’s Spanish radio airwaves this month. Because there are no Spanish-language television stations in Iowa, the Clinton campaign is going door-to-door with bilingual DVD infomercials in Hispanic communities. The video talks about such issues as education, universal health insurance, the mortgage crisis and the high cost of gasoline, but it doesn’t mention immigration.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has been one of the most outspoken candidates in either party this year against illegal immigration. The Republican also launched a separate Spanish-language Web site the first week of his campaign. In Iowa, Mr. Romney’s youngest son, Craig, who is fluent in Spanish, visits the Hispanic community and speaks to Spanish-language newspapers and radio stations. The outreach focuses on the candidate as a person and a father, not on immigration.

Spanish advertising and outreach has been a big part of past presidential campaigns, as candidates tried to connect to the country’s Hispanics, who now number about 47 million. Before the 2008 campaign, most of these efforts came out only during the general-election campaign, and they often included little more than ads dubbed into Spanish, or a small, translated section of a candidate’s Web site.

Now, the outreach has begun earlier than ever, especially in the campaign for the hotly contested Jan. 3 Iowa caucus, where a few thousand votes can make the difference between victory and defeat.

There are about 115,000 Hispanics in Iowa, a nearly 30% increase from the 2000 total and almost 4% of the state’s total population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. An estimated 37,000 Hispanics in Iowa are registered to vote, according to campaign organizers.

This is an appealing demographic to Democrats. According to a recent national survey by the nonpartisan Pew Hispanic Center, registered Hispanic voters favor Democrats over Republicans by a ratio of 57% to 23%, compared with 49% to 28% in 2006.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, the first prominent Hispanic politician to run for president, is also courting those votes. Another leading Democratic candidate, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, has a Spanish-language Web site and has appeared in Iowa with such Latino politicians as Patricia Madrid, a former U.S. attorney general for New Mexico.

Sunday, Mrs. Clinton held a “Holidays with Hillary” event in Central Iowa’s Marshalltown, where a meat-processing plant sparked a tenfold increase in the Hispanic population in the 1990s. Last year, immigration officials raided the plant and deported undocumented workers.

The city of 26,000 residents is now nearly 13% Hispanic, about the same proportion as the rest of the U.S. As Mrs. Clinton gave a speech at a veterans hospital, Spanish-language ads for her campaign played on the local radio station and “Iowans for Hillary” signs were displayed outside a nearby Mexican grocery store.

Mrs. Clinton didn’t speak about immigration to the audience of mostly white elderly veterans, but tensions over the issue simmered among the audience. Betty Stotser, a 76-year-old retired teacher, griped before the event about the new arrivals: “They shouldn’t get more rights than the tax-paying people who live here.”

The Clinton campaign has also set up a Spanish-language social-networking Web site called MyGrito.com (My Cry). Such high-profile Hispanic supporters as Bronx borough president Adolfo Carrión Jr. and California Rep. Hilda Solis have campaigned for Mrs. Clinton in Iowa and elsewhere. Ms. Solis posted a blog entry aimed at English-dominant Latinos about her time campaigning in Iowa.

Mr. Obama has made several recent appearances in heavily Hispanic neighborhoods, sometimes with prominent Latino politicians such as former Denver mayor and Obama campaign co-chairman Federico Peña. He has handed out Spanish-language fliers and has had Spanish-speaking volunteers go door-to-door.

“Four years ago, no one had a Hispanic platform during the primaries,” says Fabiola Rodríguez-Ciampoli, the director of Hispanic communications for the Clinton campaign who also worked on John Kerry’s bid for the presidency in 2004.

Ms. Rodríguez-Ciampoli says research shows Hispanics value relationships with candidates, so reaching out early and often is important. She says candidates can’t expect immigration to be the only issue of concern for Hispanic voters.

Last week, central Iowa’s largest Spanish-language newspaper, El Latino, endorsed Mr. Obama. “Since Obama’s father was an immigrant and Obama is a minority in the U.S., he not only understands the Latino community, he feels it — the good and the bad,” wrote the editorial board of El Latino, which has 15,000 readers.

Looking beyond Iowa, many candidates are broadcasting Spanish-language ads in Nevada, which holds a caucus Jan. 19. Advertising executives say candidates have bought television and radio advertising time on such Spanish-language networks as Univision Communications Inc., Telemundo Communications Group Inc. and TV Azteca S.A. ahead of the Jan. 29 primary in Florida, where Hispanics make up 17% of the population. Mr. Romney’s son Craig already stars in two Spanish-language radio ads in Florida and Nevada.

While the flurry of early outreach is making some Hispanic voters feel more welcome this election, others say the ads come off as insincere when candidates go on to talk about deporting Latin Americans and sealing off the Southern borders.

“They kiss Mexican babies and sing with mariachis,” says Marguerite Rose Jiménez, a 25-year-old Richardson supporter in Mason City, Iowa, but as soon as the immigration issue comes up, all these efforts “seem so superficial.”

Write to Amy Chozick at amy.chozick@wsj.com

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